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Representative Jim Moran’s notions of Jewish war-mongering are so patently offensive, so deeply pernicious, that they almost seem like residual ooze from another era in history. But this is not ancient history; the Virginia Democrat spoke his inflammatory words just last week. And he is not the only one talking this way these days.

Addressing an anti-war audience in a Washington suburb on March 3, Moran argued that America “would not be doing this” — gearing up for war with Iraq — “if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq.” As though Saddam Hussein hadn’t been ordered by the United Nations to disarm on threat of war. As though President Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were too weak or indecisive to make up their own minds. No, Moran said, the Jews are responsible. “The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going,” he said, “and I think they should.” All it takes, he seemed to say, is a phone call from the Elders of Zion.

Moran reportedly made the comment in response to an audience member who had identified herself as Jewish and wondered why she hadn’t heard more from her community. The congressman claims he simply meant to urge religious communities, Jews included, to be more outspoken. But that’s not what came out of his mouth. What he voiced was an updated version of an age-old canard. Once the lie was that the Jews poisoned the wells. Now they’re pushing America into a war with Iraq for the benefit of Israel.

For all the heat surrounding Moran this week, he’s not the only public figure to make this argument publicly in recent days. Former senator and would-be president Gary Hart said something similar last month in San Francisco, notwithstanding his unconvincing denials. White House aide-turned-CNN pundit Pat Buchanan has been saying it for years. During the last few months it’s been plastered on placards at anti-war demonstrations, blathered on television talk shows and presented in editorials and opinion essays in journals as prestigious as the New York Review of Books. Not all of them have suggested, like Moran, that Jews are solely responsible. Mostly the Jewish community is portrayed as just one of several suspects, if that’s any comfort.

Bush, it should be acknowledged, made his own contribution to the poisonous atmosphere just a few days ago, when he said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute that invading Iraq would help change the Israeli-Palestinian equation and bring Israel closer to peace. The implication was that that’s a good enough reason for Americans to kill Iraqis. Whose idea was that?

Well, for the record it needs to be recalled that Israel’s stake in this war is not at all clear. Jerusalem itself is divided on the question. Its strategists have been debating for two decades whether Iraq or Iran poses a greater threat; Iraq is more unpredictable, but Iran is more committed to Israel’s destruction. Iran’s leaders yearn to nuke Israel into oblivion, and as new reports indicated this week, they’re just months away from attaining the capability. Baghdad, for its part, has repeatedly initiated clandestine peace talks with Jerusalem, as far back as 1986 and as recently as 2000, with diplomatic recognition as part of a prospective deal; each round has been cut short by Israel — under pressure from Washington, not the other way around.

Now that Iraqi regime change is on the table, many Israeli strategists are viewing the prospect as an opportunity, perhaps opening the way for a regional thaw. But as Chemi Shalev reports on Page 1, growing numbers fear the opposite: that the fall of Saddam Hussein will strengthen the fanatical regime in Tehran, to Israel’s grief.

At the moment Israel’s anti-Iraq faction is ascendant, both in government and in the military brass. Prime Minister Sharon, alert to the danger of Israel being portrayed as an instigator of war, has urged his aides to keep a low profile. But the debate rages in the Hebrew press, with politicians and generals continually speculating openly, sometimes in fairly gloating tones, about the possible benefits to Israel of an Iraq war. This debate is largely unreported in the general American media, but translations are circulated daily to our journalists and politicians, and they’re not stupid. An internal Israeli Foreign Ministry memo, leaked to the Israeli press earlier this week, bluntly warns that the constant blabber in Jerusalem is having a disastrous impact on Israeli and Jewish interests in America.

A similar dynamic is underway in the American Jewish organizational world. Most major organizations have wisely opted to follow Sharon’s lead and lay low. But their top leaders and donors have strong views. The most audible voices are pro-war, and they’re making themselves heard — on op-ed pages, in phone calls to lawmakers and across the Internet. That blabber, too, leaks out.

Yes, Jews have the same right as other American citizens to express their views. But there’s no harm in circumspection. Antisemitism is still a threat. It’s not blaming the victim to suggest that one shouldn’t light matches in a dry forest.

It’s true, as countless commentators have pointed out this week, that America’s 6 million Jews are divided on the war, like other Americans. But the organized Jewish community tilts heavily toward war, and as Jewish leaders like to remind themselves, the views of the community carry some weight in this country.

And there’s the rub: The Jewish community carries some weight, but only some. To go from there to a suggestion like Moran’s — that the Jewish community is solely or even largely responsible for the administration’s war policy — is ludicrous. The question of what to do about Iraq has been debated openly and furiously in Washington and around the world for a decade. There’s no Jewish conspiracy here.

It might be argued that the Jewish community, having entered America’s political debate as a visible player during the last generation, ought to be ready to take the heat when its consensus views — on the Middle East, foreign aid, church-state separation or any other matter — are contested. There’s merit in that. Once you’ve weighed in, you can’t go crying antisemitism every time someone disagrees with you.

It’s something else entirely, however, when opponents raise dark specters of excessive Jewish influence on the fate of the world. That sort of talk plays into ugly bigotries that are too fresh in memory and all too ready to re-emerge.

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