Back from Iraq, Jewish lawyer talks

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 20 (JTA) — You’d think that Noah Feldman would have avoided advertising his religious identity during a stint in Baghdad as a constitutional adviser to American authorities and Iraqi political hopefuls. But that was not the case. “I was very open with people about being Jewish. I talked to old men who remembered having Jews as neighbors, and who said that if the Jews wanted to come back, they should,” said Feldman last week from New Haven, Conn. He recalled an exchange with a Sunni cleric in Baghdad: “We were in a pretty lengthy conversation about Islam and democracy, and he stopped and looked at me and said, ‘Are you a Christian?’ I thought, ‘What am I supposed to say now?’ ” said Feldman. “I said, ‘No, I’m a Jew.’ He took note of that, but the conversation went on. In retrospect, I think he’d probably never met a Jew.” From March to July of 2003, Feldman, 34, an associate law professor at New York University, helped American and Iraqi authorities come up with the framework for what became the country’s interim constitution. The author of “What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building” and “After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy,” Feldman holds a doctorate in Islamic thought from Oxford University and a law degree from Yale University. Despite being relatively unknown before his appointment, Feldman was chosen for his role largely because he was one of the few American constitutional-law experts who spoke Arabic. In mid-December, a month and a half before scheduled Iraqi elections, Feldman gave a lecture to about 100 people at the offices of the Philadelphia-based World Affairs Council. At the talk, he said, “The question of what’s in our national self-interest is not where our conversation in Iraq should end. We must take into account the 27 million people who are most directly affected, who never asked us to invade their country.” Feldman never has said whether he initially supported the invasion but argues that the United States now has a moral responsibility to do all it can to help bring about some semblance of stability to Iraq. But he is considerably less optimistic about democracy’s chances for success in the country than he was a year ago, and is now critical of the administration for which he once worked. “There was no plan for the postwar occupation of Iraq,” he said to his audience. “You have it from me that this was basically true.” After the lecture, Feldman said that his time in Iraq came before a full-blown insurgency had taken shape, before car bombings around the country became an almost daily occurrence, and before the kidnapping and beheading of foreigners began. Today, Feldman, who grew up an Orthodox Jew in Cambridge, Mass., is afraid of returning to the Iraq, much less of walking the streets of Baghdad unaccompanied, as he once did, hoping to learn what was on the minds of average Iraqis. He said that his name is infamous in much of the Arab world. After his appointment in April 2003, the late academic Edward Said — a well-known champion of the Palestinian cause — wrote in a column that appeared in an English supplement to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram that the appointment of a Jew to such a post was inappropriate. Feldman said that in the months afterward, the piece reappeared, translated into Arabic, in newspapers from Tunisia to Iraq. “The article morphed and spread, until I became known as a Zionist agent. I became nervous, and I believe it would be dangerous for me to go back. But it is dangerous for anybody in Iraq,” he said. He said that he believes life in Iraq might be made safer if the United States sent significantly more troops to the country. In his view, the most pressing current issue is finding a way to convince Iraqi Sunnis — the group associated with insurgency violence — that they won’t be perpetual losers in a democracy dominated by Iraqi Shi’iites and Kurds. Feldman said that only a power-sharing agreement reached by elite representatives of all three groups will give democracy a chance. His worst-case scenario is grim, with U.S. troops caught in interethnic violence. “It could become Vietnam or Lebanon,” he warned.

NEXT STORY