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Crisis in Iraq As Jewish Groups Brace for War, Security and Policy Top the Agenda

March 19, 2003
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When Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv at the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War, David Harris was there.

“We did not want Israel to face Iraqi Scud missile attacks alone,” said the executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Now, though he does not know what’s in store for Israel as U.S. forces return to battle against Iraq, Harris plans to be back in Tel Aviv next week, leading a small contingent of his group’s leaders as a show of support for the Jewish state.

Harris is one of many in the Jewish community returning to familiar roles, as the Jewish world again joins the rest of America in gearing up for war.

Jewish organizations are engaged in intense planning for everything from security measures to policy statements — to how to talk to children about war.

In part, they are relying on how they handled the 1991 war and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as guides for what they will do and say — and not say — in the weeks and months ahead.

By the same token, times have changed, requiring new thinking and strategy to deal with the yet-unknown, organizational leaders say.

Some of the changes are obvious, such as the ubiquity of e-mail in aiding the communications process.

Others are more substantial, including having to deal with the post-Sept. 11 threat of terrorist attacks on American soil and against Israel and Jewish institutions.

In his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on Monday that he go into exile or face military action, President Bush alluded to the threat of attacks.

“In desperation, he and terrorists groups might try to conduct terrorist operations against the American people and our friends,” Bush said. “These attacks are not inevitable. They are, however, possible. And this very fact underscores the reason we cannot live under the threat of blackmail.”

As the nation went on high alert again this week, there were no new specific warnings to Jewish institutions. Most Jewish facilities already bolstered their security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Still, several national Jewish groups, which take their cues from law enforcement, are informing their constituents to review and maintain security measures.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York issued a security alert Tuesday morning, reminding its constituent agencies to be vigilant.

Referring to Osama bin Laden’s fatwa, or religious edict, against “Jews and Crusaders,” David Pollock, associate executive director of the New York JCRC, said there’s “no reason to believe that there’s anything that has changed his mind.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is coordinating an emergency alert system for its member organizations.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said war could elicit attacks by Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah as well.

And the Anti-Defamation League rushed out an advanced edition of its manual, Keeping Your Jewish Institution Safe, in response to anxiety by Jewish communities around the country.

As they strategize over policy during war, Jewish leaders are reviewing what they said and did in 1991, and how it can be improved this time around.

“We had processes in place in ’91,” Hoenlein said. “We had constant consultation, were convening regularly and we had regular communication.”

Conference calls and emergency meetings are expected to coordinate the messages that emerge from the organized Jewish community again. The goal is to form a consensus, but little has been decided in advance because of the belief that developments will dictate the response.

While many Jewish leaders support the goal of regime change in Iraq, the Jewish people in the United States are divided, with many having participated in anti-war rallies over the past few months. That makes it even harder for the Jewish community to give a statement.

“Our job is to try and find the consensus, the common denominator and not meander into territory that is divisive,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

At the same time, there is concern about being out in front on the war.

“There are concerns about the Jewish community speaking out, being highly visible,” Hoenlein said.

As in 1991, Jewish leaders are apprehensive that military action against Iraq is being perceived as being done for the benefit of Israel. The goal, leaders say, is to express support for American troops and a peaceful conclusion, but without giving the impression that the Jewish community is embracing military action.

But not everyone believes Jews should be so cautious.

“There’s always the question of should one keep silent,” said Abraham Foxman, national director for the Anti-Defamation League. “We as Jews don’t have that luxury.”

And new comments by conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan have reawakened discussions of what he called a U.S. “amen corner,” claiming Jewish neoconservative leaders with influence in the White House have pushed for the war to help Israel.

American Jewish groups want their support to be seen from an American standpoint, not a Jewish one.

“I don’t think the fact that we are Jews should mandate one way or another on how we react to war,” Foxman said. “It’s a moral issue.”

Meanwhile, the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have been distributing talking points to local federations and Jewish groups, outlining what local Jewish leaders might say when faced with different questions.

The talking points stress that the Iraq war has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that Israel has a right to defend itself if attacked and that the Jewish community hopes that military action will lead to democracy in the region.

For its part, UJC is ready to implement a response room, staffed around the clock, to aid communal members who want to know more about the latest developments in the war. It will also be used for crisis communication.

“Any type of emergency that occurs will require communication by the national office and facilitation of responsibilities by organizations across the nation,” said Glenn Rosenkrantz, UJC’s director of media affairs.

That includes if Israel is attacked.

“If, God forbid, Israel is involved in this, the Jewish community must be in a position to speak out and take effective action,” said Raffel of the JCPA.

Among the other issues Jewish leaders will be watching for is a resurgence of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some Jews are concerned that Israel could be forced to make concessions by the United States, in order to garner support for the war in the European and Arab worlds.

Bush’s address last Friday — in which he said the “road map” for peace would be distributed to the parties after a Palestinian prime minister with real authority was confirmed — raised eyebrows among some Jewish leaders because of its timing, just days before the deadline in Iraq.

On the grass-roots level, synagogue leaders are preparing for questions that will inevitably come from their own congregations.

Many religious organizations have distributed suggested prayers that synagogues can recite for the American troops, for Israel and for peace.

“This is a time of stress and anxiety for all Americans,” said Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, director of program for the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “The congregations need to be the framework for handling that stress.”

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has distributed guidelines for how Jewish schools should help children face the Iraq crisis.

Among the tips: reminding children that while some soldiers are killed, many others return to their families. It also recommends allowing children to express their feelings and being on the lookout for signs of stress.

Adults will need to be taught too, congregational leaders say.

“We’re talking to our congregants about the emotional and physical responses to terror,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. “It’s all squared by imminent war.”

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