Uncomfortable Silence

By Colbert I. King

March 15, 2003; Page A23

Let's return to the evening of March 3. You are attending a peace coalition-sponsored forum at St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Reston, where Rep. James Moran, a seven-term Democratic congressman from Northern Virginia, is on the stage taking questions from the audience. You hear Moran explain why he thinks sentiment against war with Iraq is not more effective. He tells his listeners: "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this." You hear him go on to say: "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."

What would you do?

The audience of about 120 people, including St. Anne's rector, the Rev. James A. Papile, said nothing.

Because no one at the forum spoke up, Moran may well have taken the audience's silence for agreement. Which may also explain why he didn't feel the need to say any more about his offensive observations until days later, when his remarks, first reported in the weekly newspaper the Reston Connection, reached the attention of Jewish organizations. They were, as expected, outraged.

But what about the audience's non-reaction?

Hearing the congressman blame American Jews for the impending war, did they agree with him? Did they disagree but not want to make a fuss? Were they too afraid to speak up? Or could it be they didn't think much about it, one way or the other?

Moran was swiftly condemned by his congressional peers, Northern Virginia leaders, the White House, Jewish organizations and several prominent local rabbis once they learned about his comments.

But there was silence on March 3.

What part of Moran's libel against the Jewish community did the St. Anne's audience not understand? And if they heard him single out Jews as a pro-war group that has disproportionate control over the U.S. government, why didn't they react to that blatant lie -- unless, perhaps, they believed it to be the truth?

And if the audience, or at least some substantial part of that middle-class, mainstream suburban gathering, has bought into the canard that it's the fault of Jews that America is going to war with Iraq, what does that say about where we are as a nation?

A statement posted by Papile on his church's Web site did little to lessen that concern. Writing a week after Moran's remarks, Papile said he had received several phone calls from members of the Jewish community. "They have expressed deep concern that some of Mr. Moran's remarks were anti-Semitic. I have heard and I respect their alarm," he wrote.

Papile said nothing about his own reaction upon hearing divisive and debasing words spoken within the walls of his church.

Rather than rebuke Moran, Papile seemed to place the blame elsewhere. "My fear," he wrote, "is that the current rush to war by the [Bush] administration is causing or is exacerbating tensions within our community, tensions between Jewish people and non-Jewish people, between Muslim people and non-Muslim people. This has the makings of a real American tragedy."

But wait a minute. Papile also heard what Moran said. Does he agree with Moran's charge that American Jews are behind the drive toward an invasion of Iraq?

In an interview on Thursday, Papile said he has tried to reconstruct what happened that night. Moran's comments, he said, were made in the context of discussing the voting behavior of Jewish members of Congress. Papile recalled Moran suggesting that their stance on Iraq had been influenced by a visit from former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "He was talking about Jewish congressional leadership," Papile said, not the entire Jewish community.

That's a new one.

In his numerous apologies since the story broke, Moran has consistently claimed that he was trying to make a broader point about how religious groups could influence the debate on Iraq.

The rector said he considered Moran's remarks to be "remarkable and bewildering" at the time, but he remembered that Moran described himself as "a Zionist" who favors a strong Israel -- but one within its pre-1967 borders.

Papile said he didn't consider Moran's remarks to be anti-Semitic. But after talking with dozens of Jewish leaders since the forum, he has discovered how concerned and anxious they are about a potential backlash against Jews because of the war. He called it a breathtaking experience. "I understand at a much deeper level what they feel," the pastor said.

Ironically, two weeks earlier, the anti-Semitic, anti-black former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and now convicted felon David Duke was down in Ashland, Va., addressing a small crowd of followers about the Iraqi war, calling it a conspiracy fostered by American Jews on behalf of Israel.

As to the St. Anne's audience's reaction, Papile said he has talked with attendees who say that while they found Moran's comments to be "startling," "dumb" and "not true," they didn't think Moran's observation suggesting that a monolithic Jewish community is pushing America to dismantle the Iraqi regime was anti-Semitic.

I guess you had to be there.

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