July 20, 2000
We must stop this moral idiocy of judging and labeling people by isolated private comments.
I wish to defend Hillary Clinton against the charge of anti-Semitism. The charge emanates from her allegedly calling Paul Fray, the Jewish manager of husband Bill's failed 1974 Congressional campaign, a "Jew bastard."
I do so as a practicing Jew; as an author of a book on anti-Semitism ("Why the Jews? The Reason for Anti-Semitism," Simon & Schuster); as a Republican; as a supporter of Mrs. Clinton's opponent Rep. Rick Lazio for U.S. Senator from New York; and most important, as one who does believe author Jerry Oppenheimer's claim in his book, "State of the Union: Inside the Complex Marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton," that Mrs. Clinton made the anti-Semitic slur.
How then can I defend Mrs. Clinton - and call on all her political opponents, especially conservatives and Republicans, to defend her against the charge of anti-Semitism?
Because we must stop this moral idiocy of judging and labeling people by isolated private comments. As readers of David McCullough's illuminating biography of Harry Truman came to recognize, one of the most courageous friends American Jews and Blacks ever had in the White House frequently used "kike" and "nigger" in private conversation. He even wrote it - in a letter home from his first trip to New York City, Harry Truman described the city as "kiketown." Years later he wrote disparagingly of how many Hebrews there were in Miami.
Unfortunate? Yes. Important? No. Defining of the man? In no way.Yet, for decades politicians and the news media have concentrated their attention on isolated remarks to besmirch the entire life of public figures. Think about the reaction of liberals, Jewish and otherwise, to the revelations of the Nixon White House tapes that featured some anti-Jewish comments made in private in the Oval Office. Supposedly these comments "proved" what an anti-Semite the man was. Well, I can only say that if all anti-Semites behaved toward Jews as did Richard Nixon, Jews would be living in the most sympathetic environment since the time of the patriarch Abraham.
Nixon privately made disparaging remarks about a Jewish editor at The New York Times. But what matters in assessing his decency vis a vis Jews was that he had appointed an immigrant with an accent as the first Jewish secretary of state, and that the late Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan credited Mr. Nixon with saving Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Moreover, Mr. Nixon had nothing to gain politically in doing either (Jews vote Democratic no matter how sympathetic Republicans are to their concerns).So, was Richard Nixon an anti-Semite? If by anti-Semite, we mean a person who has ill will toward the Jewish people, and who, if given an opportunity, would harm the Jewish people, the answer is clearly no. Only if we define anti-Semite as any individual who harbors any negative feelings toward anything about Jews or to any Jewish policies, or who in private has ever made a disparaging remark about Jews, was Richard Nixon an anti-Semite. But this latter definition so cheapens the term anti-Semitism as to make it meaningless.
That is why, as a Jew, I am repulsed by the talk about Hillary Clinton's comment. So what if she made the comment? If that comment renders her an anti-Semite, then virtually every gentile is anti-Semitic and virtually every Jew is an anti-Christian, anti-gentile bigot.
But don't such remarks as "Jew bastard," even if uttered in private and even if uttered but once and in anger, tell us a great deal about a person's feelings toward that group?
No, they probably tell us nothing. But even if those words did reflect some negative feelings the speaker had about a group or at least about some members of that group, we need to measure people by two other criteria: How do they behave toward members of that group; and how do they speak publicly about the group? With regard to either measure, no one can call Hillary Clinton an anti-Semite. Nor can one so label Richard Nixon during the time of his vice-presidency or presidency.
The insignificance of private comments (unless regularly made in front of many different people) to morally assessing an individual's relationship to the group in question is reinforced by an even more dramatic consideration: Many decent people do have feelings of bigotry and because they are decent, they may bend over backwards to favor members of the group toward whom they harbor these feelings. (I have long believed that many of the liberals - Black as well as white - who fight hardest for quotas and affirmative action believe deep down that Blacks are not the equal of whites and have adopted their racial policies to compensate for that prejudice.)
How then have we gotten to this point of dangerous nonsense - of probing private comments for evidence of anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry and sexism?
It emanates largely from a lethal combination - contemporary liberalism's totalitarian temptation and lack of moral coherence, and the news media's love of sensationalism.
As the news media's tropism toward hyping the trivial for the sake of attention is well known, let's explain liberalism's role. Over the last few decades liberals have increasingly asked society to monitor citizens for signs of bigotry and other moral failings, and when discovered the consequences are grave indeed. To liberals, it was important to tell the world that Justice Clarence Thomas read Playboy in college - in their worldview, surely a sign of a future sexual harasser. To liberals it has been critical to render an Atlanta Braves pitcher, John Rocker, America's pariah for comments made in a car to a reporter, such as disparaging remarks about Asian women drivers and calling a Black teammate a "fat monkey" - to the liberal worldview a sure sign of racism and sexism. To Harvard, it was important to demote and to publicly humiliate a dean (after outing racists, bigots, sexists and homophobes, it is important to humiliate them). Why? Because workmen found pornographic images on the dean's home computer. In the liberal elite's worldview, heterosexual men looking at pictures of naked women in private is surely a sign of the sin of sexism.
The totalitarian inclination of contemporary liberals - to monitor private words and fantasies - is very dangerous. Perhaps the inane discussion of Mrs. Clinton's "anti-Semitism" will teach them just how dangerous this practice is. After poisoning the American well by charging so many people with whom they disagree with "racism," "sexism" and "homophobia," Democrats and liberals are finally having to drink from those poisoned waters.
In the meantime, for the sake of the republic, non-liberals must take the high road and defend an icon of liberalism even if neither she nor they would defend a non-liberal icon against the same charges.
Dennis Prager's nationally syndicated daily radio show can be heard in Los Angeles on 790 KABC Radio. His latest book is "Happiness Is a Serious Problem" (HarperCollins). His Web site is www.dennisprager.com A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal on July