Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

As Iraq Debate Advances, Many Jewish Groups Are Remaining Mum

October 1, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As Congress prepares to debate a resolution on war against Iraq, one might expect American Jewish groups to weigh in.

But while some groups have offered at least conditional support for the administration’s goals, other groups are remaining mute.

In fact, some groups have timed their debates so that they take place only after a resolution has been approved on Capitol Hill.

“Once this became very politicized, we were all forced to take a step back,” one American Jewish leader said.

Jewish groups have been trying to keep a low profile on the Iraq issue. While many see Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a threat to Israeli and American interests, they also have concerns about the effects of unilateral action by the United States and worry about the region’s stability after a war.

Others are trying to distance themselves from the debate to counter any claims that the United States is going to war on Israel’s behalf.

So far, several American Jewish groups have expressed support for President Bush’s Sept. 12 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, in which he called for regime change in Iraq and said America would act alone if necessary to eliminate Iraq’s capability to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The Anti-Defamation League supported the speech, as did the American Jewish Congress and the Zionist Organization of America. Many other groups expressed support for the president’s sentiments but did not take a formal stand.

B’nai B’rith International sent a letter to the president last Friday, complimenting Bush’s leadership and supporting the proposed congressional resolution authorizing military action against Iraq.

The Orthodox Union is expected to do the same this week.

“The debate has reached a point of critical mass and we felt it was important to lay out our position now,” said the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith, Daniel Mariaschin said, noting that there has been talk of an attack on Iraq for more than a year.

Some other groups have offered conditional support for U.S. action.

The Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations last week decided to support U.S. action against Iraq, but only after nonviolent strategies have been exhausted and international and European support has been sought.

The Jewish War Veterans expressed support for a strike against Iraq’s weapons capabilities, but came out against a U.S. invasion or the deployment of ground troops.

Many other groups have yet to take a stand. Several American Jewish leaders said they had to consult with their membership or boards, while others said that now was not the right time to weigh in.

“If we are going to speak for Conservative congregations, while you can’t take a poll of 800 congregations, we are trying to be fair and honest and get a pulse,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Epstein expects his group to announce its policy in coming days.

Expressing concern both about the issues at hand and about perceptions, some Jewish leaders would prefer to speak out once the congressional resolution has passed — which many see as inevitable — and American action is a foregone conclusion.

Foremost is a real concern that the Bush administration has yet to lay out details of its vision — including an exit plan for American troops, whether Israel should be allowed to retaliate if attacked by Iraq and what type of Iraqi regime the United States envisions after the war.

But the concern also stems from deeper emotional views on whether the Jewish community should be out front in this effort.

Some say that Jews, who traditionally vote Democratic, should not be stumping for a Republican president. Others say Bush’s strong support for Israel places a responsibility on Jewish leaders to back his war plans.

There also is concern that, if the Jewish community is too vocal in its support, some will conclude that the war is being fought for Israel — especially considering several Jews, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, are among the more hawkish voices on military action.

“It makes the average Jewish American uncomfortable that there are people in the administration, who just happen to be Jewish, who are the strongest advocates for regime change,” one American Jewish leader said.

In 1991, Jewish leaders felt the backlash from Persian Gulf War opponents such as conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who claimed the United States was fighting for Israel.

When Iraq’s foreign minister claims that the current U.S. plans to attack are part of a Zionist conspiracy, those concerns resurface.

“We have more variables in our calculations this time, and they are scary variables,” one Jewish leader said.

In an action that Jewish leaders say is symbolic, the membership of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs last week chose, by a 3-1 margin, to postpone a vote on the whether to support the president’s congressional resolution.

Hannah Rosenthal, JCPA’s executive director, said there is a “clear consensus” that Saddam poses a threat to the United States, Israel and the world, and that there needs to be a response to that.

“What that response is, is where you are not going to find a clear consensus,” she said.

The JCPA includes many members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Jewish officials said they believe the vote reflects a wide divide among Jewish groups and constituencies.

But Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s executive vice chairman, said a draft statement of consensus will be sent to groups this week, and will be voted on next week.

Recommended from JTA