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As Iraq Conflict Winds On, Community Finally Feels Free to Join Public Debate

After staying largely in the shadows for several years, the organized American Jewish community has jumped full throttle into the debate over the Iraq war. The debate reached a crescendo last week when the Republican Jewish Coalition took a full-page ad in The New York Times, expressing support for the war and chastising the Union for Reform Judaism for a resolution last month denouncing the war and seeking a troop withdrawal.

The advertisement led to an open letter from Rabbi David Saperstein, a Reform movement leader, and a response from Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director. Each accused the other of pretending to represent American Jewish opinion on the war.

The debate over the war on the pages of one of the nation’s most-prestigious newspapers came as a surprise from a community that has gone out of its way not to talk about the conflict publicly. Many American Jewish groups and Jewish leaders believed that coming out in support of the war would lead to accusations that it was being fought for Israel, and would highlight the influence of Jewish defense policy staffers, dubbed “neoconservatives.”

Comments from congressional representatives suggesting the war was being fought on Israel’s behalf, and memories of similar rhetoric during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, prompted many major Jewish groups not to publicly endorse the war or highlight the supposed threat Saddam Hussein posed to Israel.

But now that public support for the war has dropped, Jews appear to feel more comfortable openly discussing the conflict, its goals — and whether it’s worth the cost in dollars and lives.

“The Iraq war looms so large in American life, for the Jewish community to take a pass at discussing the war would really be unrealistic,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Brooks said he had no hesitation putting Jewish support for the war in the pages of the Times.

“One of the things we’ve been careful about and which is a general sensitivity is we’ve tried to minimize this war in terms of the impact it will have on Israel,” he said. “What we’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s have a debate on the issues.’ “

Ironically, while many assume that American Jews would support the war because of its presumed benefits for Israel, the Jewish community seems to outpace other Americans in opposing the war. The American Jewish Committee’s latest poll shows 70 percent of American Jews disapprove of the war in Iraq, a 4 percent increase from a year ago and up from 54 percent in 2003.

In contrast, a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe sending troops to Iraq was a mistake

In addition, some who backed the war originally have come to question whether it really had any benefit for Israel.

While some Jews have been outspoken opponents of the war — even joining Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, who has been protesting President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch — few have done so under Jewish auspices.

Concerns that Jews would be blamed for the war have dissipated greatly since the campaign began. At the time, much was made of the Jewish heritage of war architects like Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense, and Richard Perle, then chair of the Defense Policy Board. Now, the “neoconservatives” receive less blame than the Bush administration directly.

Indeed, the purported benefits to Israel largely have been overshadowed. Much of the talk in the mainstream press now revolves around faulty intelligence on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, and the continuing violence of the insurgency.

That has freed the Jewish community to speak more openly about the war, leaders said.

“I think what has changed in a lot of people’s minds is the length of time we’re there,” said Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “I hear all kinds of discussions now, and I don’t think it’s a ‘verboten’ topic.”

The Reform movement openly sought increased debate on the issue through its resolution. Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, said the time felt right to turn up the debate. The Iraq resolution was authored by individual congregations, not the Washington office, he said.

“This is a weighing process we’re doing here,” he said. “More and more, it’s tipping to the scale of there being a problem with us in Iraq.”

Proponents of the war have stressed its goals of creating a peaceful and democratic Iraq, with the implicit aim of appealing to liberal groups that traditionally have sought U.S. humanitarian intervention around the world, and are seeking it now in the Darfur refugee crisis. White House officials made that correlation directly in responding to the URJ’s resolution.

Last week, Bush also appealed to supporters of Israel.

“If you’re a supporter of Israel, I would strongly urge you to help other countries become democracies,” he said Dec. 12 in a speech to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. “Israel’s long-term survival depends upon the spread of democracy in the Middle East.”

That comment worried some in the community, raising fears anew that the war would be blamed on Jews or Israel.

In any case, Saperstein said, there’s a difference between a “just war and just means.”

“I think one of the reasons the Jewish community was sympathetic was because of those grounds,” he said. “But it was very different from what the Bush administration was arguing at the time.”

Those speaking out now say the current debate is healthy, and few have urged Jews to lower the volume.

“It’s healthy because dissecting and talking through all of the issues and all of the implication of what’s at stake is critically important,” Brooks said.

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