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Sam Smith: Anti-Semitism When It’s Useful


By Editor Sam Smith

For a newspaper run by those who like to prattle at length about journalistic ethics, publishing an uncorroborated charge of anti-Semitism against a congressman five days before a primary election seems a little strange. Especially when the accuser won’t even say what the “offensive” words were and three other people in the room (including the congressman and former Howard Dean advisor Joe Trippi) deny it happened. . .

On the other hand, the Washington Post is the same paper that played up charges of anti-Semitism against the same congressman, James Moran of Virginia, a year earlier for having replied to a forum question:

“If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this. 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.”

Moran did not draw the a clear distinction between the “Jewish community” and “the leaders” thereof, but the remarks drew no flak until they hit the media and at worse can be considered anti-semantic rather than anti-Semitic. But this did not prevent a reverse ethnic slur by Moran’s highly placed critics becoming the talk of the town.

The more recent case, featured on the front page of the Metro section, opened with this:

“A longtime adviser to Rep. James P. Moran Jr. has lodged about the most damaging allegation that could be made about the congressman from Northern Virginia at this point in his reelection campaign: that he heard him make an anti-Semitic remark. Last night, the seven-term congressman said he is ‘stupefied’ at the allegation by his former campaign strategist and pollster, Alan M. Secrest, and called it a ‘flat-out lie’

“The dispute marks another unpredictable turn in the career of the Washington region's most talked-about congressman. In Tuesday's 8th District Democratic primary, Moran, 59, faces a challenge from Andrew M. Rosenberg, an Alexandria lawyer who has made an issue of the incumbent's personal conduct and ethics, in particular a remark he made last year that angered American Jewish leaders and Democratic leaders.”

Writers Lisa Rein and Spencer Hsu admitted that Secrest “would not say what the remark was or explain why he would not say.”

The article went on:

“The meeting that Secrest refers to in his letter took place at the McLean home of Moran's fiancée to discuss the strategy for the final stretch of Moran's primary fight against Rosenberg. Also present were longtime Moran advisers Mame Reiley, director of Gov. Mark R. Warner's political action committee, and Joe Trippi, a political consultant who advised former Vermont governor Howard Dean's presidential campaign. . .

‘Reiley and Trippi recalled that Moran and Secrest exchanged angry words and raised their voices in a dispute over money and polling. Reiley said Secrest was unhappy that the campaign was not fulfilling the terms of a contract. ‘I have never heard Jim Moran say an anti-Semitic remark, nor would I permit anyone ever saying an anti-Semitic remark in my presence,’ she said. Asked whether Moran made an anti-Semitic remark, Trippi said, ‘Not that I heard. I don't believe that.’ Trippi said Moran and Secrest exchanged ‘some fairly harsh words’ in an argument over money and the poll.”

Pressed by a WTOP reporter to describe the anti-Semitic remark, Secrest called it “a religious based characterization” that was “inappropriate or unfair.”

The Post, in a later story, did no better in getting Secrest to define his terms. He only the remark "pejorative and disrespectful to a group of individuals in an anti-Semitic fashion."

Before semiotics replaced substance as the meat and potatoes of political news coverage, this story would have been laughed out of the city room. An editor might have told the reporters that “as a general rule we don’t publish unsubstantiated charges five days before an election.” Unless, of course, the editor’s bosses wanted to get rid of the target, which the Post’s overall coverage of Moran suggested it very much did.

Moran is not an unmitigated charmer. As the Post noted he has shoved a colleague on the House floor, challenged Marion Barry to a boxing match and had the police called to his home in a domestic dispute. But this is minor stuff. Reading the Post it has been clear that the only issue worth considering is whether Moran is an anti-Semite.

Even the Post had to backtrack on the Secrest story a bit as two other reporters found out more about the guy in a piece that seemed to finally make the whole business worth following:

“His supporters say he is a brilliant, if intensely opinionated, pollster able to divine public sentiment and help clients craft a message. . . Detractors say he is hotheaded and occasionally a ruthless competitor whose short fuse and abrasive personality lead him to say and do things other consultants wouldn't. . .

“Gail Nardi, a longtime Democratic operative in Richmond, said Secrest clashed with state Democrats during the 1995 state legislative campaigns. ‘This would not be the first example of Alan Secrest being overcome by temper and vindictiveness when his will is outvoted,’ Nardi said.

“Several political strategists said Secrest has on several occasions dashed off harsh letters that later became infamous in the gossipy, back-biting arena of national politics. Political consultants recall a missive he sent to Rahm Emanuel, then an operative with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and now a member of Congress from Illinois.

“It was 1988, and Secrest had clashed repeatedly with Emanuel, who sent Secrest a dead fish, accompanied by a note that said, ‘It's been awful working with you.’ Secrest shot back with a letter: ‘So often, those who fail most spectacularly in our business are those for whom the involvement in politics becomes a desperate (and ultimately doomed) attempt to prove their manhood,’ Secrest wrote, according to a transcript in Campaigns & Elections magazine.”

Meanwhile, the Post reported that “Moran's advisers released an April 30 e-mail from Secrest in which the pollster said he would sue Moran if he did not pay him $8,000 he said he was owed. The text said in part: ‘This I can promise you: That will only be the tip of the iceberg. . . . When I go, it will not be quietly, gentlemen. And it will be profoundly uncomfortable for you . . . profoundly. And it will take place very quickly.’ Secrest said the e-mail was unrelated to the meeting. ‘The bottom line is, any reference I made to a public scene had to do with Jim's failure to pay his contracted fees, not his unfortunate comments’.”

Clearly Secrest is not one to go to for judgments on what’s “inappropriate” or “unfortunate” phraseology.

In the end, the incident – as so often on the semiotic beat – sheds little light on the politics that drove it onto the news pages.

In fact, Washington is terribly uptight about Jewish politics. Here’s how I described it after the first Moran incident last year:

"In talking about the Jewish manifestation of this, politicians and the media use two different approaches. One is the sanitized patois of ethnic sensitivity as when the perpetually clichéd Eleanor Clift wrote: "Moran apologized, but the historical echoes that he awakened are so antithetical to what Democrats claim to stand for that he might as well bid goodbye to his political career."

But in the same article in which he quotes Clift, Greg Pierce of the Washington Times also writes, "One political analyst said he counseled two Democratic presidential campaigns to call for Moran's resignation. 'It would be a cheap way to reassure Jewish voters,' he said. 'I don't understand why they haven't done it yet."

In other words, what is considered anti-Semitic when stated at a town meeting, becomes in another context just your standard keen political analysis.

When you look at the facts rather than the Washington rhetoric, you find that Moran was even more right than it appeared at first. A study by Belief Net found that only the Southern Baptist Convention and some Jewish groups supported the military approach and every other listed major denomination opposed it. True, the Southern Baptists were unequivocally in favor of war while the Jewish groups - Orthodox Union, Union Of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform), and United Synagogue Of Conservative Judaism - wanted to exhaust other alternatives first, but every other religion Belief Net checked opposed the war including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Episcopal Church, Greek Orthodox Church in America, Mormons - Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Presbyterian Church (USA), Quakers - American Friends Service Committee, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Catholics weren't included but the Pope took a clear stand against the war.

So why go to such efforts to deliberately conceal and prevaricate concerning the role of key Jewish organizations in supporting the Iraq invasion?

Part of the answer can be found in none other than the hypocritically outraged Washington Post, in an article written by its White House correspondent, Dana Milbank, last November:

“A group of U.S. political consultants has sent pro-Israel leaders a memo urging them to keep quiet while the Bush administration pursues a possible war with Iraq. The six-page memo was sent by the Israel Project, a group funded by American Jewish organizations and individual donors. Its authors said the main audience was American Jewish leaders, but much of the memo's language is directed toward Israelis. The memo reflects a concern that involvement by Israel in a U.S.-Iraq confrontation could hurt Israel's standing in American public opinion and undermine international support for a hard line against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. . .

“The Iraq memo was issued in the past few weeks and labeled 'confidential property of the Israel Project,' which is led by Democratic consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi with help from Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and Republican pollsters Neil Newhouse and Frank Luntz. Several of the consultants have advised Israeli politicians, and the group aired a pro-Israel ad earlier this year. 'If your goal is regime change, you must be much more careful with your language because of the potential backlash,' said the memo, titled 'Talking About Iraq.'

"It added: 'You do not want Americans to believe that the war on Iraq is being waged to protect Israel rather than to protect America.' In particular, the memo urged Israelis to pipe down about the possibility of Israel responding to an Iraqi attack. 'Such certainty may be Israeli policy, but asserting it publicly and so overtly will not sit well with a majority of Americans because it suggests a pre-determined outcome rather than a measured approach,' it said.". . .

In fact, the last time prior to the war itself that the Post even mentioned [the major pro-Israel lobby] AIPAC was back in August before the Iraq invasion plot took full shape. So you had to look elsewhere to find out what the Jewish leadership was up to. For example, the Jerusalem Post reported last October:

“After weeks of debate and consideration, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents 52 Jewish national groups, announced its support for US military action against Iraq ‘as a last resort.’ In a statement released Saturday, the Conference of Presidents announced that all of its member groups ‘support President [George W.] Bush and the Congress in their efforts to gain unequivocal Iraqi compliance with the obligation to divest itself of weapons of mass destruction and the means to develop such weapons.’ . . .

The chairman of the group, Mortimer Zuckerman went a bit further, declaring that the failure to attack Iraq would "ruin American credibility in the Muslim world."

Now let us imagine that the 52 Jewish organizations had instead reached a consensus that invading Iraq was illegal, unwise, unconstitutional, and an act of reckless endangerment against the whole world. Would that have influenced American policy? Of course it would. |||

I also quoted an article by Nathan Guttmann of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz which is even more interesting a year later:

“Jewish groups maintain quiet contacts with nearly every Iraqi opposition group, and in the past have even met with the most prominent opposition leader, Ahmed Chalabi.”

Politicians can avoid the sort of problem that Moran (or Cynthia McKinney who went down to defeat with the help of pro-Israel money) faced by shutting up and voting right. In 1997 Fortune Magazine dubbed AIPAC the second most powerful lobby in town and at one recent conference one half of the Senate and one-third of the House showed up. If you divide the amount of money that pro-Israel lobbies have spent on congressional candidates over the past 15 years it comes to $48 million according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s about $90,000 a congressional seat.

With that sort of money behind them, Rep. Moran was quite correct in saying that Jewish leaders could have had a significant effect on the course of our policy in the Middle East. For example, it took only three days for them to have a significant effect on the course of Rep. Moran's career, getting his cowardly colleagues to force him out of his House leadership position. In a more recent example of the potential power involved, the Hill News reported last month:

“Jewish donors are split over whom to back in the Democratic primary in Georgia’s 4th District, where former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who has been hostile to Israel and taken money from groups with possible terrorist ties, is hoping to make a comeback. Three of the five candidates in the race are aggressively seeking support from Jewish donors: Liane Levetan, a Jewish state senator, and two black state senators, Connie Stokes and Nadine Thomas. All three attended a conference hosted by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington this week. The fifth candidate, Cathy Woolard, also attended the conference but has attracted less attention among major Jewish donors. McKinney did not attend. . .

“Thomas said Jewish support would play a critical role in the race. . . Referring to contacts she made at the conference, Thomas said: ‘I just got off the phone with someone who’s committed to raising $25,000 to $30,000. I had someone call me yesterday setting up fundraising events in California, Wisconsin and Denver.’”

This mind you, is for a majority black district in Georgia.

But while AIPAC and the other pro-Israel groups are absorbed in the politics of Georgia and northern Virginia, they are far less interested in what would seem to be their natural constituency, the “Jewish community.”

This is not unusual for Washington. Lobbyists have their own agendas and the job of the folks back home is to follow that agenda and pay for it.

In the case of American Jews, it would seem, however, that they are not getting their money’s worth. While the evidence is confusing and even contradictory, it is enough to suggest that the “Jewish leadership” does not represent the thinking of more than a part of the “Jewish community.”

For example one poll reported by MSNBC found that “sixty percent of Jews supported how the Israeli government has handled relations with the Palestinian Authority, while 54 percent said they favored creating a Palestinian state. More than two-thirds said Israel should be willing to dismantle all or some of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.”

As the Jewish journal Forward put it, “The vast majority of American Jews do not sympathize with Bush (in a recent Gallup poll, only 39% of Jews said they supported him, compared with 63% of Protestants and 61% of Catholics). If the leaders of the Jewish community purport to speak for the Jewish community, they need to offer at least a glancing reflection of the values and beliefs of that community. Let them speak clearly and consistently: Support Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking because it is good for Israelis, not because it serves the cynical interests of a failing president.”

In the end, it would be not only be helpful – and politically healthy - for politicians like Jim Moran to bear in mind the distinction between the Washington Jewish lobby and the Jewish community, but for the media to stop pretending that the former lobby doesn’t exist and that the variegated opinions of the latter aren’t worth reporting.

In short, the media should stop treating religion as sacred. It should cover groups like AIPAC just the way it covers the AARP and it should write as frankly about the divisions and politics in Judaism as it does in describing Kerry’s communion problems with the Catholic church or Pat Robertson’s peccadilloes. The more we learn about life the less likely we are to live by stereotypes. Prejudice is mitigated by honest discussion, not by a phony politeness that instills fear of speaking and avoidance of the very issues that keeps prejudice alive.


MAR 1, 2004

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