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Jewish Groups Back U.S. Stand on Iraq

by Matthew E. Berger

October 17, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Jewish groups are supporting a resolution from their umbrella organization backing the Bush administration's use of force against Iraq "as a last resort."

The resolution from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, released Oct. 12, expresses support for President Bush and Congress in seeking to make Iraq destroy its weapons of mass destruction and stop weapons development programs.

The resolution has changed significantly from the draft released last week. It now specifically includes support for "the use of force as a last resort" -- the draft had offered support only for unspecified presidential initiatives -- and supports White House efforts to build U.N. and other international backing. That placates both critics, who said that an explicit warning of military action was needed, and those who said that nonviolent tactics needed to be endorsed.

"It says what we wanted to say, that we stand with the United States," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents.

The final version was composed after individual groups provided feedback on the draft last week. Many leaders said the draft was too vague, with the conference not presenting a clear view as to whether Jewish groups supported more controversial elements of the U.S. debate, such as unilateral action, if international support was not forthcoming. Hoenlein said the draft was meant to be vague in order to elicit feedback for the final version.

The resolution comes after the major debate in the United States on Iraq has ended, with both houses of Congress voting to give the president authority to use military action if necessary. The House voted 296-133 in favor of the resolution on Oct. 10, with the Senate concurring early the next morning, 77-23.

But Hoenlein said the American debate is not over. "There is going to be an ongoing debate, and there's a feeling that we have to be on record on how we stand," he said.

While there were concerns about the draft language, most Jewish leaders had suggested last week that they would support the conference's resolution. Leaders of the conference's constituent groups praised the final resolution as a thoughtful consensus representing a wide array of Jewish opinion.

"It shows that Jews can stand proudly with our country, but recognize the tragedy of war," said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "It's as good of a situation as can be when one is about to wage war."

The Jewish Council tabled a resolution on the issue last month, a sign that Jewish support for a U.S. attack might not be as comprehensive as once thought. Some have argued that the council's hesitancy was an impetus for the toned-down conference language. The council is scheduled to review the issue again at a New York meeting next week.

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), said the resolution was not one his group would have written, but it was still a fair compromise. "Although we at ZOA believe it is unproductive to give Saddam another chance to destroy weapons of mass destruction, we do support this as a good consensus statement that does support ultimately military action against this evil military regime," Klein said.

The Conference of Presidents' leadership has been criticized in the past for not always seeking consensus before acting. But the process used on this statement was well received.

"I think they handled it well," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the central body of the Reform movement in North America and a frequent critic of the conference's decision-making.

However, Yoffie said that he still believes the conference "tends to improvise" in decision-making, and needs a more established process.

One major organization, the American Jewish Committee, has said it will not support the conference resolution, because it believes that it would be inappropriate for Jewish groups to speak out on Iraq at this time.

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