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Jews in France, Germany Divided on Need for U.S. Action Against Iraq

February 26, 2003
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While opposition to a U.S.-led war on Iraq is widespread in France and Germany, Jewish leaders in the two countries have bucked the trend by coming out in favor of an attack.

Among the Jewish rank-and-file, however, support is less clear.

Indeed, some Jews in the two countries that have been leading opposition to a war fear that a U.S. attack could lead to an anti-Semitic backlash.

In France, it’s increasingly rare to find voices from any side of the political spectrum supporting an attack on Iraq.

So when the president of CRIF, the umbrella organization for secular Jewish institutions in France, told guests at the group’s recent annual dinner that France should play an active role in bringing down Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, some felt he had placed the community in a difficult position.

Public opposition to the war currently runs at around 90 percent in France, according to recent polls.

Just the same, CRIF President Roger Cukierman told dinner guests — who included French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin — that the French government should “lead a victorious battle against fanaticism.”

“Those who fear that fighting terrorism places our freedoms in jeopardy are missing the mark, as Daladier and Chamberlain once did,” Cukierman said, referring to the policy of appeasement pursued by the French and British governments toward Nazi Germany before World War II.

Cukierman’s pro-war viewpoint was echoed in an editorial appearing in the French Jewish weekly Actualite Juive.

Editor Serge Benattar said in the editorial that while he feared for the war’s effects on Israel, it was vital to get rid of Saddam, who has been “the only Arab leader to have succeeded in firing missiles on Tel Aviv.”

Moreover, if the Iraqi leader is not disarmed at the earliest opportunity, “Jerusalem would probably be his next target,” Benattar wrote.

He was therefore in support of military action, “though I dislike it and I fear it, but I deny the right of anyone to brand me a warmonger.”

Within the same paper, however, there were other articles opposing military action.

Among France’s 500,000 Jews, meanwhile, the principal reaction is worry.

Anti-Semitic attacks, which soared early in 2002, have fallen sharply in recent months — but French Jews fear they’ll increase again if the United States invades Iraq.

Given the anti-war atmosphere in France, the first targets of those opposed to the war may be those seen as supportive of the United States.

Standing just yards away from a huge anti-war poster above city hall in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, Michel Golstein told JTA he wasn’t convinced that war was necessary — but that if it did come, it would be difficult for French Jews.

“I’m not convinced Saddam is a real threat to the world like bin Laden, and the U.S. is probably only pursuing him because of the oil,” Golstein said.

“But this war is going to be seen by all Muslims in France as a war against Arabs, and by others as a war for Israel,” he said. “That makes me very scared of what might happen here if there’s a war.”

In Germany, as in France, Jewish leaders have spoken out in favor of an attack on Iraq.

But their constituents, some 100,000 Jews, are not so sure.

The Judische Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s main Jewish newspaper, conducted a poll of 30 Jews in several cities and found a 50-50 split between those for and against war. Among the general German population, 70 percent oppose war on Iraq.

Among Jews who spoke with JTA, most agreed that German Jewish leaders should speak their minds on any matter related to Jewish life in Germany and the security of Israel.

But some said they disagreed strongly with the pro-war position taken by Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who recently equated the need for action against Iraq with Allied military steps against the Nazis.

“Jewish leaders should not mix too much into international politics, but concentrate on the needs of the communities,” said Rabbi Walter Rothschild of Berlin, who said he thought war might be the only answer in Iraq.

But if Jewish communities feel threatened as a result of international tensions surrounding the war question, he added, “then this becomes a legitimate topic for comment and, if necessary, lobbying.”

Gudrun Wilhelmy, 52, of Berlin, who opposes war, supported the right and duty of leaders and others to express their views.

“I want to read the wide spectrum of opinions, to think about my own opinion,” she said.

Several people said they thought war was necessary, but feared it would fail.

“I don’t believe that disarmament can be achieved in any other way than war,” said Sigmount Konigsberg, 42. “But I doubt that the U.S. army will be successful” because it has less international support today than during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Richard Chaim Schneider, 46, a Munich-based journalist, thought “the U.S. is right concerning the danger Saddam Hussein poses.”

But, he added, “I’m afraid that the U.S. will not succeed with their goals of ‘bringing democracy’ to Iraq — if these are their real goals.”

Some said they were disturbed by what they saw as an anti-American, anti-Israel tone in recent peace demonstrations.

“In Berlin and other towns, we were able to see the banners: ‘Fight Imperialism — Fight Zionism.’ That can’t be right,” said student Chaim Guski, 25.

Such sentiments are “a shocking new reality in Germany,” said Uriel Kashi, 27, president of the Federal Union of Jewish Students in Germany, who reluctantly supports a war to bring democracy to the Middle East.

Andreas Nachama, 51, a historian and former president of the Berlin Jewish Community, did not join in a recent peace demonstration because “it was primarily anti-American and not against violence of all kinds, or for disarmament.”

He criticized German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for “using pacifism to sell a new German populism, in the form of a German national political identity.”

Writer Erica Fischer, 60, joined the recent Berlin peace demonstration because she believes the United States is “bombing Iraq in order to secure its access to the oil sources of the Gulf and its geopolitical hegemony in the region.”

Evelyn Bartolmai of Berlin also demonstrated against the war.

“There are enough weapons of mass destruction and dictators and injustice against people in the world, about which Mr. Bush is doing nothing,” she said.

Jael Geis, a 55-year-old historian in Berlin, said she would “rather support those who try to use political means” rather than war to bring about change.

“To me, one conclusion from Judaism and from the Shoah is human rights first,” she said. “As the word implies, human rights are for everybody.”

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