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Behind the Headlines Familiar Figure is Bush’s New Man the Middle East: Elliott Abrams

December 9, 2002
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When Jewish leaders plan their first meeting with the National Security Council’s new director for the Middle East, there will be little need for introduction: The American Jewish world knows Elliott Abrams and — possibly more importantly — Abrams knows them.

Named last week as the NSC’s senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs, Abrams is a familiar face in the Jewish world for his work on Soviet Jewry and issues of international religious freedom.

Abrams, 54, also made headlines for pleading guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress as part of the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration.

But he may be best known to Jewish leaders as an opponent of Jewish secularism, primarily in his book “Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in Christian America,” published in 1997.

The book’s thesis — written while Abrams was president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington — was that American Jews must return to their religious faith to combat their shrinking numbers.

Intermarriage and secularism have hurt the American Jewish community, he wrote, and a revitalization of the religious aspects of Jewish life is needed to turn the tide.

“The community must shift energy from its efforts to promote a secular society and to ensure that individual Jews can succeed in America, and focus instead on the goals of sustaining Judaism here,” Abrams wrote.

American Jews must take more lessons from the Orthodox community, which has been able to sustain itself by its “adherence to ritual and their educational network” its separation from American society at large, Abrams wrote.

Abrams, who declined interview requests from JTA, describes himself in the book as a “somewhat observant Conservative Jew.”

His political work began in the 1970s for two Democratic U.S. senators. He later joined the Reagan administration as assistant secretary of state for international organizational affairs.

He then led the State Department’s Office of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, and then the Office of Inter-American Affairs.

As the Reagan administration’s Latin American envoy, Abrams was considered the chief advocate of military support for the Nicaraguan Contras, despite a ban on aid to the group.

In 1991, Abrams admitted to withholding from congressional committees his knowledge that Lt. Col. Oliver North was assisting the Contras militarily.

He pled guilty to the two misdemeanor counts, but later was pardoned by the first President Bush.

Jewish leaders have dealt with Abrams in all of his various government capacities. He worked with them on Soviet Jewry issues while in humanitarian affairs, on issues regarding Israel and the United Nations during his tenure in the international organizations branch, and in promoting Jewish communities in South and Central America during while in the Office of Inter-American Affairs.

Many Jewish leaders are thrilled that a man so knowledgeable about the Jewish community has been appointed to such a prominent position — essentially, the White House’s point man on the Middle East.

“We certainly hope his knowledge and expertise about American Jewry will play a part, and will be sought,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Abrams is expected to play a large role, together with the U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in guiding Middle East policy at a crucial time.

Concern has been mounting that the administration could veer off the course Bush set forth in a landmark June 24 speech that called for new Palestinian leaders uncompromised by terrorism and the establishment of a Palestinian state within three years, provided the Palestinians meet certain conditions.

Recent events, including the prominent U.S. role in drafting a “road map”

rd Mideast peace, have raised fears that pressure will be placed on Israel to end settlement development and withdraw its military from the West Bank, even before the Palestinians end their attacks on Israel.

That’s why it’s so crucial to have someone who thinks like them in a position of influence, American Jewish leaders say.

“Clearly, there’s a benefit to having a guy in this position who understands what Israel is all about and the challenges Israel faces,” one Jewish leader said.

Abrams is viewed as a strong proponent of Israel’s security. Colleagues say his views are similar to those of Paul Wolfowitz, the hawkish deputy defense secretary.

But while Abrams’ views on the Middle East are expected to fall in line with the American Jewish community, some may find his take on Judaism controversial.

In his book, Abrams says that Jews need to accept the fact that they live in a Christian society, and adapt to it. That differs from the view, more broadly accepted in the Jewish community, that the United States should be pushed toward more secular values.

“He takes a much more conservative line on religion-and-state issues that puts him at odds with much of the Jewish establishment,” one Jewish leader remarked.

David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said Abrams’ call to minimize the social justice aspect of Jewish life in favor of religious doctrine runs counter to the American Jewish community’s experience and teachings.

However, he praises Abrams as a thinker and foreign policy expert.

“His book added to an important discourse of Jewish life, but his formulation was very off-base,” said Saperstein, who served on the U.S.

Commission on International Religious Freedom, which Abrams chaired from 2000 to 2001.

Harris said the book was just one perspective on a problem of growing importance to the Jewish community.

“I don’t think these views are generally controversial,” Harris said.

“There’s a growing recognition that American Jews, in order to flourish and prosper, need to become more knowledgeable about their heritage.”

In addition, many in the Jewish community note that Abrams was not hired to serve as a liaison to the Jewish world, but to craft policy for the Middle East.

Abrams’ appointment is still deemed controversial because of his Iran-Contra background. On Dec. 4, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended Abrams’ hiring, saying Bush views him as a warrior of democracy.

“Obviously, he was hired by this administration because of the outstanding work he has done for our country,” Fleischer said. “And I think if you take a look, particularly in Latin and Central America, at nations that were not governed by democracies, and the advent of democracy that swept Latin and Central America in the ’80s and throughout the ’90s, Elliott Abrams played a very important role in that. And we are honored and pleased to have him work here at the White House.”

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