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Unafraid to Tackle Other Issues, Jewish Groups Avoid Iraq War

Abortion? Check. Condoms? Got ‘em. Taxes? We’re there.

War? Don’t mention it.

The organizational Jewish community, out front on most front-line political issues, has maintained a careful distance from the Iraq war since its inception.

The main reason is a wish to avoid displeasing the Bush administration, which has offered unprecedented support for Israel and is leading the effort to force Iran to halt its suspected nuclear-weapons program.

“It’s a case of American Jews saying thank you for your support of Israel,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“If we want to be tough on Iran, we can’t tie his hands on Iraq,” he said, referring to President Bush.

As the war passed its fourth year Monday, grassroots pressure was mounting against a conflict that is profoundly unpopular especially among Jews

The results of that pressure are evident in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. Last week, the Union of Reform Judaism’s executive committee demanded a timetable for a troop withdrawal from Iraq and opposed the “surge,” the administration s deployment of an additional 30,000 troops.

The same week, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association called for a “rapid and responsible” troop withdrawal.

An aggregate of recent Gallup Polls shows that Jews and black Protestants are likelier than other religious groups to believe the war was a mistake, with opposition running at 77 percent. The polls have ratcheted up the pressure to call Jewish organizations to account.

“Every day the official Jewish institutions delay bringing their moral and political clout to bear means some delay in getting Congress to end the war,” Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who heads the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, wrote in a recent Op-Ed for JTA.

The polls also spurred the formation of a new Jewish group. Jews Against the War was launched Monday by a number of Jewish! studies scholars.

“Like the prophets of Israel, I can no longer take the ‘safe’ road,” Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in California said in the group’s opening statement. “This war is wrong and it needs to end.”

No major Jewish group ever explicitly endorsed the war, but a number made it clear that they were not opposed to an effort that would unseat Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi president launched unprovoked missile attacks at Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and funded anti-Israel terrorism.

Iraq is “the most clear and present danger to democracy and freedom,” Foxman said after Bush outlined his case for military action to the United Nations in September 2002.

Polls at that time showed that a majority of American Jews like the rest of the country believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Differences between U.S. Jews and their organizational leaders emerged after the case for war began to unravel as the WMD intelligence proved faulty. By the beginning of 2004, polls showed a majority of U.S. Jews were against the war.

Yet organizational support for the administration’s efforts continued not in explicit expressions, but in subtle nods of approval.

The American Jewish Committee wrote Bush in December 2005, congratulating him on successful elections in Iraq. The letter was released, coincidentally or not, just as the AJCommittee published an annual poll of Jewish voters that showed opposition to the war. AJCommittee spokesmen did not reply to JTA requests for comment.

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations also did not explicitly support the war, but its popular Daily Alert e-mail linked overwhelmingly to arguments in favor.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s executive vice-chairman, said an umbrella group that must achieve consensus among more than 50 groups has to tread with care.

“We just have to be thoughtful about adopti! ng posit ions,” he said. “You don t adopt positions because of a poll everything is nuanced. These are complicated issues.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee also avoided backing the war, but at its May 2004 policy conference, 6,000 delegates loudly cheered President Bush, who focused his keynote speech on his case for war.

The Reform movement rolled around to a resolution broadly opposing the war at its biennial convention in fall 2005. That’s not untypical of a movement that prefers the slow, upward churn of grassroots pressure over hasty decisions announced by leadership, said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington.

But those who continue to support a U.S. military presence in Iraq say the grassroots may not be the most reliable route of arriving at policy.

“The model of leadership is not what the grassroots want,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “This is a time for people who should know what s at risk and what s at stake and not give in to the prevailing political winds. It sends the wrong message to men in uniform. It sends a white flag to our friends and allies around the world.”

The broader silence on the war is unusual for a Jewish community that s not afraid to tackle controversy. Last year, for instance, Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women led efforts to knock back state-level measures that would have further restricted abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.

This year, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the consensus-driven public relations arm of the Jewish community, took on handgun violence and efforts to stymie gay marriage. It also came out against some tax cuts, a third rail in the donor-driven non-profit world.

This week, NCJW is lobbying for federal funding of sex education that goes beyond abstinence and teaches safe-sex techniques.

But none of those organizations has ! adopted resolutions addressing the Iraq war.

One element frustrating opposition to the war is that it’s not so simple to come up with alternatives, said Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA’s executive director.

“No one wants it to go on, but how do you end it? It s a hard question,” Gutow said.

Reluctance also may stem from the canard that Jews get others to fight their wars.

Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt last year blamed the pro-Israel lobby for driving the Iraq war even though no pro-Israel organization had made it a priority and some like the Reform movement oppose it outright.

Foxman said the Walt-Mearsheimer fallout was inhibiting Jewish activism in favor of confronting Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, a cause that has broad support in the Jewish community.

“That is one factor why there s silence, not wanting to be blamed for this war and maybe for Iran,” Foxman said.

But the role the Iraq quagmire has played in emboldening Iran may help turn the organizational tide against the war.

“I believe it’s had a negative impact on Israel,” Wendy Wallach Pelucia of Greater Danbury, Conn., a delegate to NCJW s national conference in Washington this week, said of the Iraq war.

Pelucia said she was gratified the Reform movement had come out for withdrawal but added, “I would have liked to have been out of Iraq a long time ago.”

Vice President Dick Cheney made the case for the Iraq war at this year’s AIPAC conference, but in contrast to the reception for Bush three years ago, applause was moderate.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a Democratic candidate for president in 2008, earned applause a few weeks earlier when he told an AIPAC audience in Chicago that he would withdraw troops.

David Elcott, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, made the case at this year’s JCPA plenum that the failure to speak out on Iraq and other topics could alienate younger Jews.

“Whi! le Jews are prepared historically to fight, they want to know their leaders are looking for alternatives,” he told JTA. “It s the same questioning of American Jewish leaders: Have we done everything possible?”

The failure to speak out against Iraq has led to the establishment of at least one Jewish group that opposes military action against Iran.

“Most of us accurately predicted the consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and warned politicians and the public about predictable, preventable unintended consequences,” said the open letter to AIPAC last month from a group of academics calling themselves Jewish Analysts Investigating Peace and Conflict. “We are unanimous now in predicting the dangers for Jews, Israel, the U.S., and efforts to reduce global terrorism that would be triggered by any military action against Iran.”

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