Nathan Guttman: Between Iraq and a Hard Place
Why is America’s strongest faith-based bloc that opposes the war—the Jewish community—sitting this conflict out?
From the front lines of the civil-rights movement through the Vietnam War protests and up to the campaign to stop genocide in Darfur, American Jews have never been shy about forming opinions, fighting for them, and even being arrested and harassed for voicing them in protest. So why were there so few placards representing Jewish groups floating above the thousands of antiwar protesters who marched on the Pentagon in March to mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War? And why were Jewish groups also absent a month earlier, when tens of thousands gathered on the National Mall to call for an immediate pullout from Iraq?
It might seem natural for any religious or ethnic group to sit out the Iraq debate, since religious, ethnic and communal considerations hardly play a central role. But recent surveys show that American Jews, more than any religious community measured, are of a single mind on the war.
A Gallup Poll published in March revealed that 77 percent of American Jews believe invading Iraq was a mistake. Compare this with Catholics, who are divided nearly down the middle with a slight majority opposing the war. Similarly, Protestants are split almost evenly, with a small edge for supporters of the war. As a group, the poll showed, only Mormons enthusiastically believe that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do.
So Jews might be expected, as in the Selma march of 1967 and in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic Convention, to be marching in lockstep with their fellow opponents of the war. Yet, up to now, the only major Jewish group to take a stand has been the Reform Movement, which in mid-March passed a resolution rejecting the administration’s troop surge and calling for a timetable for withdrawal. As the largest synagogue group in the United States, the Union of Reform Judaism represents more than a million members. Its decision to come out against the war constitutes a major move for the organized Jewish community, but it also highlights the silence of all other Jewish groups and individuals.
Why, then, is America’s strongest faith-based bloc that opposes the war—the Jewish community—sitting this one out? One obvious reason is many Jews’ discomfort with the antiwar movement. Some of the most vocal organizers of the protests—most notably the Act Now to Stop the War and End Racism (ANSWER) coalition—have tied their call for ending the American presence in Iraq to a demand to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. For many in the Jewish community, the idea of marching on the Pentagon under banners accusing Israel of war crimes does not seem all that appealing.
Another possible explanation for Jewish reluctance to come out against the war is a theory that Jews pushed the United States into Iraq in the first place. Their purpose, the theory holds, was to serve the interests of Israel, not of the United States. The fact that these notions are still around—maybe even gaining momentum—a full four years after the war might further silence Jews. Many may be concerned that raising the community’s profile in public stands against Iraq will only bring this old canard nearer to the surface.
But anyone looking for the main reason Jews are holding back on Iraq should take a close look at the recent annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby. Every year, the administration trots out one of its highest officials to address delegates to this lobbying powerhouse. This year it was Vice President Dick Cheney. But instead of giving the usual “America is Israel’s closest ally” speech, Cheney chose to talk about Iraq, telling the Jewish crowd that support for the war is important.
Important enough for Cheney to pull out the administration’s major trump card for raising fear among Jews: If a quick troop withdrawal is forced on the Pentagon, Cheney said, it will seriously undermine U.S. efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat.
For the Jewish community, whose primary foreign-policy focus in recent years has been countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Cheney’s message sent an alarming signal. If protecting the free world from a nuclear Iran means supporting the administration on Iraq, maybe it is a price worth paying. This dilemma was reinforced hours after Cheney’s speech, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a satellite speech from Jerusalem, warned AIPAC conferees that “premature” withdrawal from Iraq would harm Israelsecurity interests.
Cheney’s and Olmert’s tandem appeals to the community have left American Jews in a more complicated situation than ever. Coming out against the war at this stage would appear to defy the will of the Israeli government while also hurting U.S. efforts to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Yet, if anything, the administration’s gambit makes it even more dangerous, politically, for Jews to remain silent about the war they oppose. If the Jewish community—following Dick Cheney’s logic—switches to supporting the war, or even muffles its opposition, it risks validating one of the worst accusations against American Jews: that they care more about Israel’s well-being than that of their own country.
Nathan Guttman is Washington bureau chief for The Forward and previously for Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post. He has covered U.S.-Israel relations and the Middle East peace process since the early ’90s.