WASHINGTON -- For months now, the phones at the Baltimore Jewish Council have been ringing vigorously with requests for information about the various candidates for the U.S. presidency.
"Clearly," says Arthur Abramson, executive director of the organization, "we've received the most calls about Pat Buchanan."
Since his days as a speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon, through his years as a Washington columnist and TV talk-show fixture and now, as a presidential hopeful, questions of anti-Semitism -- what Patrick J. Buchanan himself has called "the scarlet letter, the big 'A' " -- have shadowed the feisty, combative Republican.
Mr. Buchanan, 53, has always denied the label, and he believes it a non-issue in the presidential race since few voters appear concerned enough to press him on it.
But the conservative pundit has never been shy about his criticism of Israel, his vehement opposition to U.S. aid to that country, his attack on the powerful pro-Israel lobby (he called Congress "Israeli-occupied territory") or his impassioned defense of accused Nazi war criminals.
His critics -- and on this issue, they even include conservative voice and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., who recently said he found it "impossible" to defend his colleague's words and deeds against the charge -- believe Mr. Buchanan's viewpoint and comments together kick up enough dust for concern.
"I'm not sure I see what a proud, self-pronounced anti-Semite would say that would be very different from what he's said," says Jewish scholar and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier.
"Whether he is an anti-Semite or not, I'm not certain," says Rabbi Joel Zaiman of Baltimore's Chizuk Amuno Congregation. "That TC he enjoys baiting pro-Israel folk is clear. That's he's been intemperate in much of his language is clear."
Many Buchanan friends and colleagues say they've never seen any evidence that the candidate, who was a co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" until he launched his campaign, is anti-Semitic or has any animosity toward Jews.
Even Michael Kinsley, the voice from the left side of the "Crossfire" desk, has given his right-wing counterpart some leeway on the issue. "As a Jew, I never felt any hostility from Buchanan on that score, never heard him make a disparaging remark about Jews, never noticed any difference in the way he treats Jews and non-Jews," Mr. Kinsley wrote in a recent New Republic column.
"My real answer to the question, 'Is Buchanan an anti-Semite?,' is: Give me a definition and I'll tell you," he said. "If your definition is someone who viscerally hates Jews as individuals and as a race, the answer is no. If you have a more sophisticated and nuanced definition, my answer might be different."
While some have argued that the candidate's network of journalist friends, some of them close buddies, has let him off too easily on this issue, some of the sharpest and most repeated attacks have come from a fellow columnist.
Since the late summer of 1990, Mr. Buchanan has been engaged in an explosive war of words with New York Times columnist and former executive editor A. M. Rosenthal, sparked by Mr. Buchanan's comments against the Persian Gulf war on "McLaughlin Group," another one of his pre-campaign TV talk show spots.
"There are only two groups "beating the drums for war in the Middle East -- the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States," Mr. Buchanan had remarked.
In his syndicated column that same week, he named four men -- all of them Jewish -- as those leading that drumbeat: Mr. Rosenthal, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, columnist Charles Krauthammer and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. He then went on to write that if the country went to war, the fighting would be done by "kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales and Leroy Brown."
Mr. Rosenthal blasted his fellow columnist: "We are not dealing here with country club anti-Semitism but with the blood libel that often grows out of it."
Mr. Buchanan answered, "Well, there goes the B'nai B'rith Man of the Year award," and then described anti-Semitism as a tool "to so smear men's reputations that no one will listen to them again; to scar men so indelibly that no one will ever look at them again without saying, 'Say, isn't he an anti-Semite?' "
The gulf war flap merely spotlighted for the first time controversial views Mr. Buchanan had been expressing since the mid-1970s, when he wrote that Adolf Hitler, although "indeed racist and anti-Semitic to the core . . . was also an individual of courage."
Since the early 1980s, he has criticized U.S. efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, attacking those he called the "hairy-chested Nazi hunters" in the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigation, and advocating abolishing the office and devoting resources to more contemporary concerns.