A slip of the tongue

Paul Weyrich offended Jews with his recent column, but is it worth burying his career over a single statement in a 40-year public life?

By David Horowitz
Published April 25, 2001 2:47PM (EDT)

Paul Weyrich has been maliciously attacked as a "demented anti-Semite" in the pages of the American Spectator by journalist Evan Gahr, who has been a sometime columnist for FrontPage magazine, which I edit. The assault has been compounded by an irresponsible report in the Washington Post by Thomas Edsall which ran last weekend.

Gahr's description of Weyrich conjures images of Buford Furrow, the crazed bigot who launched a military assault on a Jewish children's center in California a few years ago. But Edsall and everyone who knows Paul Weyrich, also knows that this is a preposterous lie. Evan Gahr knows this as well, since he conceded in a subsequent e-mail to me: "I know full well that Weyrich has never advocated, suggested or implied that anybody should harm Jews."

For this reason, we have informed Gahr that his columns are no longer welcome in FrontPage magazine, and that he owes Weyrich an apology. Thomas Edsall and the Washington Post owe him one, too.

One thing that is almost certain is that this is not going to be the end of the story. There will be other attacks on Weyrich over this, and the stigma so liberally applied by Gahr and Edsall will certainly linger, perhaps indefinitely. Many people are impressed by labels, and Weyrich's enemies will surely exploit this fact. I fully expect, moreover, that there will be attacks on FrontPage for defending Weyrich.

His offense was a single phrase in an Easter commentary, which he wrote in his capacity as a Melkite Greek Catholic deacon for the Free Congress Web site:

Our God could not bear to see mankind suffering, even if it was from the consequences of his own actions, so He sent his only Son to become man so that man could become like God. To accomplish that, Christ was crucified by the Jews who had wanted a temporal ruler to rescue them from the oppressive Roman authorities. Instead God sent them a spiritual leader to rescue them from their sins and despite the fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, performed incredible miracles, even raised people from the dead, He was not what the Jews had expected so they considered Him a threat. Thus He was put to death.

To say, even in passing, that "the Jews killed Christ," (or in this case words to that effect) is regarded as politically offensive and, therefore, politically incorrect. Not merely because the Romans performed the actual deed (although the Jews may have demanded it), but because this sentence has been a staple of anti-Semites for centuries -- as the writer Daniel Goldhagen has shown, particularly among German anti-Semites. A large number of Jews have died because of it. Popes have dissociated the Catholic Church from it, out of guilt for the persecutions Catholics and other Christians have inflicted, and because -- in the wake of the Holocaust -- Jews demanded that they do so.

On the other hand the statement somewhat clumsily (and inaccurately) constructed by Weyrich is also a reasonable interpretation of the history of the crucifixion told in the Gospels. In other words, this is what the Christian Bible says. Should Weyrich, a Christian, ignore that fact? Yet, it is the only evidence Gahr has produced to justify stigmatizing Weyrich and ranking him with ordinary Nazis as a Jew-hater. Mightn't this be considered a little excessive? Like labeling someone a witch in 17th century Salem?

Yet, once an appropriate victim is selected, look how easy it is to get away with such persecution in 21st century Washington. Thomas Edsall, a political enemy of Weyrich who regularly looks the other way when racial or religious abuse spews from the mouths of the left, was apparently able to persuade his Washington Post editor that a sentence fragment, buried in an Easter letter and substantiated by no other evidence of hostile intentions towards Jews was actually "news."

We live in surreal times. When a man's reputation can be jeopardized by a single quotation lifted out of a lifetime of public events, a democracy like ours is surely in trouble. Yet this is precisely the condition that prevails in the public square today. Think, in this context, of the late NBC commentator "Jimmy the Greek," who lost a $350,000 job and the chance to ever work again in his profession because of a single interview in which he suggested that black athletes may have been superior to white athletes because slave owners bred "young bucks" for their physical prowess.

Think of Al Campanis, a player and later a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who volunteered in 1947 to be Jackie Robinson's roommate and support what may have been the most crucial of all the battles for civil rights. Campanis was run out of baseball 40 years later because he tried to explain -- again in a single interview -- why blacks were not yet being hired as managers. Campanis suggested that perhaps it was because they did not have "the necessities." (Did he mean "connections?" "Experience?" Or "brains," as his attackers concluded? No probe was ever organized to come up with an answer. Nor should it have mattered.)

For this one slip of the tongue, Campanis was not only driven out of the only world that ever meant anything to him, but was so thoroughly destroyed by the incident that during an interview with a Los Angeles Times reporter eight years after the fact -- and just before he died -- he burst into tears simply from talking about what had happened to him: how he had been misunderstood, how his family and everyone who knew him knew he was not a racist, and how a lifetime of goodwill and support for his black teammates had been eclipsed by a nightmare triggered by a single lapse.

From my own experience with the mindlessly vicious attacks directed at me during the current reparations controversy, I know that having read this far, many readers will have missed the point entirely. They will be focusing on the phrase Weyrich wrote instead of the man and his 40 years of public life. They will say this sentence has been the code of anti-Semites over the centuries (it has). They'll say that the Pope himself has repudiated it (he has). And that Weyrich should be condemned for having revealed who he really is (which is a ridiculous demand). Would activists and proselytizers like Weyrich really walk around concealing who they are until -- in a fit of absent-mindedness -- they blow their covers so that some attentive Joe McCarthy like Evan Gahr can smoke them out?

Don't get me wrong. The phrase "the Jews killed Christ" is still used as a sinister code, but it is also basic common sense to recognize that saying it alone -- without a confirming context -- does not merit a stigma like "demented anti-Semite." I am also aware that anti-Semitism is alive and well in America. As a tiny minority, historically hated and religiously condemned, Jews are and will continue to be a vulnerable group.

But context means a lot -- at least it ought to. The difference between chanting "The Jews killed Christ" in the streets, so that it is clear that living Jews are meant, and writing a pastoral letter about events that may or may not have taken place 2,000 years ago is enormous. Knowing that the term was code for anti-Semitism, Weyrich should have tempered his account.

Weyrich unquestionably knew what he was doing and probably inserted the phrase as an in-your-face gesture toward the politically correct church, regardless of consequences. But what is the remedy for this? Full stigmata? Exposure and condemnation in the Washington Post? It would be better for friends (and enemies) to advise Weyrich to pick other battles and leave this hornets' nest in peace. A more careful formulation of the crucifixion story, avoiding terse and charged and probably misleading phrases like "crucified by the Jews," would be a charitable gesture, even Christian.

But ultimately, the politically correct attack on Christians like Paul Weyrich is also a way of legitimizing religious intolerance -- the very charge writers like Gahr and Salon's Joe Conason are leveling against Weyrich.

Editor's note: On Monday, Salon columnist Joe Conason wrote an essay that criticized Weyrich for his commentary; it also criticized Horowitz and other conservatives. Horowitz responds:

Monday, fellow Salon columnist Joe Conason launched a smug, self-satisfied attack on me and conservatives generally for having double standards when it comes to bigotry. At best, Conason's arguments were risible. For the record: I have whacked Rev. Jerry Falwell as a "conservative jackass" for describing Tinky Winky as a homosexual secret agent; I have rapped the knuckles of Sens. Trent Lott and Dick Armey for careless prejudice. I have blasted Alan Keyes for his intolerance on the abortion issue. And I have followed three Republican presidents, and the entire Republican Party, in attacking David Duke and other right-wing racists as beyond the pale.

Conason writes: "During the Reagan era, few on the right objected to the anti-Jewish bias of Patrick Buchanan." This is no longer merely a joke; it is a bald-faced lie. During the Reagan era -- as everyone, including Conason knows -- Buchanan was condemned by leading conservatives (including John Podhoretz, David Frum, William Bennett and others) as both an anti-Semite and a "fascist" in feature articles in every major conservative magazine. Bill Buckley wrote an entire book examining the charges against Buchanan. In contrast, the anti-Semitic bile of Gore Vidal was featured in the Nation and no apology was forthcoming from its editors when his targets objected. Nor has any prominent journal of the left dissociated itself from Vidal or any other progressive anti-Semite or racist. In fact, Rev. Al Sharpton was just favored with a career-enhancing profile in the same magazine. The shoe of hypocrisy is squarely on the other foot.

David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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