Ira Chernus  



Ira Chernus


Jews who support a U.S. war against Iraq should think again. If the war "goes bad," with too many U.S. casualties and not enough rapid victory, the finger of blame could well point at the U.S. Jewish community. That may be unfair, but fairness will hardly matter if it starts to happen. It could spell the end of the Jewish community’s free ride in this country. Smart Jews may want to think ahead.

In the past week, the issue of Jewish support for war has become a hot media issue. The immediate trigger was Virginia Congressman James Moran. He told a public forum that ``If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq we would not be doing this. … The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going." Republicans immediately cried anti-semitism. They saw it as Trent Lott payback time: If my racist must go, so must yours. Within a week, the nation’s ranking liberal, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, moved to end the controversy. She forced Moran to quit his post as Democratic House whip for the mid-Atlantic region.

Moran’s words were certainly inept. But there is no reason to believe they were anti-semitic. Moran himself says he only put it that way because he was responding to a questioner who identified herself as Jewish. If the questioner had been Catholic, he says, he would have blamed Catholics. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s just trying to cover his behind. In any event, Moran was offering a somewhat crude political analysis, not a racial slur.

His crude analysis is not terribly convincing. If the Jewish community were neutral and relatively silent about Iraq, the Bush administration would surely still be pressing just as hard for war. If the organized Jewish community took a very strong principled stand against war, it would surely strengthen the antiwar movement. But most of the national church organizations have come out against the war, and it’s not clear they’ve changed the direction of events. Why do people think the Jews could?

The answer lies partly in an old fantasy that Jews control the banks, the government, and just about every big institution you can think of. It was a common expression of anti-semitism among small, marginalized, disempowered people in this country in the early 20th century. It has not vanished by any means.

But there is no way to know how much the current belief in Jewish power reflects anti-semitism. In the last 30 years or so, it has also become a sober reading of reality in one respect. Jewish organizations now do have a disproportionate influence on the U.S. government, when it comes to Middle East policy.

Last week the New York Times gave one of its writers a chunk of the op-ed page to deny that "we are about to send a quarter of a million American soldiers to war for the sake of Israel." "The idea that this war is about Israel is persistent and more widely held than you may think," Bill Keller wrote.

The idea rests on far more than vague awareness of the power of the "Israel lobby." The smoking gun is a coterie of influential neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, who have long histories of promoting right-wing leaders and policies in Israel.

No one will ever know for sure whether these neo-cons (notably Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith) really promoted war with Iraq primarily to help Israel. It is not very likely, as Keller say. If a war in Iraq "goes bad," though, the truth will not matter. Americans will look for scapegoats, and the organized Jewish community may be near the head of the line.

It won’t be just the organizations who will be blamed; it will be "the Jews." That is certainly unfair. The organizations and their leaders are more conservative than the whole Jewish population, especially on Israel and the Middle East. While nearly all the leaders support a war in Iraq, polls show that 40% or more of U.S. Jews are hesitant, at best, about war. But the organizations and leaders always claim to speak for all American Jews. Why shouldn’t most American non-Jews believe them and assume all Jews are to blame?

These Jewish groups and leaders have struggled hard to gain their enormous influence on Middle East policy. They have largely achieved their aim. They, and the many Jews who do support them, have had a free ride. They wield great clout without any noticeable increase in anti-semitism. Here’s the irony. If we have the war they want, and it "goes bad," the Jewish community might pay a steep price in rising anti-semitism. Are U.S. Jews really willing to take this risk?

Congressman Moran was probably wrong. A major Jewish push against war, by itself, is not likely to stop war—especially since it would be resisted by Jewish leaders and Bush administration neo-cons who are pro-war. But Jews with common sense should make that push anyway. They should see that the price they might pay for this war is too high, especially when so little good is likely to come of it. They should quickly put as much distance as they can between themselves and those Jews who support the war.

Jews with sensitive moral conscience will not stop to calculate their chances of success. They will work against war because they know that thousands of Iraqis are sure to die. They know that Israel’s Jews will be directly at risk, too (though Israeli military intelligence foresees less risk this time around than during the 1991 Gulf War, since Iraq’s weaponry is far inferior now.) They should also know that, under cover of war, Israel may very well step up its actions against Palestinians.

Imagine a Jewish community where that kind of moral concern, all by itself, would be enough to turn all of us Jews against war. Imagine an American community where moral concern turns all of us against war. This season of debate about war gives us a golden opportunity to take a big step toward that kind of community.