Whose War?

A friend of mine opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. He predicted it would lead to a deadly morass; that it would create more terror and more terrorists; that President George W. Bush had neither the moral or mental gravitas to prosecute such a war. Over the weekend, he asked me if it was true that the Jews were behind the war. I looked at him dumbfounded. After all, he is Jewish.

In the months leading up to the war, polls showed that American Jews supported it in the same percentages as other Americans. Recent polls have shown a majority of Jews dissatisfied with the way the president has handled it.

But so many pundits and analysts are going around blaming Jews or people-who-happen-to-be-Jewish for the war, you’d think it was downloaded directly from www.eldersofzion.com. No wonder my friend is confused.

This month, the chorus of voices blaming the Jews got a significant lead singer, retired Marine general and former Middle East mediator Anthony Zinni.

In interviews with "60 Minutes II" and elsewhere, Zinni blamed the war on neo-conservatives within the administration who saw the invasion of Iraq as a way to stabilize American interests in the region and strengthen the position of Israel. They include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith; Former Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle and other. These political ideologues, in Zinni’s words, hijacked American policy in Iraq.

This charge is older than the war. But what makes it "60 Minutes"-worthy is who is saying it. Zinni is a former chief of the U.S. Central Command, in charge of all American troops in the Middle East. A Republican and a former Bush supporter, he served as the president’s special Middle East envoy in the winter of 2002 and 2003. In the gathering storm of former Bush supporters now turned critical of the president’s Mideast policy — former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neil, and, um, current Secretary of State Colin Powell — Zinni was as close to the eye of the storm as any of them.

Here’s what Zinni said: "I think it’s the worst-kept secret in Washington. That everybody — everybody I talk to in Washington — has known and fully knows what their [the neo-conservative’s] agenda was and what they were trying to do…. And one article, because I mentioned the neo-conservatives who describe themselves as neo-conservatives, I was called anti-Semitic. I mean, you know, unbelievable that that’s the kind of personal attacks that are run when you criticize a strategy and those who propose it. I certainly didn’t criticize who they were. I certainly don’t know what their ethnic religious backgrounds are. And I’m not interested…. I know what strategy they promoted. And openly. And for a number of years. And what they have convinced the president and the secretary to do. And I don’t believe there is any serious political leader, military leader, diplomat in Washington that doesn’t know where it came from."

Zinni believes he can say such things and not feed the fantasies of conspiracy kooks. But Jews cannot hear such things and believe the anti-semites don’t lap them up.

Obviously sensitive to the charges, Zinni can do more to lessen their anti-Semitic appeal. Here’s how:

•Hold the leaders, not a group of their advisers, responsible. Bush, Cheney and Powell led the nation into war. Whether you agree with the intent or accept the outcome, responsibility rests with these men. On this anniversary of the D-Day invasion, it’s useful to remember Supreme Allied Commander’s Dwight Eisenhower’s last act on the eve of the invasion: he penned a note in which he took full responsibility should the operation fail. In this administration, the idea of such a note, much less the note itself, is passed about like a hot potato.

•Address the Israel issue head on, and fairly. If you want to point fingers at the neo-cons within the Bush administration — and they are fair game –then don’t pretend it doesn’t matter that they many are Jewish, and that they are fierce supporters of a safe and secure Israel. But to say that getting rid of Saddam in order to secure Israel was their chief motive, or even among their top three, is insupportable. The international community had long established Saddam as a regional threat. Sept. 11 was a reminder of how vulnerable America could be to internal attack. And the neo-cons believed U.S. military action could spur positive reform in the Arab world. Agree or disagree with any or all of these assumptions, but Israel doesn’t figure into them. Bob Woodward’s book "Bush at War" (Simon & Schuster, 2003) makes clear that Saddam had long been in the president and vice president’s sights for reasons that had little or nothing to do with Israel.

•There are Jews, and there are Jews. Understand that the media, especially the international media, by now translate neo-con as "Jew." Face it, and address it. Be clear that you are not speaking of a Jewish cabal, and that, in fact, most Jews oppose the president’s handling of the war. Jews were among the war’s most vociferous critics at the start. If the war were wildly popular, no doubt The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, playwright Tony Kushner, and essayist Susan Sontag would be accused of forming a "Jewish cabal" against it.

The latest Pew research poll shows Jews would vote against President Bush in November by the same margin they voted against him four years ago. That is certainly a strange way to reward a man whom others believe — quite ludicrously — is doing your bidding.

Slaves to Higher Learning

Here’s a thought for Passover: We are Pharaohs to our children. We have made them our slaves. Their mud bricks are the books that fill 30-pound backpacks. Their mortar is four hours of homework every night. The straw we deny is sleep. Ask child therapists across the country about the headaches and self-starvation, and the girls who make shallow cuts in their wrists to “let the pressure out, to feel on the outside the pain I feel on the inside.” Ask the school counselors about how teenagers use drugs and sex to try to escape. Ask the pediatricians and chiropractors about what those 30-pound loads have done to the children’s posture. Ask the college admissions office about their nicknames for incoming students: “crispies,” the 18-year-olds too fried from high school to function at college, and “teacups,” freshmen too fragile to manage on their own without their parents, tutors and housekeepers.

Olympian Sarah Hughes knows the score. When asked about her plans after winning the gold medal, she said, “I just want to keep up with my school work and get in the high 1500s on my SATs.” The best figure skater in the world worries that if you want to get into the Ivy League these days, having only one sport may not be enough. College placement advisors complain that parents think there are only 10 good schools in the country, and that if their child doesn’t get into one of them, the whole family has failed. This is Mitzrayim, the land of Egypt. The word also means a narrow place.

Don’t look outside to find the Pharaoh. It’s easy to blame the schools and colleges, but some of our terror is inflated myth. We read pornography — U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of top colleges and universities — and we panic that our child “won’t get in” even as we look into the crib.

Some leaders are taking the first steps towards freedom. As I travel around the country speaking at schools, I see them beginning to acknowledge their hand in the oppression. They are recognizing that having a fifth-grade math curriculum in third grade creates math phobias. They are cutting back on homework. They are giving students time away from academics and sports — time for group reflection and for service to others.

Colleges are starting to change their policies. Some are accepting, without prejudice, students from schools that have eliminated AP classes. They are holding places for accepted students who choose to take a year off after high school. Admissions officers are weighing teacher recommendations on par with SAT scores and GPAs. If a student looks spectacular on paper, but isn’t enthusiastic and generous of spirit, the schools don’t want him around. The Talmud teaches that every parent has an obligation to teach his child how to swim. As parents, our most important job is to prepare our children for life, not just for class. I’m not denying the competition. For many of us, if we applied now to the colleges we went to, we wouldn’t get in. No matter how fervently we wish it, the children are no smarter or stronger than we were, but they are smart enough to get into a good enough school and have a good enough life.

If the Taliban reflect the Arab world’s panic over the advent of Western modernity and marketplace culture, the sacrifice of our own children on the altar of the SATs is of a piece with the same fundamentalist anxiety; the fantasy that a life with no room for play or rest will save us from chaos. We have lowered the plague of darkness into our lives, and the darkness is so complete that no one can move. It is time to let them go.