Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2002, pages 77-78

Israel and Judaism

Agitation for Iraq War Again Raises Question: Who Really Speaks for American Jews?

By Allan C. Brownfeld

As the debate over whether or not the U.S. should launch a preemptive attack on Iraq heats up in the larger American society, a similar debate is under way within the organized American Jewish community.

Late in August, members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were polled by telephone to assess their views on a proposed attack on Iraq. Statements by the conference are supposed to reflect the consensus of its 52 member organizations, which run the range from Reform to Orthodox, and from strongly dovish to strongly hawkish on the Middle East.

The fact is, however, that conference chairman Mortimer Zuckerman already had started speaking out in behalf of war. In his capacity as editor of U.S. News and World Report, Zuckerman wrote an editorial in the Aug. 26/Sept. 2 edition of the magazine entitled “No Time For Equivocation.”

“The imperative for preemption of Saddam,” he wrote, “lies at the juncture of the man’s character and the nature of his weaponry...With determination, the objective of regime change in Iraq can be achieved...Iraq is ready for change, and—who knows—such change could be a harbinger of better tidings throughout the region. After all, does the world really need the dictators of Syria, the angry ayatollahs in Iran and the murderers of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas, and the Wahabbist fanatics of Saudi Arabia? Can’t we do better?”

Calling, in effect, for “regime change” throughout the Arab world, Zuckerman compared Saddam Hussain to Hitler, declaring that we “should not be constrained by concerns about a postwar strategy, what one commentator calls the ”˜and then what?’ thesis, namely, that the next stage after Saddam’s fall is too daunting. Nobody had a strategy for postwar Germany before Hitler was crushed. It was enough to say then, as it is now about Saddam, that removing him is far better than not.”

The repression of Saddam’s regime, stated Zuckerman, has not been “seen since Stalin.”

Some member groups of the Presidents Conference have been critical of the conference-sponsored “Daily Alert” Internet news site that they said presents a one-sided picture of the raging debate over the merits of an attack against Iraq by presenting a stream of pro-war articles with virtually no contrary voices. The site, critics said, seemingly puts the conference on record on a crucial policy matter that had not yet been brought to the members for discussion.

The professional head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hannah Rosenthal, criticized Zuckerman for his pro-war editorial, and Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of Arza/World Union, the Reform Zionist body, also questioned Zuckerman’s actions.

“JINSA has gone from a loose-knit-proto-group to a $1.4 million-a-year operation.”

Hirsch said Zuckerman had pledged before being elected conference chairman to avoid situations where his role as publisher would conflict with his chairmanship. The editorial was just such a situation, Hirsch said: “Iraq is certainly one of those issues that apply to the principle Mort Zuckerman articulated.”

In her criticism, Rosenthal referred to recent calls by some members of the conference, including Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, to democratize its decision-making. “At a time when the newspapers are questioning the consulting process of the conference, when we really don’t know what the consensus is on Iraq policy in this country and the Jewish community, the timing of the editorial is most unfortunate,” she said. “I’m really surprised he would do that.”

Rosenthal said the JCPA, which unites about a dozen national Jewish agencies along with 120 local Jewish community councils, has no official position on a war against Iraq.

Some Jewish groups are clearly in the forefront of those promoting a preemptive war against Iraq. Particularly vocal is the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Writing in The Nation of Sept. 2, Jason Vest noted that, “On no issue is the JINSA hard line more evident than in its relentless campaign for war—not just with Iraq, but ”˜total war,’ as Michael Ledeen, one of the most influential JINSAns in Washington, put it last year. For this crew, ”˜regime change’ by any means necessary in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority is an urgent imperative. Anyone who dissents—be it Colin Powell’s State Department, the CIA or career military officers—is committing heresy against articles of faith that effectively hold there is no difference between U.S. and Israeli national security interests, and that the only way to assure continued safety and prosperity for both countries is through hegemony in the Middle East...For example, the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board—chaired by JINSA adviser and former Reagan administration Defense Department official Richard Perle...recently made news by listening to a briefing that cast Saudi Arabia as an enemy to be brought to heel through a number of potential mechanisms, many of which mirror JINSA’s recommendations...”

JINSA was founded in 1976, wrote Vest, “by neoconservatives concerned that the U.S. might not be able to provide Israel with adequate military supplies in the event of another Arab-Israeli war...Over the past 25 years JINSA has gone from a loose-knit-proto-group to a $1.4 million-a-year operation with a formidable array of Washington power players on its rolls...JINSA relishes denouncing virtually any type of contact between the U.S. government and Syria and finding new ways to demonize the Palestinians. To give but one example ...According to JINSA, not only is Yasser Arafat in control of all violence in the occupied territories, but he orchestrates the violence solely ”˜to protect Saddam...Saddam is at the moment Arafat’s only real financial supporter...Arafat has no incentive to stop the violence against Israel and allow the West to turn its attention to his mentor and paymaster.’”

Bingo and Settlements

One of JINSA’s directors and contributors is Irving Moscowitz, the California bingo magnate, who also sends millions of dollars a year to far-right Israeli settler groups like Ateret Cohanim and has funded the construction of settlements, having bought land for development in key Arab areas around Jerusalem. Moscowitz helped to finance the 1996 opening of a tunnel under the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which resulted in 70 deaths due to rioting.

In the case of the Presidents Conference, critics of its “Daily Alert” Web site of selected daily news links that is also sent as an e-mail, say that of the nearly 20 articles from Aug. 14-20 discussing a military strike, only one raises concerns about stepping into battle. The vast majority either call for attacks or detail the dangers posed by Saddam.

“”˜Daily Alert’ is flawed,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now. “It does not cover multiple perspectives on the issue...”

Ammiel Hirsch faulted the conference for not linking to the site articles by those who broke ranks with President George W. Bush over Iraq, including a much-talked-about Wall Street Journal article by Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush. “That article should’ve been there,” Hirsch said. “There is merit to the observation that there is an imbalance and a worldview subtly emphasized.”

While the leaders of the Presidents Conference, JINSA and some other Jewish groups may be promoting war with Iraq, there is no evidence that they speak for anyone but themselves. Declared the widely read Jewish newspaper The Forward in its Aug. 23 edition: “An American attack isn’t necessarily wise. It could splinter Iraq, vastly strengthen Iran and cripple Turkey. Worse, it could bring a catastrophic attack on Israel, leaving thousands dead and inviting an Israeli reply that might spell nuclear winter. Would that make the world a better place?” 


The Forward pointed out that, “War hawks point to Munich 1938, when the free world faced a tyrant and blinked. But Hitler was explicitly bent on conquering the world and eradicating entire populations, and as head of a great industrial power he had the means to do so. Saddam is more like Stalin circa 1946, a corrupt thug terrorizing the cowed population of a backward nation. After defeating Hitler, the West looked east and properly decided Stalin was best contained, not crushed. That was the approach the Clinton administration took in 1993 with its ”˜dual containment’ policy—albeit inadequately enforced—toward Iraq and Iran. If there’s now a case for abandoning patience and risking world cataclysm, we’re waiting to hear it. So is the rest of the world, beginning with our European allies and the moderate Arab states. They have at least as much at stake as we do in stabilizing the Middle East and avoiding nuclear Armageddon.”

Unmandated Speech

The Presidents Conference repeatedly speaks in the name of American Jews on a variety of issues—almost all political—for which it has no mandate to do so.

Early in July, for example, the conference issued a statement justifying the Israeli police closure of the office of Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Jerusalem and president of Al Quds University. The closure, ordered by Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau, a leader of the Likud right wing, stirred up a storm of protest from the Israeli center and left.

The statement by the conference, entitled, “Facts About Nusseibeh Belie Image,” was issued by chairman Mortimer Zuckerman and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.

Several liberal Jewish groups complained that the 52-member conference has effectively aligned itself with the most right-wing elements of the Israeli cabinet by challenging the moderate reputation of Nusseibeh, who recently organized a petition against suicide bombings and has called for Palestinians to renounce the right of return to Israel. Leaders of other member groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and Arza/World Union, slammed conference leaders for failing to secure a consensus before issuing the statement.

Israel’s opposition leader, Meretz Party head Yossi Sarad, complained that the conference’s Web site contained an anti-Nusseibeh quote that was falsely attributed to him. “Nusseibeh is a personal friend of mine,” Sarad said. “He is the most moderate, courageous leader in the Palestinian camp. I’m furious and provoked by the Presidents Conference. They didn’t ask me about it.”

A dispute also arose over Hoenlein’s claim that, during a July 12 meeting with conference leaders, Israeli cabinet minister Matan Vilnai “justified” the closure of Nusseibeh’s offices. Several people who asked not to be identified said that during the meeting Vilnai, a former Israeli deputy chief of staff, did not justify the closure but, in fact, criticized it.

The Labor Zionist Alliance, the National Committee for Labor Israel, and Americans for Peace Now all strongly criticized conference leaders for what they described as an attempt to discredit Nusseibeh. A letter from the Labor Zionist Alliance and Americans for Peace Now accused the conference of ignoring Nusseibeh’s moderate record, thereby serving “the factional interests of the most extreme elements of Israel’s cabinet.”

Stated Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Committee for Labor Israel: “There are some elements among Israeli leadership who really don’t want to see a viable Palestinian state. I think the closure of the office is merely one example of that mode of thinking.”

Americans for Peace Now executive director Lewis Roth said that the office’s closure and the conference statement are both “a desperate attempt by people on the far right in Israel and the U.S. to undercut any attempt or possibility of Israel and Palestinians getting back to the negotiating table by attempting to discredit someone who is perhaps the most moderate of all Palestinian leaders.”

In the end, the White House criticized Israel’s closing of the Palestinian office, calling it a “troubling event” that “does not contribute” to peace or the Palestinian reforms the president has called for. Israel finally reached a face-saving compromise with Nusseibeh to allow him to reopen his office.

A former chairman of the Presidents Conference, Theodore Mann, now calls for its elimination. “It needs to be abolished,” he said. “Since its beginning the Presidents Conference has resisted the adoption of bylaws and a fixed process by which the chairman is nominated. For that matter, it has eschewed most attributes which reflect a democratic structure...Where there is no consensus among Jewish organizations, there is no need for the Presidents Conference.”

A Silent Jewish Majority

There is a silent Jewish majority which is not represented by the established organizations which speak in their name. To the question, “Who speaks for American Jews?” one certain answer is that those who claim to do so may be farthest from expressing the real views and values of American Jews, the majority of whom seem to favor positions which are at variance with those promoted in their name.

Judaism, the leaders of these organizations seem to forget, is a religion of universal values—not a political enterprise. The Jewish idea of God and of morals and ethics represents one of the great advances in human history. Other monotheistic religions—Christianity and Islam—emerged from Jewish roots. To transform Judaism into a political pressure group is to empty it of its larger meaning. The greatest threat to Judaism may well be from the very groups and self-proclaimed “leaders” who persist in narrowing and trivializing it to the degree that idealistic men and women will look elsewhere for their moral grounding and their spiritual needs. 


Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

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