A Jewish quandary over anti-terror effort


WASHINGTON, Sept. 25 (JTA) — At a time when the whole country appears to be rallying behind President Bush and the emerging war against terrorism, American Jewish groups find themselves in a quandary.

Many in the Jewish community worry how the war on terrorism will affect Israel and which countries President Bush will bring into his anti-terror coalition.

But a combination of factors — respect for the dead, patriotism and fear of a backlash — has produced restraint from usually vocal Jewish activists.

“There is no need for us in front of the scenes,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We are not the issue.”

Hoenlein and other Jewish leaders say it would be inappropriate, while remains are still being pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center, for them to vocalize their concerns.

But while respect is one reason for the muted voices, the Jewish community is also fearful of the consequences of speaking out.

The Bush administration has amassed overwhelming support for a coalition against terrorism, and voices of dissent seem to be unwelcome.

In addition, Jewish officials are worried about provoking the view held by some that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. support for Israel are to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks.

In addition to concerns about the anti-terror coalition and anti-terror legislation, there is concern about increased pressure on Israel to sit down with the Palestinians.

Indeed the Bush administration put intense pressure on Israel to allow Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat this week.

The Bush administration believes that ending the violence in the region and getting back to negotiations is essential to garnering Arab support for its anti-terrorism coalition.

It has also become obvious that Bush’s war on terrorism will not include targeting Arafat or the groups he controls, despite public pleas from both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This was made clear in Bush’s speech to the nation last week, when he specified his war on terrorism would focus on those terrorist networks with global reach. And the executive order Bush signed Monday freezing the assets of suspected Islamic terrorist groups and individuals did not include any terrorist groups that specifically target Israel.

There is also concern that Bush will try to find a role for Arafat in the coalition, something many in the American Jewish community oppose.

Jewish activists are also warily eyeing the role Iran and Syria will play in the coalition, and worry that sanctions against those countries for their association with terrorism will be lifted if they aid the anti-terrorism effort.

They are also closely watching the anti-terrorism legislation as it emerges on Capitol Hill. Among the concerns is a proposal that would remove the bans on the United States selling arms. That could mean the United States might sell arms to Iran as part of its anti-terrorism effort.

Jewish organizational officials say they have raised these concerns to the Bush administration and congressional leaders, but they have done it in a low-key way.

Publicly, American Jewish leaders say the reason they are not being vocal is because they are waiting for more details about the coalition.

“It’s a couple of days too early,” said Barry Jacobs, director of strategic strategies for the American Jewish Committee.

Others say it is unclear who in the Bush administration is making the decisions, making it more difficult for Jewish groups to lobby their point.

And with the recent attention to the U. N. World Conference Against Racism and the High Holidays, Jewish groups have not been able to shift gears and organize in the way they would like.

“There is a lot in flux and people want to give the administration a great deal of leeway,” said Reva Price, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

But under the surface, there are also fears that an aggressive American Jewish community would not be well-received.

Specifically, they worry about a drop in support for the U.S. relationship with Israel if the American Jewish community puts too many demands on the coalition.

However a recent poll suggests otherwise. An overwhelming majority of Americans — 92 percent — endorse full cooperation between the United States and Israel in combating terrorism, according to a poll conducted by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Hudson Institute.

There is also concern that the support for U.S. action against terrorism is so strong, dissenting voices will be ignored. The American Jewish community fears being cast aside and losing good favor and influence in the Bush White House.

And part of it, some leaders say, is patriotism. As Americans, the Jewish community was shocked and traumatized by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and feel the need to rally around the flag with the rest of the country.

“We’re all Americans, and concerns are being handled in a different way,” Price said, comparing it to the new bipartisan tone that has emerged, at least externally, from the halls of Congress in the wake of the attacks. “There is an effort to create a certain outward image.”

Instead, the community has increasingly turned to Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who is raising some similar concerns on his own.

The ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee, Lantos has become more influential with the White House since he represented the United States at the Durban conference on racism last month.

This week, Lantos was instrumental in changing language in the president’s executive order ending sanctions against India and Pakistan because of their assistance in the coalition.

The language originally called for a review of sanctions on all countries that aid the effort, which would have left the door open for Iran, Syria and other Middle East antagonists.

This week, Lantos is considering sending a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell seeking clarification on the scope of the global war on terrorism, congressional sources said. Some of his concerns mirror those in the Jewish community.

While acknowledging a changed demeanor, Jewish leaders say this is not their long-term strategy, but merely the interim solution. They say that once details emerge, if they still have concerns, they will be raised.

“If it turns out the administration is prepared to pay any price for this coalition, then I think you will hear a concerted effort by the American Jewish community to object,” Jacobs said. “Any price is not an acceptable price.”

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