While President Bush was laying down the gauntlet to Saddam Hussein, giving him 48 hours to choose between peace and war, the streets here were marked by drunken celebration.
Emerald-clad St. Patrick’s Day celebrants and costumed Purim party-goers masked the general anxiety of impending war Monday night as the government’s Department of Homeland Security upped its terror gauge to high alert.
New Yorkers at packed Purim parties guarded by security said Jewish events and institutions would be likely targets in case of terrorist attack.
But the revelers said they were just as concerned about their safety anywhere in New York, listing the subway, major bridges and tunnels as flashpoints of anxiety.
“I don’t feel nervous being Jewish. I feel nervous being a New Yorker,” said Karen Sinai, 25, at a Chabad-Lubavitch Purim party on the top floor of a Manhattan building.
New York lacks the sirens and shelters that Israel has in place for emergencies, the law student said, and its island status makes evacuation difficult.
“I feel vulnerable here,” Sinai said.
On the eve of war, Jewish communities around the country expressed emotions ranging from fear for personal security to fear for Israel’s security to finding security in God.
Some were determined to keep war and its accompanying anxiety from interfering with their lives. Others found relief that war apparently was about to begin after months of anticipation. Still others stepped up their anti-war activities.
In Marietta, Ga., Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim welcomed the fact that a decision about whether or not to go to war appeared to have been taken.
“The indecision and the waffling and the interminable compromising and discussions and negotiation have been wearying,” he said. “It’s kind of like extended foreplay.”
Though intensified talk of war is causing anxiety in his community, the time has come to “pick a path,” he said.
For many American Jews, war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is the right move.
“I’m totally fine with” Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum, said Danielle Izsak, 34, of San Francisco. “Everyone’s gonna hate me, but how long has it been? Let’s get some action. I’m anti-war, but because my father was in the military, I understand that some actions needed to be taken to achieve results. Saddam is not taking this seriously.”
Jacob Tanz, interviewed in the social hall of Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, Calif., made a similar point.
“I think this war is justified,” he said. “We need to get rid of Saddam. We missed the opportunity 12 years ago.”
Rabbi Murray Berger, a chaplain, soldier and president of the Dallas Rabbinical Association, says he was in Israel when the 1991 Persian Gulf War broke out.
“As much as I’m a peaceful person, as is the Jewish community, there are times if you are being threatened, you must face the foe. If you don”t, you will be annihilated or enslaved,” Berger said.
Berger says America’s status as a real world power carries certain responsibilities.
“There are ethics involved with being a power,” he said, “and just as it is immoral to abuse power, it is immoral not to use power for the good of humanity.”
“President Bush is definitely doing the right thing,” said Felix Nacht of South Euclid, Ohio, who recalled the horrors of World War II, when he fled to Shanghai during the Holocaust.
Saddam is “like Hitler, is a danger to the whole world,” he said. “As Jews we have learned during our long history that evil triumphs when good men do nothing.”
But not everyone is so sure.
Deb Mason, a student government member at Ohio State University, said that the likelihood of war has shaken many students out of their customary political apathy.
“As students we know that if anything happens, it’s our friends going,” said Mason, who was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at a bar Monday night. “When President Bush came on the television, everyone in the whole bar got silent. It was just chilling.”
Zvika Rimalt, an Israeli living in San Francisco, also said the situation was more complex than many people might realize.
“The United States is going to get itself into so much trouble that we’ll see the repercussions for years to come,” said Rimalt, 32. “I’m afraid it will be a disaster bigger than Vietnam. The Israeli occupation of Lebanon will look like nothing compared to the American occupation of Iraq. I’m afraid America is going to learn a very painful lesson about the limits of power.”
Many Jews think Saddam’s overthrow will benefit Israel.
“Saddam is a danger to America, but an even more imminent threat to Israel. His mind is as scary as Hitler’s,” said Oscar Stein, an army veteran in Los Angeles.
But others see the possible effect on Israel differently.
“I’m fearful for what’s going to happen to Israel and the Israeli people,” said Phil Hankin of Oakland, Calif. “I have a number of relatives and friends there, and this is kind of frightening. They all have their safe rooms and their supplies.”
But Tanz said he is “more worried about Palestinian suicide bombers than about Saddam.”
Some were concerned about Bush’s strategy.
“I can understand Bush’s goal of removing Saddam, but I can’t fathom the process in which he dissipated the good will toward the United States in a very short time,” said Gerald Bubis, a Peace Now activist in Los Angeles. “I am greatly concerned what his action will do to the future of the United States, NATO and our relations with the European Union.”
Peter Haas, director of the Case Western Reserve University Judaic studies program in Cleveland, also doubted Bush’s long-term vision.
“Whether getting rid of Saddam Hussein and remaking the Middle East is a viable proposition is something I am really unsure of,” he said.
Meanwhile, The Shalom Center in Philadelphia has compiled about 175 signatures for a last-ditch, Jewish anti-war ad that was slated to appear on a full page of The New York Times on Thursday.
Titled “Why Jews Should Oppose War in Iraq,” the ad cites a Torah passage to pursue justice. The ad also warns that war will “kill innocent Iraqis by the thousands” along with “countless American soldiers,” and will “subject Americans, Israelis and civilians of many other nations to the danger of hellish terrorist reprisals.”
With a decision on war falling on Purim, many Jews interpreted the holiday to fit their ideology.
Lorne Needle, 36, of San Francisco alluded to the holiday in making her case against war.
“Part of the reason to celebrate Purim is that we’re alive, and the great majority of the Iraqi people just want to live too,” Needle said.
In New York, Rabbi Yisroel Stone, 28, said the Megillah’s message was Jewish empowerment.
“If we’re connected to God and we’re connected to the Torah,” he said, “we have nothing to fear.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.