A phone conversation yesterday with Gov. Jim McGreevey greatly enhanced my respect for him as a refined and polite gentleman, while reinforcing my conviction that I was right to criticize him.
Considering the stinging rebuke I offered him in my column on WorldNetDaily this past Tuesday, Gov. Jim McGreevey was gentlemanly, friendly and calm. Which is not to say he wasn’t also upset.
He started his surprise phone call to me by joking that when he read my op-ed that morning, in which I castigated him for doing far too little to combat anti-Semitism in New Jersey, he wanted to throw me from a bridge. I responded that he had been watching too many episodes of the “Sopranos.” That broke the ice on both sides and we talked.
While defending himself against my charges, the governor was respectful and generous, and I have to admit that it was highly courageous of him to pick up the phone to a man who had just called him spineless and gutless in print. The governor started by saying he had spent a huge amount of his political career combating anti-Semitism and helping to make the Holocaust a part of the New Jersey school curriculum. He enjoyed exceptionally close relations with the Jewish community and was a renowned friend of the state of Israel.
I conceded the point of the overall respect he enjoyed in the Jewish community and his strong statements in support of Israel. But that did not excuse, I said, turning a blind eye to outrageous outbursts of anti-Semitism on his home turf. I cited as the first example the loathsome cartoon in the Rutgers student newspaper The Medium, which receives public money and which ran a front-page cartoon during Holocaust Memorial Week showing a carnival contestant trying to throw a terrified Jewish man into a burning oven. The caption read: “Throw a Jew into the oven! Three throws for one dollar.”
“Why didn’t you publicly condemn the cartoon when you were asked to do so?” I asked, and added that my radio producer badgered his office for a comment. The governor denied we had called his office. I assured him that we did and he said he would check. But even without my – or anyone else’s – prodding, he should have condemned it, I said. To his credit, McGreevey admitted that he had erred in not immediately putting out a public statement as to the cartoon’s abominable nature.
He then dictated the following statement for publication:
The Cartoon which appeared in The Medium was reprehensible and negates the efforts we have made in New Jersey to have the Holocaust made an official part of the New Jersey school curriculum, in which I played an important role. The cartoon was repugnant not only to basic decency, but tears at the very fabric of our democracy.
(A few hours later, McGreevey himself left a message on my answering machine correcting himself and saying that indeed his office had found a record of my radio producer speaking to one of his press assistants. The governor earned more of my respect by taking the time to personally research the matter.)
Next we discussed the second item in my article, Amiri Baraka. Why was a man who had spent 25 years writing attacks against Jews elevated to the position of poet laureate? McGreevey told me he understandably wanted to get beyond the story of Baraka, that the facts of his Baraka’s prior history were unknown to him prior to the appointment, that the recommendation had come from another committee and that the moment Baraka penned his famous allegation that the Jews had prior knowledge of the 9-11 attacks, he immediately condemned him in an op-ed in the New York Times and moved to have the post of poet-laureate abolished.
Although it seemed sloppy at best for the Governor’s office not to have known about Baraka’s hateful statements against Jews as well as whites, I accepted the governor’s words that a serious error had been made, and appreciated that, at the very least, he did not shirk from ultimately correcting it.
Finally, we discussed what was my most serious criticism, that, in 2002, McGreevey had not stopped the Palestine Solidarity Movement – a student group that openly supports suicide bombings and calls for the destruction of the state of Israel – from staging a conference at Rutgers, New Jersey’s largest state-funded university. Indeed, the president of Rutgers had issued a statement in the name of both himself and Gov. McGreevey that “the best way to counter deplorable arguments is more discussion, not less, and that the appropriate place for this kind of discourse is the university.”
McGreevey told me he stood by the statement. I asked him if he would have allowed an Arab group, which openly called for the killing of American soldiers in Iraq to stage a conference at Rutgers, and he said that he would not. Then what’s the difference, I asked, with a group that calls for the murder of Jewish civilians in Israel?
He responded that, as governor, he was powerless to stop the conference. “But you could at least have tried,” I said. “You could have exhausted every legal avenue. You could have shown that you would move heaven and earth to at least try.” He responded that because of the conference, which the organizers cancelled anyway, he had gone to the Israel Inspires Day at Rutgers Hillel and had given a pro-Israel speech that was wildly applauded by all who participated.
I told him I had read reports of the enthusiastic response his lecture had received, but that it did not excuse allowing murderous hate speech against Jews at Rutgers. “The purpose of this conference was not free speech, governor, but incitement.” On that point, we agreed to disagree.
McGreevey and I then played out the last part of our conversation by speaking of mutual acquaintances. He mentioned rabbis that we both knew in common, some of whom I knew to be close personal friends of the governor’s. “Shmuley,” he said, “my heart’s in the right place. If you knew me, you’d know that to be true.” He had always been devoted to Jewish interests. “I appreciate your heart,” I said, “but for us Jews, it’s not the heart that counts, but the hands. It’s action rather than intention.”
The greatest global outbreak of anti-Semitism since the Holocaust was now upon us, and the Jewish community would look to courageous leaders who fought Jew-hatred wherever it broke out, especially in states with large Jewish populations like New Jersey. It was utterly unacceptable, I told him, that 60 years after the Holocaust, Jewish students had to hear calls for the annihilation of Israel on a taxpayer-funded campus, or to have to read cartoons making fun of Jews dying in gas chambers.
I assured the governor that my purpose in attacking him in the article was not to put him down – I had no grudge against him – but to hold elected leaders accountable for fighting hatred. He said he agreed with that premise, and that elected leaders should indeed be answerable to the people. I thanked him for being generous with his time, he told me he’d soon come as a guest on my radio show, and we hung up.
I would be lying if I did not admit that my impression of McGreevey was radically changed by the phone call. Whereas before I had seen him as indifferent and aloof, it became clear to me he was deeply wounded by my criticism, and that the wound stemmed from the fact that his affection for the Jewish community was sincere and heartfelt. He felt that I had wronged him.
But, I walked away equally firm in my conviction that I was right to call him on his inaction and to strongly press for change. Richard Nixon was a famous anti-Semite who called Jews all kinds of names on the secret White House tapes. But when Israel was in mortal danger during the Yom Kippur War, he courageously initiated the military airlift which helped to save the Jewish state from near destruction. And I would prefer a closet anti-Semite like Nixon who saves Jewish lives when threatened to an overt lover of the Jewish people who doesn’t rise to the occasion of combating Jew-hatred.
But, in the final analysis, rare is the politician today who has the guts to call one of his critics and try and explain his position with patience and humility. And rather than find ulterior motives for McGreevey’s call, I would rather indulge the warm feeling of having spoken to a politician who impressed me as a thoroughly decent gentleman.