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Moran Down

Virginia Representative Jim Moran is no stranger to controversy. And he now finds himself in midst of another one--over what he said about Jews, Iraq, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in an interview in the September-October issue of Tikkun magazine. Moran's statements have been denounced as anti-Semitic by the officials of Jewish political and religious organizations and by members of Congress. These critics see Moran's statements as part of a wave of anti-Semitism--of which Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is the crest.

Moran has certainly made his share of reckless and ill-founded statements--some of which have been directed at Jews. Four years ago, Moran said that "if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this." That statement is false and reprehensible. But in this case, it is Moran's critics who are making reckless charges. And although the controversy may remain confined to the Beltway, it's no small matter when a politician is accused of anti-Semitism. This kind of charge, if wielded without caution, makes it more difficult for politicians and policy-makers to have a frank and open discussion about American foreign policy in the Middle East.

In Moran's interview with Tikkun, a liberal Jewish publication, he made several claims about AIPAC and Jewish-Americans that have drawn flack: He said AIPAC was "the best-organized national lobbying force" and that its power rests on the wealth of its members, who can help or hinder political candidates with their contributions, and on the organization and its leaders' ties to the media. He said that AIPAC was in favor of the Iraq war and "pushed this war from the beginning." And he claimed that on the Iraq war, AIPAC didn't represent "the mainstream of American Jewish thinking at all."

Moran had other things to say--much of it having to do with AIPAC's lobbying on U.S. relations to Iran. And what he said here was partly right (AIPAC did lobby successfully against restrictions on George W. Bush's war-making authority) and partly wrong (AIPAC hasn't advocated going to war with Iran, although its lobbying could pave the way for the Bush administration to take military action.) But Moran's critics focused on his statements about U.S. policy toward Iraq and about the power of AIPAC.

Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said, "While there is nothing wrong with criticizing AIPAC--or for that matter any organization with which you disagree--spreading false statements is clearly irresponsible. At a time when Professors Walt and Mearsheimer are attempting to defame the so-called Israel Lobby with a phony connection between the pro-Israel community and the Iraq War, Representative Moran's comments are not only incorrect and irresponsible--they are downright dangerous." Ronald Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, accused Moran of using "clearly anti-Semitic images such as Jewish control of the media and wealthy Jews using their wealth to control policy."

Moran's Congressional colleagues joined the fray. "Unfortunately, Jim Moran has made it a habit now to lash out to the American Jewish community. I think his remarks are reprehensible," Virginia Representative Eric Cantor said in a press conference. "I think his remarks are anachronistic and hearken back to the day of Adolf Hitler ... of 'Mein Kampf,' of ... a resurgent anti-Semitic sentiment worldwide." House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer demanded that Moran retract his comments, and sixteen Jewish House Democrats, including Henry Waxman, Rahm Emanuel, and Barney Frank, sent the Northern Virginia Democrat a letter charging that his "assertions are irresponsible and have absolutely no basis in fact ... The idea that the war in Iraq began because of the influence of Jewish Americans is factually incorrect and unfortunately fits the anti-Semitic stereotypes some have used historically against Jews." They also objected to Moran drawing a distinction between AIPAC's opinions and those of mainstream Jewry.

What most of Moran's critics singled out was what Moran asserted to be AIPAC's role in promoting the Iraq war. But Moran did not say in his interview that the "war in Iraq began because of the influence of Jewish-Americans." He made a specific charge about AIPAC's lobbying for the war. And he didn't say, as Walt and Mearsheimer do, that Israel or the Israel lobby was behind the war. He said that AIPAC "pushed this war from the beginning."

Is that true? At the time, a Senate staff person with a responsibility for foreign policy told me of AIPAC's lobbying. But I don't have to rely on my memory. AIPAC's lobbying wasn't widely reported because AIPAC didn't want Arab states, whose support the Bush administration was soliciting, to be able to tie Bush's plans to Israel, but it lobbied nonetheless. In September 2002, before Congress had begun considering the administration's proposal authorizing force with Iraq, Rebecca Needler, a spokeswoman for AIPAC, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "If the president asks Congress to support action in Iraq, AIPAC would lobby members of Congress to support him." Then at an AIPAC meeting in New York in January 2003, before the war began, but after Congress had voted to authorize Bush to go to war, Howard Kohr, AIPAC's executive director, boasted of AIPAC's success in lobbying for the war. Reported the New York Sun, "According to Mr. Kohr, AIPAC's successes over the past year also include guaranteeing Israel's annual aid package and 'quietly' lobbying Congress to approve the use of force in Iraq." (AIPAC's spokesman Josh Block insists that the organization did no lobbying and that Kohr was misquoted.)

What about Moran's other statements? Is AIPAC an extremely powerful organization? In 1998, Fortune ranked AIPAC as the second most powerful lobby in Washington. In 2005, the National Journal also ranked it second. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The New Yorker in 2005, AIPAC "is a leviathan among lobbies, as influential in its sphere as the National Rifle Association and the American Association of Retired Persons are in theirs, although it is, by comparison, much smaller." Are many of AIPAC's members wealthy? They certainly are--at least, to judge by the attendance at its conferences, its leadership, and by the amount of money it raises. It exercises its political influence primarily through recommending candidates to friendly PACs (AIPAC is not itself a PAC) and individuals. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that in 2006, "pro-Israel" individuals and PACs (the term used for these friendly groups and individuals) donated $10,832,291 to candidates. AIPAC-influence money was very important in the defeat of Illinois Senator Charles Percy in 1984 and Alabama Representative Earl Hilliard in 2002. Influence on the media? From my knowledge, yes, but I can't cite any figures here.

Finally, can one detect, as Moran claimed, a difference between AIPAC's views and those of the Jewish mainstream? On going to war with Iraq, I'm not so sure. According to the American Jewish Committee's annual survey, released in January 2003, 59 percent of Americans Jews approved and 36 percent disapproved of the United States taking military action against Iraq. So I am not sure whether AIPAC was out of the American Jewish mainstream in 2002 when it quietly lobbied to authorize a war with Iraq. But Moran's error on this point hardly justifies comparing him to Hitler.

These hyperbolic charges against Moran may indicate a certain amount of score settling for Moran's past statements: Critics of Moran, who earlier took offense at his statements about Jews, jumped on him for this one because they saw it as recurrence of what he had said before. Or perhaps--more ominously--the harsh response on Capitol Hill proves exactly Moran's point about the pervasive influence of AIPAC and the reluctance of any politician to cross the organization. Whatever the reason, the effect of these charges will be to discourage anyone, or any publication, from criticizing AIPAC for fear of being branded anti-Semitic.