When it comes to the Iraq war, U.S. Jews have followed much the same trajectory as their fellow Americans: solid support leading into the war, grave doubts about it now. What sets many Jews apart is how they factored Israel into both equations. In 2003, they felt gratitude that Saddam Hussein, one of Israel’s most implacable foes, had been removed, yet there are concerns now that a misconceived or mismanaged adventure has empowered another implacable foe of Israel, the Iranian theocracy.
“The only nation that seems to have benefited by our invasion of Iraq is Iran, which is a far greater threat to Israel than Iraq was,” said U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, (D-Nev.), a Jew and an outspoken pre-war proponent of invasion who feels President Bush deceived her.
Since the end of the war, Iran has established broad influence among Shi’ites in Iraq, and has come much closer to developing a nuclear weapons capacity that Iranian leaders hint might be used against Israel — a result, critics say, of neglect by a Bush administration obsessed with Iraq.
The perception in Washington is of a broad-based alliance between the pro-Israel community and the architects of the Iraq war, a perception that may have been reinforced by the support that some national Jewish groups evinced for the war.
Yet reliable polls demonstrate a profound turning away from the war among the general Jewish community.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that American Jewish leadership — which deals with the war on terrorism on a day-to-day basis — naturally was prone to be more aware of the importance of Iraq in that war.
“It’s not that the leadership doesn’t have reservations about particular actions,” Hoenlein said. “But it wasn’t just about the weapons of mass destruction. For those of us who deal every day with the issues, the war on terrorism is the defining issue of the 21st century, and the war in Iraq is part of that.”
Jewish opposition to the war is pronounced — 10 percentage points more than among the general population, according to some national polls — and likely plays a role in continued, solid Jewish support for Democrats, despite the unprecedented backing for Israel that President Bush has shown.
“I was considering voting for Bush when I thought being in Iraq was best for us and best for Israel,” said John Drill, 47, a building contractor in West Caldwell, N.J. “Then I thought it wasn’t best for us, but it was good for Israel. Now I’m convinced it’s not good for Israel.”
At the end of 2002, just months before the war, an American Jewish Committee poll found that 59 percent of U.S. Jews approved U.S. action against Iraq, while 36 percent disapproved. A year later, those numbers had flipped to 54 percent against and 43 in favor.
In the most recent AJCommittee poll, posted last month, 66 percent of American Jews surveyed disapproved, and 30 percent approved. General polling of Americans shows opposition to the war in the mid-50s.
“There are more people who are conflicted now, who want to remove themselves from support of the war,” Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., said of her congregation.
That’s a striking shift, she noted, given the number of military families at her temple. Schwartzman estimates that between six and ten congregants have been in active military service throughout the Iraq war.
A number of factors have played into the reversal, many of them common to other Americans: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the uneasy transition to Iraqi rule and the increasing casualties among both U.S. military personnel and Iraqi civilians.
But both before and after the war, the danger facing Israel was a particularly strong factor driving Jewish opinion.
“Most people spoke as Americans first, although many people saw it through the lens of Israel,” Schwartzman said of discussions among her temple members. “The question of whether we’re creating a more secure Middle East was important to them as it relates to Israel.”
It’s a worry Democrats are mining.
“Our friends in the Middle East, including most prominently Israel, have been placed in greater danger because of the policy blunders and sheer incompetence with which the civilian Pentagon officials have conducted this war,” former Vice President Al Gore told the liberal group Move-On in Washington on Monday.
It’s a message that resonates with some American Jews.
Eleanne Hattis, a self-described “hyperliberal” from New York, explains her brief support just after Saddam’s regime was ousted, and her opposition to it now, in terms of her closeness to Israel.
“When we went in it was so swift, I was relieved. I thought, ‘Thank God, it could have been much worse, maybe this could change the dynamic in the Middle East, Saddam being gone could be a shift to the better,’ ” said Hattis, 35, a marketing consultant.
Instead, she said, “it’s deteriorating rapidly, the world loathes Israel, the right wing conservatives’ alignment with Israel makes me cringe, and it drags us down further.”
Schwartzman, the Virginia rabbi, said other Jewish issues figured as well.
“We looked at some Jewish texts on pre-emptive strikes, we talked about Israel and its history of pre-emptive strikes, we know that pre-emptive strike is a legitimate concept in Jewish law,” she said. “But the question is, were the criteria met? Was Iraq truly a threat to America?”
Of course, Jews also were concerned about issues of concern to all Americans — especially the prospect that an overextended military might necessitate a return to a national draft, despite Bush administration assurances to the contrary.
“I never imagined I would have to think about my son going to a foreign war to fight,” said Stacy Ritter, 44, a Florida state representative who is Jewish. “This time when I go into the voting booth, I’m going to be thinking about my son.”
Such thinking is late but welcome, said Sue Niederer, 55, a substitute teacher from Pennington, N.J., who opposed the war from the outset. The dangers of the Iraq war were brought home to her on Feb. 3 when her son, Army Second Lt. Seth Dvorin, was killed trying to dismantle a bomb in Iraq.
“The Jewish people I know, we accept responsibility, we as an ethnic group don’t appreciate someone not taking responsibility for what they created,” she said, recalling High Holy Days injunctions to seek redemption for sins against God and fellow men.
Niederer made headlines last month when New Jersey state police arrested her for trespassing at a Laura Bush function. Niederer wore a T-shirt declaring “Mr. Bush, you killed my son,” and asked the First Lady why the first daughters were not serving if the war in Iraq was just.
Such views are the product of the reflexively liberal world view of most U.S. Jews, according to Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
“Jews are so liberal in some ways that they don’t understand their own interests,” he said.
The war on terrorism — a new type of war — can’t be wrapped up neatly and quickly, Neumann said.
“It’s not over yet. The war will go on for many decades,” Neumann said. “This Iraq war is everything the president said it was: It’s a war against terrorism. It’s not some guy in a foxhole, it’s seven or eight countries supporting terrorism.”
That’s a view that apparently continues to prevail among national Jewish groups, despite growing grassroots opposition. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been unstinting in supporting the war; in his speech to the AIPAC policy conference in May, Bush earned his biggest cheers when he mentioned Iraq.
In June, the American Jewish Committee awarded Australian Prime Minister John Howard its “Liberties Medallion,” in large part for his role in defying his own public’s opinion and allying with the United States in Iraq.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations never formally endorsed the war, but its daily e-mail bulletin to constituents often links to articles supporting the war.
Such expressions of support derive from a tradition of American Jewish deference to two governments: Jewish leaders reflexively heed the sitting Israeli government, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is glad to have the United States on board as an ally against Arab recalcitrance; and the Bush administration’s “with-us-or-against-us” posture on Iraq has cowed Jewish groups that value White House access.
Still, there are signs that Jewish organizational leaders are beginning to edge toward a degree of criticism. The Anti-Defamation League, which expressed its support for Bush administration policy before the war, said in May that it was “deeply troubled” by allegations of prisoner abuse by U.S. troops. So did the Reform movement and the National Council of Jewish Women.
Berkley, the Nevada representative, suggested that a sense of betrayal underlies the growing anger.
A former AIPAC board member, Berkley recalls asking Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney before the war how Israel would factor into any invasion plan.
“The vice president explained in great detail at that meeting in the White House that they knew exactly where the weapons of mass destruction were located in Iraq that were aimed at Israel, and he assured me that when we went in, those missiles would be the first that the United States takes out,” she said. “In retrospect, this administration had absolutely no idea what we were getting into.”
“They deceived themselves, and in doing so they deceived the rest of us,” she said.
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.