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Jewish Journal

The Jews and Iraq

There is not yet a clear-cut Jewish American opinion on whether or not we should go to war.

by James D. Besser

February 13, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Pollsters didn't survey American Jews after last week's dramatic United Nations speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell, but if they did the results would probably show that the community is on the same wavelength as a confused, anxious American public.

Ask any rabbi or community relations professional; in Jewish communities across the nation, there is support for the Bush administration's Iraq policy laced with healthy doses of skepticism and outright opposition -- the whole range of reactions of a worried nation.

That refutes an article of faith of the anti-war Left -- that American Jewish concerns about Israel, and pressure from the right-wing government in Jerusalem, are critical factors in propelling America to a new Gulf War.

That theory is wrong on several counts.

Despite the prominence of several Jewish defense hawks in the administration, no reputable analyst believes Israel's views, or a U.S. desire to protect the Jewish State, are significant factors in the Bush administration's single-minded focus on Iraq. President Bush's determination to press ahead with the military option has nothing to do with his friend in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Most Israelis would like to see the Iraqi threat neutralized, but their enthusiasm for a U.S. attack is tempered by memories of the Scud attacks in 1991, and the knowledge that this time around, Saddam could lash out with much deadlier weapons, especially if he is wounded, but not removed.

And many Israelis doubt the sweeping Mideast vision of the administration officials who predict a tidal wave of moderation across the Arab and Islamic worlds if the Iraqi dictator is sent packing. As the U.S. experience in Afghanistan has shown, a successful military campaign does not necessarily translate into successful nation and democracy building.

In this country, most Jewish leaders have quietly signaled support for the administration's tough stance. But even at the height of last year's debate over a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force, only a small handful actually weighed in on Capitol Hill. Jewish leaders, wary of a potential backlash and facing a community that is far from unified on the war issue, have kept a very low profile as war preparations mount.

Out in the communities, the watchword is "ambivalence."

As usual, there is a wide gap between dedicated pro-Israel activists, who tend to put Israel first in their list of policy concerns, and the majority of Jews who care deeply about Israel, but tend to view public policy through a wider lens.

Among the latter group, there is understanding of the need to fight terrorism, concern about Iraq's threat to Israel, but also skepticism about the administration's motives.

According to a recent American Jewish Committee survey, 59 percent of American Jews approve of U.S. military action against Iraq -- about the same as the support from the American public at large -- with 36 percent opposed.

More than half of the Jews surveyed -- 56 percent -- worry that a war between America and Iraq is "likely to lead to larger war involving other countries in the Middle East." 62 percent believe the threat of terrorism against the U.S. will increase if the United States takes military action against Iraq.

The survey also showed that while a majority of Jews still approve of the way President Bush is handling the anti-terror war, the proportion has dropped steeply from the overwhelming approval ratings in the days after Sept. 11.

Again, Jews seem right in the uncertain American mainstream.

Jews remain one of the most liberal groups in American life; not surprisingly, liberal Jews are already a significant presence in the growing anti-war movement, despite the presence of vehemently anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic forces in that movement.

Even some Jewish hawks say Bush has not made the case about why Iraq can only be dealt with by massive military action, while diplomacy is the preferred approach to North Korea -- a nation that already has nuclear weapons and which has demonstrated an unparalleled recklessness in selling weapons to Mideast bad guys.

There may be good reasons for the disparity, but to many Americans -- Jews and non-Jews -- the president has not made a persuasive case.

Big Jewish organizations generally support the president, albeit quietly, because of their focus on Israel, but many rank-and-file Jews see more pressing emergencies at home, where a sinking economy seems to threaten the middle class way of life.

Last week's terror alert warning of possible Al Qaeda attacks against Jewish institutions and businesses may increase that skepticism; why is the administration so determined to engage Iraq when Al Qaeda is probably readying new attacks on American citizens?

Anti-war activists who see Jewish and Israeli pro-war conspiracies are far off the mark.

It is true that some of the loudest and most prominent advocates of war in the administration are prominent Jews. But the community itself mirrors all the concerns and doubts that make war with Iraq a high stakes political, as well as military, gamble for President Bush.

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