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Jewish Journal

Anti-War, Anti-Israel?

by James D. Besser

June 3, 2004 | 8:00 pm

ANSWER Rallies Return

With things going badly in Iraq, the anti-war movement in this country is trying to expand its political base with a series of high-profile marches scheduled for this weekend.

And once again, planners of some of the events are using rising discontent over the war to boost other items on their agenda, starting with vehement criticism of Israel.

A primary sponsor of the new burst of protest: International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), the anti-war group criticized last year for barring speakers who supported Israel and for a vehemently anti-Israel approach to the Mideast conflict.

On Saturday, the group will hold rallies in Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Michael Berg, father of the Philadelphia-area Jewish businessman beheaded by Iraqi insurgents last month, will participate in an ANSWER march from the White House to the home of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, according to the group's Web site.

The latest rally by ANSWER -- an offshoot of the ultra-radical World Workers Party -- is putting an even greater emphasis on ending Israeli "colonialism," and on linking the U.S. occupation of Iraq with Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

Jewish leaders say it's the same old pitch from a group variously described as Stalinist, Leninist and just plain Marxist. But the worsening situation in Iraq could provide more fertile soil for the dissemination of its anti-Israel ideas.

"Our main concern is that well-meaning progressives who oppose the situation in Iraq will be drawn into a destructive anti-Israel movement that combines anti-globalism, anti-war, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic elements," said David Bernstein, regional director for the American Jewish Committee.

Bernstein said that the revival of ANSWER "means that we have to reach out even more aggressively to parts of the progressive community, from the mainline Christian groups to minority groups to labor and other centers of the progressive community."

Bernstein said Jewish leaders need to do a better job "communicating effectively with people who are looking for a way to express their concerns about the war. The situation in Iraq is giving ANSWER a chance to reclaim its pre-war positions, and that's worrisome."

Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said that ANSWER "is a fringe group, far out of the mainstream of American society," but warned about its "ability to get crowds together. Right now being against the war in Iraq is a popular message, and they are using that to reach out to a broader audience."

Some leading Jewish anti-war activists are staying far away from the ANSWER orbit.

"We only participated in ANSWER demonstrations when there was no alternative mass mobilization," said Rabbi Michael Lerner, head of the liberal Tikkun Community. Lerner was barred from speaking at ANSWER rallies last year because he objected to the group's growing anti-Israel, anti-Semitic focus.

But Lerner said that the argument the war is being fought for Israel resonates with Americans.

"One of the reasons we opposed this war was that we saw that the only argument for the war that stood a chance of making sense was that it would eliminate Israel's leading military threat in the Middle East," he said. "And we argued that going to war to protect Israel when Israel was not actually facing a realistic military threat would eventually lead to an increase in anger at Israel and hence a long-term decrease in Israeli security and an upsurge of anti-Israel feeling."

That prediction, he said, is now "being played out on the American right-wing as they look for scapegoats rather than face their own stupidity for having supported the war in the first place."

Faith-Based Battle Heating Up

President George W. Bush, saying the government should not "discriminate against faith-based" health and social service programs, has renewed his push for new laws and regulations opening up federal grants to religious groups.

The first White House National Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was part pep rally for the embattled faith-based initiative, part seminar designed to help potential grantees learn the ropes of the funding process.

And the event at a Washington hotel had distinctly Christian overtones, several participants said, with a Gospel choir and "a kind of tent revival atmosphere," according to one.

But that didn't faze Jewish supporters of the administration's plans, which have been held up in Congress but implemented in large measure through executive action.

"While obviously the predominant religious affiliation was Christian, there was a discernable effort on behalf of the president to be as inclusive as possible," said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Washington director for American Friends of Lubavitch, who was the recipient of a presidential kiss in the receiving line.

Featured prominently at the event: a leading Jewish anti-poverty group that has not yet received any funds under the president's faith-based plan.

The Metropolitan New York Council on Jewish Poverty was one of eight groups singled out as examples of faith-based groups in action in a video shown to the 2,000-plus delegates.

William Rapfogel, executive director of the group, said that "it was a very positive meeting, and the president got a very strong reception."

Rapfogel said that groups opposed to the administration's faith-based initiatives on church-state grounds "probably won't be convinced" by Tuesday's session, but that "this may have had an impact on some of those in the middle, who may already be inclined to give the program a chance."

He said that groups like his that hope to get money from the faith-based plan "have to help shape it so there will not be discrimination and there will not be proselytizing."

But Jewish church-state groups were unimpressed.

"I can't quarrel with their ability to promote their agenda, but I believe the program is fundamentally misconceived," said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee. "They are promoting a sweeping vision in terms of how social services should be organized and funded in this country."

He said that while the plan ostensibly covers both faith-based and community initiatives, "there's virtually no attention being paid to the community side of that equation. The emphasis is entirely on enabling faith-based organizations to participate."

Budget Crisis Deepening

For Jewish leaders worried about likely cuts in health and human service programs, Capitol Hill budget experts have just one thing to say: "You ain't seen nothing yet."

Although election-obsessed lawmakers are unlikely to make any drastic moves this year that could lead to a voter backlash on Nov. 2, the handwriting is on the wall for subsequent budget years as the federal deficit mounts.

Last week the Washington Post reported on a secret White House memo warning government agencies to brace for sweeping budget cuts starting in Fiscal Year 2006.

The memo warned about likely cuts in virtually every domestic area, including education and social welfare programs such as the popular Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

That just proves what House Democrats predicted early in the year, said Thomas Kahn, Democratic staff director on the House Budget Committee.

"There's no way around it: the huge tax cuts that have already passed, along with the $2 trillion in new tax cuts the administration is proposing and record increases in defense spending, are forcing deep cuts in a wide range of critical domestic services," he said.

But with Congress putting off most critical budget decisions this year, the scope of those cuts won't really be apparent until after the elections.

Even homeland security is being cut -- according to the memo, by $1 billion in 2006, which augers poorly for a bill pushed by a coalition of Jewish groups that would provide assistance to nonprofit groups that need to beef up security to face the terrorist threat.

Most Jewish groups continue to stay out of the debate over new tax cuts, but a number of Jewish leaders expressed dismay about the scope of likely spending cuts in the next few years.

"The decisions being made on the budget today are going to haunt us for decades to come, because they involve the very infrastructure of our social service system, and our ability to provide for those in need," said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women. "Legislators can't afford to be shortsighted; the cuts that are being made can't be made up later, and they send a very damaging message about what this nation's priorities are."

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