WASHINGTON — Embattled Rep. James Moran is apologizing for claiming that the Jewish community was pushing the country into war. But the Virginia Democrat’s apology failed to allay the increasing fears in some circles that Jews will be blamed for a war against Iraq.
Moran, a seven-term congressman representing a heavily Muslim and Arab-American district in Washington’s northern Virginia suburbs, made his controversial remark March 3 during a speech in front of 120 people. He was condemned by the White House and several congressional Democratic leaders. Six area rabbis and a Washington Post columnist called on him to resign.
The controversy comes at a time when Jewish community leaders are increasingly alarmed by the willingness of mainstream media pundits to discuss the influence of Israel and American Jews on the White House’s Iraq policy. In particular, pundits have highlighted the key role played by several Jewish hawks in the Bush administration, the lobbying activities of Jewish groups and the president’s strong relationship with Prime Minister Sharon.
“Moran is symptomatic of a problem that we have been watching for several weeks and months, and that is that the charge that the Jews are instigators and advocators of military action has moved from the extreme into the mainstream,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. This shift, he added, is emboldening people such as Moran to “have the chutzpah to say such things.”
“It’s out there and therefore we are concerned,” Foxman said. “If, God forbid, the war is not successful and the body bags come back, who’s to blame?”
Fueling such anxieties is the increasing media focus on the White House’s concern with protecting Israel and the views of Jewish hawks in the administration, including Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Pentagon and the recently appointed Elliott Abrams at the National Security Council.
Moran’s comment came in response to a question by one audience member during an event at a church in Reston, Va.
“If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Moran said, according to a report in the Reston Connection newspaper. Moran, who has long been criticized by many pro-Israel activists over his record on Middle East issues, reportedly added: “The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going. And I think they should.”
After reporters began calling for comment, Moran issued a reserved apology. That was followed with a stronger statement in which he said: “I should not have singled out the Jewish community and regret giving any impression that its members are somehow responsible for the course of action being pursued by the administration, or are somehow behind an impending war.
“What I was trying to say,” he continued, “is that if more organizations in this country, including religious groups, were more outspoken against a war, then I do not think we would be pursuing war as an option.”
In the statement, Moran said he “deeply regret[s] any hurt that I may have caused and sincerely apologize to anyone I may have offended.” Later, in an interview with the Washington Post, Moran denied that he was an antisemite, pointing out that his daughter is in the process of converting to Judaism as part of her plans to marry a Jew. But in a separate interview, he acknowledged that Jewish voters had plenty of reason to seek his ouster.
Moran told a national convention of the American Muslim Council in 2001 that Sharon was “probably seeking a warrant from President Bush to kill at will with weapons we have paid for.” That same year, the lawmaker was forced to return $2,000 in political campaign contributions from Abdulrahman Alamoudi, the former executive director of the council, because of remarks Alamoudi made in support of Palestinian terrorist groups.
Prior to the current controversy, Moran had already been trying to mend fences with Jewish constituents. Last October, weeks before the midterm elections, Moran circulated among Jewish voters a letter signed by several leading Jewish legislators describing him as “a friend,” “a strong supporter of Israel’s right to security and sovereignty” — “in short, a mensch.”
A fellow House Democrat, Gary Ackerman of New York, said he accepted Moran’s recent apology.
“Jim wholeheartedly apologized for what he said. Apparently it was not what he intended to convey and people with hateful beliefs do not apologize,” Ackerman said. “As a friend, I will counsel him to think his words through carefully as these issues are very heavily nuanced.”
Others were less forgiving. Six Virginia rabbis called for Moran’s resignation, as did Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher, who compared the congressman’s remarks to a speech Adolf Hitler delivered to the German parliament in 1939, accusing “Jewish financiers” of plunging Europe into a world war.
The Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council both slammed Moran over his remarks. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times ran editorials blasting the congressman. Key Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, strongly condemned Moran, as did the White House. Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, a Republican, called on Democrats to remove Moran from the House appropriations and budget committees.
The executive director of the Democratic council, Ira Forman, argued that Moran’s comments are factually baseless because the organized Jewish community is far from being unified in its support for military action against Iraq and because Jewish organizations have not been at the forefront of supporting a war.
Several community leaders went so far as to tell the Forward that Jewish groups were making a coordinated effort keep a low profile on the issue. But while organizations have attempted to stay quiet on the issue, the two most influential pro-Israel groups — the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — appeared to be working actively in favor of action against Iraq.
AIPAC, the most influential pro-Israel group in Washington, lobbied last fall in favor of Bush’s successful efforts to obtain congressional authorization to use force against Iraq. Several other Jewish organizations, responding to press queries at the time, expressed support for the president’s efforts to obtain a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military action to disarm Iraq. Still, staffers in several congressional offices told the Forward that they had not heard recently from Jewish groups on Iraq.
The Presidents Conference, a coalition of 52 organizations, continues to stand by a statement issued in October supporting the president’s efforts to disarm Iraq and backing the use of force as “a last resort.” At the same time, the conference sponsors a “Daily Alert” on the Middle East, a digest of articles e-mailed to hundreds of thousands of subscribers, which appears to stake out a far more aggressive stance on Iraq.
Billed as a politically neutral roundup of relevant articles, the alert regularly highlights arguments favoring military action when dealing with the topic of Iraq. An official at the conference said that “hundreds of thousands” of subscribers receive the daily alert, which is prepared for the conference by a Jerusalem-based think tank run by Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and unpaid adviser to Sharon.
— The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.