WASHINGTON, May 23 (JTA) — Never known as genteel or soft-spoken, Ernest “Fritz” Hollings is ending his 38 years in the Senate with a typical bang — and one that a number of Jewish groups could do without.
In a speech May 20 on the Senate floor, the South Carolina Democrat blasted the pro-Israel lobby for the second time this month and suggested that presidents and lawmakers for years have followed policy prescribed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“You can’t have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here,” Hollings said. “I have followed them mostly in the main, but I have also resisted signing certain letters from time to time, to give the poor president a chance.”
Hollings, who is retiring this year at age 82, took to the floor to defend a column he wrote in a newspaper in his home state earlier this month, suggesting that the Bush administration went to war in Iraq on Israel’s behalf.
The comments come as Democrats are fighting to retain 3-1 support among Jewish voters and campaign donors. President Bush’s vigorous prosecution of the war on terrorism and his strong support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have made him unusually popular, for a Republican, with Jewish voters.
Several American Jewish organizations reacted strongly to Hollings’ column, suggesting he was scapegoating the Jewish community and providing ammunition for anti-Semitic attacks.
“I don’t apologize for this column,” Hollings said. “I want them to apologize to me for talking about anti-Semitism.”
And he reiterated his view that the Iraq war was fought for Israel.
“That is not a conspiracy. That is the policy,” he said. “Everybody knows it because we want to secure our friend, Israel.”
Hollings also said he spoke out of concern for Israel and the dangers he believes the war raised for the Jewish state.
“I think, frankly, we have caused more terrorism than we have gotten rid of,” he said.
In his newspaper column, Hollings cited Israeli experts as saying that prewar Iraq posed little danger to the Jewish state.
Hollings has had a mixed record in his 38 years in the Senate, and some pro-Israel lobbyists say he has a poor voting record on Israel. He also is known for putting his foot in his mouth, and in the past has apologized for remarks that offended blacks and Japanese.
But no one was prepared for his May 6 column in the Charleston Post and Courier, suggesting that a Jewish columnist and two Jewish advisers to President Bush beat the war drums, and that the war’s aim was to enhance Israel’s security.
Hollings named columnist Charles Krauthammer; Richard Perle, the former chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board; and Paul Wolfowitz, a deputy secretary of defense, as leaders of a “domino school of thought that the way to guarantee Israel’s security is to spread democracy in the area.”
In his Senate speech last week, Hollings said he did not single out the three because they are Jewish, but because their writings help prove his point that Bush was misled by mistaken advice.
Hollings also suggested that Bush agreed to the war plan to secure Jewish votes for his re-election campaign.
“He came to office imbued with one thought — re-election,” Hollings wrote. “Bush felt tax cuts would hold his crowd together and spreading democracy in the Mideast to secure Israel would take the Jewish vote from the Democrats.”
Several American Jewish organizations rebuked Hollings for his column.
“Regardless of whether one feels that America’s war on Iraq was justified, the charge that it is being fought by the U.S. on behalf of Israel grossly misrepresents the legitimate U.S. interests that are involved in the debate,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a letter to Hollings.
The Republican Jewish Coalition also called on Democratic leaders to repudiate Hollings’ statements.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, called Hollings’ comments “absurd.”
“Comments such as these lend credence to unacceptable and baseless anti-Semitic stereotypes that have no place in America or anywhere else,” Kerry said in a statement last Friday.
In an effort to garner Jewish votes, Republicans have been working to contrast President Bush’s support for Israel with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments made by some notable Democrats. They’re likely to add Hollings to the list.
Democrats have adopted a similar tactic, pressing Bush to repudiate a close ally, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, for suggesting recently that “Zionists” were behind terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.
The National Jewish Democratic Council did not speak out against Hollings until two weeks after the column appeared. The council had won praise a year earlier when it was the first Jewish group to criticize Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) for suggesting that the Jewish community had pressed for the Iraq war.
Ira Forman, the council’s executive director, said his group had not spoken out because publicizing Hollings’ original comment might have fueled anti-Jewish sentiment.
“It’s patently absurd what Hollings said,” Forman told JTA on May 20, before the council’s statement was released. “The idea that Bush is going to take us to war with Iraq to swing 10 percent of 2 percent of the population is silly and stupid,” he said. Jews comprise roughly 2 percent of Americans.
A day later, Forman’s deputy, David Harris, said the National Jewish Democratic Council had no problem speaking out against other Democrats who targeted Jews or Israel.
“Both parties have their outliers,” Harris said. “The only difference is we are more than happy to criticize our outliers.”
Hollings spokeswoman Ilene Zeldin told JTA that the senator stood by his floor comments and had no additional comments.
In his speech last week, Hollings specifically attacked AIPAC, suggesting that the organization manipulates American politics.
“I can tell you no president takes office, I don’t care whether it is a Republican or a Democrat, that all of a sudden AIPAC will tell him exactly what the policy is, and senators and members of Congress ought to sign letters,” he said. “I read those carefully and I have joined in most of them. On some I have held back. I have my own idea and my own policy. I have stated it categorically.”
AIPAC spokesman Josh Block would not comment on Hollings’ statement, referring questions to other Jewish organizations, such as the ADL and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
But some Democrats on Capitol Hill said Hollings was on the mark about AIPAC.
“Sen. Hollings eloquently stated what many members of Congress believe but are too afraid to say,” said one senior Democratic Hill staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The staffer said lawmakers fear they’ll lose elections if they don’t support AIPAC. More likely, the staffer said, they’ll lose key fund-raising support or be deluged with calls and appearances from pro-Israel lobbyists and constituents.
“Sometimes it’s just easier to sign the letter,” the staffer said.
Hollings touched on a wide range of issues in his floor speech. He said his description of retired Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) a decade ago as the “senator from B’nai B’rith” was misunderstood.
He also suggested that the United States is no longer an evenhanded broker between Israel and the Palestinians, catering instead to Sharon.
“We are throwing over the United States-Israel policy of some 35 years insofar as negotiating the settlements and the refugees,” he said. “We are saying, ‘Forget about all of that, let Sharon keep bulldozing them.’ ”
Hollings’ bluntness may come from the freedom that beckons with retirement.
At one point, when asked to yield for a vote, he responded, “Time is running out on me.”