Jewish organizations condemned Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) yesterday for delivering what they said were anti-Semitic remarks at an antiwar forum in Reston, where he suggested that American Jews are responsible for pushing the country to war with Iraq and that Jewish leaders could prevent war if they wanted to.
At the forum, attended by about 120 people at St. Anne's Episcopal Church on March 3, Moran discussed why he thought antiwar sentiment was not more effective in the United States.
"If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this," Moran said in comments first reported by the Reston Connection and not disputed by Moran. "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, a seven-term incumbent representing Alexandria, Arlington County and part of Fairfax County, yesterday apologized in a statement, saying, "I made some insensitive remarks that I deeply regret.
"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," Moran said, elaborating on an apology issued Friday to Jewish news organizations and rabbis that was distributed more widely yesterday.
Moran said he was trying to make a larger point 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." He said he framed his answer the way he did because his questioner identified herself as Jewish, and "I regret doing that."
The dispute became the latest in a string of political controversies surrounding Moran, 57, a former mayor of Alexandria. Previously, he has acknowledged poor judgment in handling his personal financial problems. He also has been the target of ethics complaints for accepting loans from parties with business before him in Congress.
In recent years, Moran's relations with pro-Israel organizations and U.S. Jewish leaders have deteriorated. The groups cite his 1991 vote against foreign aid to Israel, rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause, statements on Israeli history and leadership, and acceptance of campaign cash from individuals sympathetic to the terrorist organization Hamas or under investigation for possible links to terrorists. He later sent back those contributions.
"When Moran realized just how outrageous his remarks were, he attempted to backpedal, saying he didn't mean what he clearly said," said Sophie R. Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, which represents 210 organizations. "This time it just won't work."
Hoffman's spokesman called Moran's statement "reprehensible and anti-Semitic," and David Bernstein, spokesman for the American Jewish Committee, said it was "anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent." Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization, and the National Jewish Democratic Council, an unofficial arm of national party activists, also criticized the remarks.
Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria, one of six rabbis who called yesterday for Moran's resignation, said the congressman repeated "the most scandalous rhetoric of the last century" by singling out Jewish influence and scapegoating Jews as controlling international events.
"Such remarks about any minority group in America, whether African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims or others, are beyond inappropriate in the rhetoric of a member of Congress," Moline wrote.
A January poll commissioned by the American Jewish Committee found that 59 percent of American Jews supported war against Iraq, a percentage not appreciably different from that of Americans generally.
Reports of Moran's comments and his apology drew a variety of responses among political leaders and observers of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Virginia Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who is Jewish, said: "Was it tremendously insensitive? Yes. Is [Moran] an anti-Semite? No. I've known this guy since 1979, and he's not an anti-Semite."
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington who opposes U.S. policy toward Iraq and Israeli settlements, said Moran's comments were wrong but not necessarily anti-Semitic. Bush administration officials who advocate strengthening Israel's "power in the region as a surrogate for U.S. interests" are driving U.S. policy, Bennis said, not American Jews.
However, "the claim that this is anti-Semitic is just a canard that is designed to undermine the antiwar movement," said Bennis, who is Jewish. "Acknowledging that the Jewish community is one of several influential communities in the U.S. is not anti-Semitic."
Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), said Warner "believes the congressman's remarks were offensive, and the governor is pleased to hear the congressman has now offered a public apology."
Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Lawrence Framme said, "Jim has apologized profusely, and I believe his future conduct will reflect that apology."
Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, called Moran's remarks "indefensible." State Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), an 11-year incumbent from Reston, said they were inexcusable and intolerable.
"For the congressman to scapegoat and blame the Jewish community for the impending war is intolerable. Whether we support or oppose the war, we must respect all religious communities," Howell said. "There is no question that responsible Democratic leaders should distance themselves from him."
In an interview yesterday, Moran said: "I know in my heart that I am anything but anti-Semitic."
Moran added that his daughter Mary Elise is marrying a Jewish man and converting to Judaism, along with her 9-year-old son.
"Nobody could berate me more than I do when I see my words in print compared to what I intended to say," he said.