A campaign swing through Georgia this week may have won Patrick Buchanan a 37 percent share of the vote in the state’s Republican presidential primary Tuesday.
But it also earned him the sharpest condemnation to date by any major American Jewish organization.
After the archconservative candidate disparaged Jewish hecklers at a campaign rally, the American Jewish Congress issued a statement saying Buchanan is “as genuine and authentic an anti-Semite as they come.”
In doing so, it became the first mainstream Jewish group to attack the man, not just his statements, as bigoted.
Overall, Buchanan won 33 percent of the votes cast in Tuesday’s primaries and caucuses, which were held in Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland and Utah.
On the Democratic side, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas won 40 percent of the votes cast, followed by former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who won 32 percent.
Estimates of how Jews voted were not available, except in Maryland, where exit polls described the breakdown of the Jewish vote as 55 percent for Tsongas, 26 percent for Clinton, 5 percent each for Govs. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and 3 percent for former Gov. Edmund (Jerry) Brown of California.
Buchanan’s acerbic positions as a syndicated columnist and television commentator — he has held no public office — have long perturbed the Jewish community.
Carving out an exception from his generally hard-line anti-crime stance, he has steadfastly opposed the prosecution of Nazi war criminals and has urged the dismantling of the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting unit. In one column, he questioned whether anyone was killed in the gas chambers at Treblinka.
And in the episode that launched the sharpest attacks from his fellow pundits, he blamed the war against Iraq — which he opposed — on Israel and its “amen corner” in Washington.
CONCERN ABOUT TAX-EXEMPT STATUS
These remarks, and others, are documented in reports issued last year by the Anti-Defamation League and the year before by the American Jewish Committee.
But both groups have refrained from affixing the “anti-Semite” label to Buchanan directly. And neither has distributed its report since Buchanan launched his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
The groups explain this restraint as a desire to comply with federal regulations that bar tax-exempt organizations from engaging in political activity.
But the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Henry Siegman, said his group had not crossed that line by issuing its statement Tuesday.
“We’re not telling anyone how to vote,” said Siegman. “We’re calling on the Republican Party and others to dissociate themselves from his views.”
He recalled that his group, and others, had likewise attacked Jesse Jackson for his anti-Semitic statements when the black politician ran as a Democratic presidential candidate.
“There are times where Jewish organizations” have to address a threat of such seriousness,” Siegman said, that non-profit status “has to become secondary.”
“Buchananism as a movement has attracted sufficient support in this country to be a very distressing phenomenon,” he said.
The AJCongress condemnation represented a victory for activist groups and individuals in the Jewish community who had for months been criticizing what they saw as silence from the Jewish defense organizations.
“Unfortunately, many prominent American Jews, including leading Jewish members of the Republican Party, have never publicly condemned Buchanan’s poison-mongering,” Menachem Rosensaft complained recently in the Jerusalem Post. Rosensaft is founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
IMPUGNING JEWS’ AMERICANISM
It was this silence that led activist New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, whose confrontational 1989 protest at the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz was attacked by Buchanan, to organize protests at the candidate’s campaign rallies.
“We’re trying to peacefully confront him, to let him know the voice of Jewish conscience will follow him wherever he goes,” explained Weiss, who heads a direct-action group called the Coalition of Concern.
Following a protest in New Hampshire, where he was hustled off by security guards amid catcalls of “Hitler should have finished you off,” Weiss asked the rabbis of Atlanta to join him in demonstrating against Buchanan.
The ADL advised against protesting, said Rabbi Mark Kunis of Atlanta’s Shearith Israel Congregation. But the rabbis decided to proceed, and on Monday, 11 Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis turned out at Buchanan’s rally at the Marriott Hotel in suburban Atlanta. With them were two dozen local Holocaust survivors.
During one pause in Buchanan’s speech, Weiss shouted out, “What about your anti-Semitism and racism?”
Buchanan replied, “First Amendment,” referring to the Constitution’s free-speech guarantees.
Later, referring to the Buchanan motto of “America First,” Weiss shouted, “Anti-Semitism and racism make America last!”
That prompted the candidate to respond: “This rally is of Americans, and by Americans and for the good old USA.”
Said the AJCongress: “If that statement has any meaning, it impugns the Americanism of the Jewish community.”
THREAT OF LEGAL ACTION
Buchanan staffers denied there was any anti-Semitism in the statement.
But Alfred Moses, president of the AJCommittee, said the statement, by suggesting that American Jews who disagree with Buchanan are not patriotic, is “anti-Semitic and has no place in the political process or in civilized discourse.”
And Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, said, “That’s as close to an expression of an anti-Semite as one can ask for.”
He said that, as his group interprets Internal Revenue Service guidelines, he could comment on particular statements, but was prohibited from making public declarations as to the character or views of a political candidate.
In a previous campaign, he said, ADL had accused fringe political candidate Lyndon La-Rouche of being anti-Semitic and was forced to defend a costly battle to maintain its tax-exempt status.
Similarly, AJCommittee legal director Samuel Rabinove said his group could denounce statements made by candidates, but not candidates themselves. His agency, too, found itself in “hot water” after commenting on candidates representing LaRouche.
“Jewish community relations agencies have a right and obligation to expose groups and individuals that espouse anti-Semitism,” said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
“On the other hand, you have to be careful not to link those judgments with the candidacy of an individual,” he said.
The AJCongress statement, which was signed by Siegman and the group’s president, Robert Lifton, said Buchanan’s behavior “debases and shames the American political process.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.