Analysis: Jewish silence on Iraq continues

Congressional Democrats and President Bush are on a collision course over plans to increase the number of U.S. troops in the conflict, an issue that will dominate the 110th Congress and the early days of the 2008 presidential race.

But don’t look for much of a response from the organized Jewish community.

The reasons normally talkative Jewish groups have been struck dumb are varied. But one potential consequence is becoming clearer by the day: Israel, smack in the middle of a destabilized Middle East, could pay a big price for U.S. failures in the war — and for the failure of Jewish leaders here to speak out against those policies.

There’s never been doubt about where the Jewish grass-roots has stood on the war. Even before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, polls showed majority opposition to military action in Iraq, and that opposition has only grown since Saddam Hussein was toppled and Iraq began its sickening descent into civil war and sectarian mayhem.

But no major Jewish group spoke out against Bush administration policy until November 2005, when the Union for Reform Judaism passed a cautiously worded resolution calling for troop pullouts to begin a month later and for a clear exit strategy by an administration that didn’t seem to think it needed one.

Even in the Reform movement, though, activism lagged, reflecting the nation as a whole; despite widespread doubts about administration policy, the antiwar movement failed to gain traction in Middle America.

In part, that was a function of the inability of war opponents to offer plausible policy alternatives. And the antiwar movement seemed dominated by radical forces with other agendas, including the neo-Stalinist, anti-Israel International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism).
Among Jewish leaders, there was also uncertainty about where Israel’s leaders stood on the war.

In 2003, some Israeli officials privately expressed qualms that a U.S. invasion could create new fault lines in the region. But others insisted the removal of Saddam would only help Israel, and last November Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Washington and said that U.S. policy is bringing “stability” to the region — despite U.S. intelligence estimates saying just the opposite.

The administration boxed Jewish leaders in by repeatedly saying the war was being fought, in part, to protect Israel. Jewish leaders here never bought that argument — but it made it harder for them to publicly challenge the policies of an administration that said it wanted to help Israel.

Some Jewish leaders also feared that criticizing an embattled Bush could cool his pro-Israel ardor and lead to retaliation against the Jewish state.

For all those reasons and more, Jewish groups, with the exception of the Reform movement, have remained mute. But with the debate over the war moving into a new phase as the new Democratic Congress looks for ways to force a change in administration Iraq policy, that silence has created problems on two levels.

At home, it has strained relations between Jewish groups and their traditional liberal coalition partners, which see Iraq as the seminal issue of our era.

The fact that a large majority of Jews opposes the war but their communal representatives refuse to speak out may accelerate the estrangement of so many from organized Jewish life, especially among younger Jews.

And that reticence can only reinforce the false charge that Israel and the Jewish community actively lobbied for the war, a conspiratorial perspective that is gaining traction in the political mainstream as the Iraq death toll mounts.

The refusal of even liberal groups to speak out may also be setting the Jewish community up for a worse backlash if President Bush decides to pursue military action against Iran.

On the broader world stage, the eerie silence, viewed by some as a way to protect Israel, may actually have the opposite effect by encouraging policies that threaten the Jewish state.

As last year’s National Intelligence Estimate revealed, U.S. policy in the war is increasing Mideast stability, breeding new terrorism and strengthening Iran, Israel’s most dangerous adversary.

“We’ve already gravely damaged Israel’s security; the war has done that,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the strongest House opponents of administration policy and a leading pro-Israel voice in Congress. “We took away the balance of power in the region, liberated Iran to be an even greater menace.”

Privately, some top Jewish leaders concede that even if going to war with Iraq was a good idea, the way it has been conducted has resulted in a more dangerous Middle East. But these leaders refuse to speak out, even though their silence is, in effect, a de facto endorsement of administration policies that may be hurting the Jewish state.

That silence may also be read by a besieged administration as support for U.S. military action against Iran — action that could be even more damaging to Israel if it turns out as badly as the war in Iraq.