March 20, 2003
War Talk Stirs Up Mixed Views in U.S.
Costumed Purim partygoers masked the general anxiety of impending war Monday night as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security upped its terror gauge to high alert and President Bush laid down his 48-hour ultimatum.
"I don't feel nervous being Jewish. I feel nervous being a New Yorker," said Karen Sinai, 25, at a Chabad-Lubavitch Purim party on the top floor of a Manhattan building.
On the eve of war, Jewish communities around the country expressed emotions ranging from fear for personal security to fear for Israel's security to finding security in God. Some were determined to keep war and its accompanying anxiety from interfering with their lives. Others found relief that war apparently was about to begin after months of anticipation. Still others stepped up their anti-war activities.
In Marietta, Ga., Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim welcomed the fact that a decision about whether to go to war appeared to have been taken.
"The indecision and the waffling and the interminable compromising and discussions and negotiation have been wearying," he said. "It's kind of like extended foreplay."
Though intensified talk of war is causing anxiety in his community, the time has come to "pick a path," he said.
For many American Jews, war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq is the right move.
"I'm totally fine with [Bush's 48-hour ultimatum]," said Danielle Izsak, 34, of San Francisco. "Everyone's gonna hate me, but how long has it been? Let's get some action. I'm anti-war, but because my father was in the military, I understand that some actions needed to be taken to achieve results. Saddam is not taking this seriously."
Jacob Tanz, interviewed in the social hall of Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, made a similar point.
"I think this war is justified," he said. "We need to get rid of Saddam. We missed the opportunity 12 years ago."
Rabbi Murray Berger, a chaplain, soldier and president of the Dallas Rabbinical Association, said he was in Israel when the 1991 Persian Gulf War broke out.
"As much as I'm a peaceful person, as is the Jewish community, there are times if you are being threatened, you must face the foe," Berger said. "If you don't, you will be annihilated or enslaved."
Berger said the United States' status as a real world power carries certain responsibilities.
"There are ethics involved with being a power," he said, "and just as it is immoral to abuse power, it is immoral not to use power for the good of humanity."
But not everyone is so sure.
Deb Mason, a student government member at Ohio State University, said that the likelihood of war has shaken many students out of their customary political apathy.
"As students, we know that if anything happens, it's our friends going," said Mason, who was celebrating St. Patrick's Day at a bar Monday night. "When President Bush came on the television, everyone in the whole bar got silent. It was just chilling."
Zvika Rimalt, an Israeli living in San Francisco, also said the situation was more complex than many people might realize.
"The United States is going to get itself into so much trouble that we'll see the repercussions for years to come," said Rimalt, 32. "I'm afraid it will be a disaster bigger than Vietnam. The Israeli occupation of Lebanon will look like nothing compared to the American occupation of Iraq. I'm afraid America is going to learn a very painful lesson about the limits of power."
Many Jews think Saddam's overthrow will benefit Israel, but others see the possible effect on Israel differently.
"I'm fearful for what's going to happen to Israel and the Israeli people," said Phil Hankin of Oakland. "I have a number of relatives and friends there, and this is kind of frightening. They all have their safe rooms and their supplies."
But Tanz said he is "more worried about Palestinian suicide bombers than about Saddam."
Some were concerned about Bush's strategy. "Whether getting rid of Saddam Hussein and remaking the Middle East is a viable proposition is something I am really unsure of," said Peter Haas, director of the Case Western Reserve University Judaic studies program in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, The Shalom Center in Philadelphia has compiled about 175 signatures for a last-ditch, Jewish anti-war ad that was scheduled to appear on a full page of The New York Times on Thursday.
Titled "Why Jews Should Oppose War in Iraq," the ad cites a Torah passage to pursue justice. The ad also warns that war will "kill innocent Iraqis by the thousands," along with "countless American soldiers," and will "subject Americans, Israelis and civilians of many other nations to the danger of hellish terrorist reprisals."
With a decision on war falling on Purim, many Jews interpreted the holiday to fit their ideology.
Lorne Needle, 36, of San Francisco alluded to the holiday in making his case against war.
"Part of the reason to celebrate Purim is that we're alive, and the great majority of the Iraqi people just want to live, too," Needle said.
In New York, Rabbi Yisroel Stone, 28, said the Megillah's message was Jewish empowerment.
"If we're connected to God and we're connected to the Torah," he said, "we have nothing to fear."
Journal Contributing Editor Tom Tugend, The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, Dallas Jewish Week and Cleveland Jewish News provided material for this story.