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Lashon HaRa, and I approve this message

Jewish Democrats didn’t spare themselves when they contemplated Jewish ethics and politics at a roundtable session Wednesday during the Democratic convention in Denver.

Much of the discussion naturally focused on Republicans, particularly the Republican Jewish Coalition. Some inveighing at the National Jewish Democratic Council session was misdirected: A number of panelists (perhaps inartfully) crammed “RJC” and “slanders that Obama is a Muslim” into the same sentence. In fact, the RJC has abjured those libels about Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic presidential nominee.

More to the point was Mel Levine, the former California congressman, who called RJC attacks on the pro-Israel records of Obama and his running mate Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) a “shonda.”

“If they can find something in someone’s past that doesn’t comport with their version of what is pro-Israel, then you’re anti-Israel,” Levine said. “The RJC should be ashamed of itself.”

But the Democrats said they were not guiltless. Josh Rales, who ran in the Democratic primaries in the 2006 race for one of Maryland’s U.S. Senate seats, cited attacks on President Bush last year for designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. It was incumbent on Jewish Democrats to defend Bush at that time, he suggested.

“It’s very consistent with Jewish values to take a position with an opponent when you agree the opponent is right,” Rales said.

Menachem Genack, who heads the Orthodox Union’s kashruth division, cited attacks on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as having identical positions to President Bush. He noted recent McCain decisions that almost cost him the nomination, for instance, in opposing ethanol subsidies, a position which cost McCain the Iowa caucuses.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, nodded vigorously, noting that McCain “really has been a maverick on issues we care about,” listing the environment, immigration, global warming and campaign finance.

(Genack’s example might have been more to the point because it is so recent: Democrats acknowledge McCain’s past record, but say he has reversed himself on the issues Saperstein mentioned.)

Ira Forman, the NJDC’s director, cited himself for describing Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as a “disgrace to the Jewish community” for letting lobbyist Jack Abramoff cater a fundraiser for free. (Cantor said the non-payment was an oversight and paid Abramoff, who was later jailed for his fraudulent dealings with Native Americans. Cantor was cleared by the congressional ethics committee.)

A portion of the discussion focused on how far to take the Talmudic injunction against malicious language. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the principle helped guide him as he wrote the law that now requires politicians to say they approve an advertisement.

Steve Rabinowitz, the Democratic consultant, dismissed the notion that the injunction extends even to truthtelling, noting that the same passage also counsels speaking when blood is spilled. “Barack Obama’s blood is being spilled politically and we should not stand idly by,” he said to applause.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler agreed, interjecting references to “lashon hara” (malicious language) and “derech eretz” (ethical conduct).

A U.S. lawmaker dropping Hebrew phrases? Somewhere, Rev. Ezra Stiles is smiling.

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