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Will Some Jews’ Backing for War in Iraq Have Repercussions for All?

June 11, 2004
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With each new report of troubles in Iraq, some Jews are getting nervous. Even though many Jews opposed the U.S. war in Iraq — and the organized Jewish community did not vocalize the strong support some had anticipated in the lead-up to the war — a few leading voices in Washington have portrayed the Jewish community as overwhelmingly in favor of toppling Saddam Hussein.

The fact that some of the strongest supporters for the war, both in and out of the Bush White House, are Jewish has led some to equate the political philosophy of neo-conservatism with support for Israel.

Now that the war has been beset by a series of scandals and setbacks, some Jewish leaders have expressed concern that Jews may be scapegoated this election year. Anti-war candidates and advocates already are suggesting that Jewish and pro-Israel voices led the country into war.

“Certainly, there is a significant portion of the American people who will buy! into this,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “It’s a warning to us and it’s certainly not something we can dismiss.”

The problematic characterizations of Jews have come from high places.

Last month, Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.) wrote in a newspaper column in his home state that he believed the Bush administration went to war to secure Israel and win Jewish votes. He followed the column with a speech on the Senate floor, chastising the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for its influence over Middle East policy.

A week later, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former presidential envoy in the Middle East, suggested in an interview with CBS News that hawks in the Bush administration backed the Iraq war in part to strengthen Israel, and named some prominent Jews in the administration as the plan’s key architects.

Even before the war began, Rep. James Moran ! (D-Va.) suggested that Jewish leaders were banging the war drums. Mora n was stripped of his leadership post in the Democratic caucus because of the comments.

This week, however, Moran handily triumphed over a challenger in a primary election, leading some Jewish officials to express concern that significant segments of the public don’t consider his charges outlandish.

He won the Democratic nomination for his district with 59 percent of the vote, defeating Andy Rosenberg, a Jewish lawyer.

“It does underscore the need not to be complacent about statements made by public figures that suggest scapegoats,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League.

Moran’s victory had more to do with his 14-year incumbency than with Israel, political analysts said. Additionally, the tendency to blame the war principally on supporters of Israel is confined mostly to the political fringe, Moran and Hollings notwithstanding.

Nonetheless, Jewish groups seek a quick retort when such comments enter the public record.

“W! e rely on the common sense and wisdom of the average American and other public officials to stand up and say, ‘This is nonsense, this is absurd,’ ” Hordes said.

Over the past year, Jewish views on the war have mirrored those of the general public.

Some Jews backed the war in Iraq, believing a change in regime in Baghdad would make Israel safer. Bush touted the goals of the war to AIPAC last month, winning rousing applause.

But many other Jews hesitated. Some feared Israel would be used as a scapegoat, while others believed the evidence against Saddam did not warrant military action.

Still others felt the war should not be carried out without a larger international coalition.

The Israeli government, which favored regime change, stayed quiet, not wanting to spark allegations that the war was being fought for Israel’s benefit.

No matter their view of the invasion, American Jewish officials want to debunk the idea that Jews fostered the war or that, if ! they supported it, benefit to Israel was a primary factor.

“I don’t think we’ve reached the critical mass of people believing these absurd statements,” Hordes said. “But statements like these need to be challenged, or they have the chance to seep into mainstream thinking.”

Many of the neo-conservatives who staunchly supported the war are Jewish, making it easier for detractors to claim they were motivated by their support for Israel.

In their public statements, both Hollings and Zinni named prominent neo-conservatives who are Jewish. Among those most often noted are Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense; Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board; and Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy.

The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a hawkish Jewish organization with close ties to U.S. military officials and a supporter of the war, is taking the initiative in explaining neo-conservatism — and separating it from any Jewish identification.

Tom Neumann, JINSA’s execut! ive director, points out that many of the neo-conservatives who pushed the Iraq war, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, are not Jewish.

“Neo-conservatism is a philosophy, not a theology,” Neumann said. “It doesn’t have to do with any religion.”

JINSA will hold a symposium this fall on the definition of a neo-conservative. Neumann describes it as someone who is formerly liberal and maintains liberal views on some issues, but has developed a stronger bent toward conservatism over time.

That could explain why many of the leading neo-conservatives are Jewish, Neumann says.

“Jews generally start off liberal, and through a process of maturation move to a more conservative position,” Neumann said. “You can’t be a neo-conservative if you were born a conservative.”

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