Many Jewish Groups Stay Silent As Country Debates Iraq Exit Strategy
Menu JTA Search

Many Jewish Groups Stay Silent As Country Debates Iraq Exit Strategy

Download PDF for this date

Any divisions among American Jews about the war in Iraq and the U.S. role in rebuilding the ravaged country are not reflected on the national organizational level, where only two positions have emerged: for the administration, and for keeping quiet.

The strong support that underscored the build-up to the Iraq war has dissipated, and the question of how to go forward is becoming a defining issue for many Americans. It has emerged as a major election-year issue, with Democrats accusing the administration of lacking a realistic exit plan.

Administration defenders say a quick influx of cash now will help Iraqis stand on their own feet sooner.

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements say they hear similar questions about post-war strategy among their congregants — but the leaders don’t see it becoming a national Jewish issue, if only because of differences of opinion on what should be done.

“We’re a large movement,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “The consensus we have on many issues does not exist on this issue.”

An exit strategy for Iraq has yet to present a Jewish dilemma, said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“This is not an issue in which the Jewish values flow on one side or the other,” said Epstein, whose movement was rattled by fierce debate on the issue at a rabbinical conference in April.

Lawmakers leading the criticism agree that such views are best expressed as issues of concern to all Americans, and not as specifically Jewish concerns.

Still, that has not stopped some mainstream groups from pronouncing their support for the administration in no uncertain terms.

Jason Isaacson, director of the American Jewish Committee’s government affairs office, wrote a letter last week urging congressional support for President Bush’s appeal for $87 billion in emergency spending on Iraq and Afghanistan — an appeal that triggered a dramatic drop in Bush’s approval ratings.

“Although the magnitude of the president’s spending request is formidable, in appropriating these resources the Congress would serve our country’s most compelling interests,” Isaacson wrote to congressmen.

Isaacson told JTA that supporting the administration’s postwar efforts was consistent with strong Jewish support for the war.

“The war isn’t quite over, and because it’s not quite over funds must be provided to see that it’s concluded decisively, successfully and that Iraq has the tools to assure stability in that region instead of instability,” he said.

Abraham Foxman, whose Anti-Defamation League also strongly supports administration efforts, said widespread Jewish satisfaction with the ouster of a vicious, anti-Israel regime overwhelms any concerns about Iraq’s postwar direction.

“There are nuances, there will be nuances, but those are not significant,” Foxman said. “The victory over Saddam Hussein, the releasing of Iraqi people from a dictatorship bent on Israel’s destruction — that’s a sigh of relief.”

That view is shared by Orthodox Union congregants, said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs.

“Our community would support the notion that the reconstruction of Iraq is not a project the United States can fail at; therefore, we have to invest money and manpower,” Diament said.

The union is sending Bush a letter supporting the appropriation, Diament told JTA.

The reluctance of mainstream organizations to join administration critics is a disappointment to some left-wing Jews who opposed the war from the outset.

“In terms of institutions, I’m not aware of any changes” in their position on the war, said Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, an activist with Philadelphia’s Shefa Fund, said much Jewish support for the war derived from promises by Bush and others that a victory in Iraq would facilitate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has claimed several thousand lives over the past three years.

Instead, the administration has become preoccupied with Iraq and is even less involved in pursuing its “road map” peace plan– leading to a sense of despair among many Jews, Liebling said.

“The administration has dropped the ball on the road map, and mainstream Jews are having second thoughts about the Iraq war because their interests are not served,” Liebling said. “The level of despair, the lack of hope, is reaching an almost all-time high.”

The general absence of Jewish criticism of the war and its aftermath also is striking because groups representing other constituencies — especially black groups — have been critical. For example, the religious affairs department of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was forceful in its opposition to the war.

Officials active in Jewish and Democratic circles say a drift away from alliances with such groups, and the reluctance to criticize a victory against a virulently anti-Israel regime, meant Jews never were going to be at the forefront of criticism.

Another factor is what many see as a blunt Bush administration strategy of ignoring critics and cultivating supporters. When Bush invited more than two dozen rabbis to a Rosh Hashanah meeting on Monday, many of those present enthusiastically endorsed his Iraq policies, and no one criticized them, participants said.

The Reform movement’s Yoffie said Jewish organizations might be more willing to criticize administration strategy if Bush’s critics articulated their own exit strategy more clearly — as may happen when the presidential election campaign moves into high gear as primaries begin in January.

“Right now there are legitimate questions and reservations, but in the absence of any clear proposal, I don’t see a change,” Yoffie said. “Down the road, who knows?”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund