Hollings refuses to back down after challenges by Jewish groups

washington | Never known as genteel or softspoken, 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 Thursday, 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.

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.”

Some pro-Israel lobbyists say Hollings has a poor voting record on Israel in his 38 years in the Senate. 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, where 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.”