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Behind the Headlines from ‘bomb Them’ to ‘i Want Proof’: U.S. Jews Speak out on War with Iraq

October 15, 2002
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When asked about a possible U.S. war on Iraq, Marcy Pepper takes no prisoners.”Bomb them,” Pepper, 43, said recently, while working out at Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community Center.

“Get rid of him,” she said, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. “The Israelis should have done it already.” But Raymond Schwartz of Louisville, Ky., isn’t so sure about war.

The 67-year-old accountant believes President Bush hasn’t clearly made the case for military action against Saddam, he’s worried about an Iraqi retaliation on Israel — and he’s nervous about long-term U.S. involvement in another country.

“We haven’t done such a great job in Afghanistan in that respect. Do you think we’ll do better in Iraq?” he asked.

As the United States prepares for a possible invasion, U.S. Jews — like other Americans — are weighing issues of war and peace as they come together for private events and for public gatherings at synagogues, JCCs, meetings and dinners.

Like Pepper, a majority of Jews interviewed across the country appear to support a U.S. invasion, especially if all other options are exhausted.

The unscientific sampling of ordinary American Jews seems to reflect the position of the organized Jewish community, which over the weekend issued a statement backing the Bush administration’s use of force against Iraq “as a last resort.”

Others are skeptical that the Bush administration has done all that it can to avoid war.

One thing is certain: U.S. Jews have strong opinions on the matter –like those Iranian Jewish worshipers leaving the Eretz Cultural Center in Reseda, Calif., recently after Saturday morning services.

“This guy, Saddam Hussein, is so crazy, someone has to stop him,” said Bijan Fereydouny, 55, a diamond dealer in Los Angeles.

Fereshteh Rochel, a 43-year-old loan officer, was the only one outside the center to express some reservations.

“We should fight Saddam, but not the Iraqi people,” she said. “Look at Afghanistan, we bombed the people but didn’t get Osama bin Laden.”

Mitzi Gollman of Lyndhurst, Ohio, is emphatic that the United States needs more information about the Iraqi threat before taking military action.

“I don’t give Bush solo permission to go against Iraq,” Gollman said. “I want proof of Hussein’s weapons. If Chaim Pupik went and saw them, I want to know what he saw,” she said, referring to a Jewish version of John Doe.

Not only is Gollman concerned about the potential loss of American soldiers during an Iraqi invasion, she is worried about the massive amounts of money the U.S. government would have to spend on military actions.

“The economy is already in the toilet,” she declared. “People on fixed incomes are really having a hard time.”

Some U.S. Jews see the issue as an American one, with little particularly Jewish aspects.

But for many U.S. Jews, the issue has a double sword — since any military action in Iraq is likely to have ramifications for both the United States and Israel.

Carrying her 3-year-old daughter in her arms recently while buying groceries, Sharon Muskin of Cleveland said she is worried about possible Iraqi retaliation against Israel.

Like many, Muskin said she hoped that if attacked, “Israel would fight back with everything in its arsenal” — and not stand by, as it did during the 1991 Gulf War under strong pressure from the United States.

Whether the Jewish community should speak up for or against war is also open for debate.

After remaining relatively silent on the issue, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement over the weekend expressing support for Bush and Congress in seeking to make Iraq destroy its weapons of mass destruction and stop weapons development programs.

“Iraq must conform to the resolutions adopted by the Security Council and the other standards which President Bush has specified,” the resolution says. “We support the efforts to enlist the United Nations and international cooperation to secure Iraqi compliance, including the use of force as a last resort.”

The statement was seen as an attempt to placate both critics who said that an explicit warning of military action was needed and those who said that nonviolent tactics needed to be endorsed as well.

On the local level, Jews are less clear whether the Jewish community should speak up.

Take a group of New York Jews at an Oct. 7 dinner of the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs. Most of those in attendance supported the war on Iraq and thought Israel can defend itself if drawn into the fire.

But differing opinions surfaced when asked whether the U.S. Jewish community should take an active role in backing the war.

Jews should take a “step back” on the issue, said Mark Hametz, 47, who catered the O.U. dinner.

“Jews are always in the forefront of fighting” the war on terrorism, he said. This isn’t a Jewish-Arab issue, but a moral one. It would be good for the “rest of the world” to see someone other than Jews and Israel “standing up for what’s right.”

Jonah Lobell, a 39-year-old Manhattan attorney, disagrees.

Jews should be more outspoken in supporting a U.S. war. Israel has had “unprecedented” support from this administration, and Jews should return such support, he said.

Congress needs to “appreciate the importance of this issue to the Jewish community today,” Lobell said.

As for Bush’s proposed war on Iraq, it’s not only inevitable, but “critical to American interests,” and to creating an “equilibrium in the world,” Lobell said.

Some across the country expressed concern that the United Sates is acting as the world’s policemen, which might antagonize other nations and the United Nations.

But others, aware of the U.N.’s reputation as a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment, dismissed this concern.

“As far as U.N. backing goes, I don’t care. The United Nations is an organization monopolized by third-world countries. I have no problem with unilateral action,” Elie Elovic of Highland Park, N.J., said.

Even some of those who back the war have larger questions — and, in some cases, strong opinions — about where the “war on terrorism” should turn to next.

“What George Bush wants to do and what Congress is now prepared to back him to do is correct. But I don’t think Iraq is the only country that needs a regime change. Saudi Arabia is just as much a threat, as well as the other Arab countries,” said Martin Fox, interviewed at a gathering of ROMEO, the Retired Old Men’s Eating Organization in Kansas City, Kan., last Friday.

Joe Shani, a 44-year-old Beverly Hills, Calif., businessman, believes a war against Iran would not be needed to change the regime.

“The young people of Iran are ready now to change the regime,” said the Iranian Jew. “If Iraq falls, Iran will become democratic, and that, in turn will change the attitude of Islam in the entire region.”

For some, thought of war hits home personally.

Sue Ann Lipsey of Memphis is thinking about getting her daughter home from Israel.

Lipsey’s daughter is studying in Israel and her mother, worried about an Iraqi retaliation, wants her on the next plane home if the United States attacks Saddam.

Still, Lipsey thinks Bush ought to be supported if action is deemed necessary.

“We should have taken care of it in 1991,” she said while attending the United Jewish Communities’ Lion of Judah women’s meeting in Washington on Monday.

That sense of inevitability with resolve is what many people have about the impending action against Iraq

In the teen lounge recently at the JCC of Omaha, Danny Morris, 17, was worried about the affect war with Iraq would have on the already weak economy.

“We might have to raise taxes to pay for war,” he said, “and pay for the rebuilding of Iraq’s infrastructure.

“The leaders in Iraq think that both Israel and America are ‘evil’ and ‘run by Jews,’ ” Morris said. “It’s easier for Iraq to hit Israel than America.”

That scares Omaha’s Kym Pitlor, also 17, but she added, “I don’t think we have a choice.”

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