Leaders to the Right, Followers to the Left

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 23, 2007, issue of March 23, 2007.
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On March 12, by action of its executive committee, the Union for Reform Judaism became the first national Jewish organization to take more than a tongue-clucking position on the Iraq War. It did what the Senate has been unable to do: It voted overwhelmingly to oppose President Bush’s “surge” of new troops, and it called on the president to set and announce a specific timetable for the phased withdrawal of troops. Alas, the URJ decision is very much non-binding.

What’s surprising, bordering on astonishing, is that the URJ is the only major national Jewish organization to have spoken out so decisively on this misbegotten and misconducted war. I say “astonishing” because the American Jewish public, which is represented by a broad array of organizations, has very clear views on the war.

At the end of February, the Gallup organization conducted a poll of more than 12,000 Americans. Overall, it found that 52% of Americans think the war a mistake, while 46% do not. When the numbers are broken down, we find that white Protestants favor the war — that is, do not think it was a mistake to have launched it — by 55% to 42%; black Protestants differ sharply, splitting 78-18% against the war. Catholics divide 53%-46% against, while Mormons are 72%-17% in favor.

But ah, the Jews: Seventy-seven percent of us call the war a mistake, 21% of us do not. And the data strongly suggest that it’s not just Jewish liberalism or the Jewish preference for the Democratic Party that prompts the response.

The fact is that 65% of Jewish non-Democrats oppose the war, as compared to 38% of non-Democrats of other faiths. As for Jewish Democrats, they break 89%-11%, compared to 78%-22% for non-Jewish Democrats.

It was a strange week for Jews to express themselves quite so decisively. It was, after all, the same week in which Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said, “My friends, it is simply not consistent for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave our worst enemies dramatically emboldened, and Israel’s best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened.”

Though the message was delivered, all reports indicate that it was received with considerably less than the enthusiasm Cheney is accustomed to when he addresses Aipac. Perhaps what the Aipac people now know is that it is exactly because of the wicked policies of Bush and Cheney that the United States has already been dangerously weakened.

Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also weighed in on the subject last week. He, too, addressed Aipac, albeit via a video link from Jerusalem. “Those who are concerned for Israel’s security, for the security of the Gulf states and for the stability of the entire Middle East should recognize the need for American success in Iraq and responsible exit.”

No serious person can take pleasure from the very sour pickle in which the United States now finds itself. Never mind that Bush, et al. have mixed the brine themselves; their comeuppance is hardly adequate compensation, not for the dead, not for the wounded, not for the chaos, not for the cost to America’s treasury and America’s dignity.

All that’s left these days are bad choices. Very bad choices.

Among those bad choices, Bush has, predictably, seen fit to pick the very worst: a creeping, open-ended escalation — first 21,500 more, now another 8,400 — that resolves nothing. Among all the bad choices, the major American Jewish organizations, save only the URJ, take a pass.

One can — I would — quibble with the final form of the URJ resolution. But I have only praise for the wonderfully open and thoughtful way it was reached — not in cantankerous sloganeering but through a process of encouraging congregational debate and discussion and soliciting responses and suggestions from every member congregation of the Reform movement.

Questions of war and peace are properly the provenance of religious institutions. In the case at hand, because Israel’s security is so directly at stake, America’s Iraq policy would seem to be of immediate interest to all the single-issue pro-Israel organizations in the Jewish firmament, as also to all those — American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Jewish Council for Public Affairs and others — that so often opine on matters of less immediate Jewish relevance as well.

What can account for the organizational timidity? Some organizational leaders likely support the war; roughly 10% of Jews are of the Republican pro-war persuasion and we may surmise that these, typically wealthier, are disproportionately represented in the ranks of Jewish leadership.

In the case at hand, however, they are leaders without followers — the two are on different paths, leaders to the right, followers to the left. But more prevalently, I believe, and more poignantly, many “leaders” are curled up in a little ball in the corner, seeking to hide from the headache of taking a stand.

Tomorrow, many of them will once again fret out loud about Jewish continuity, about their own failure to attract young Jews to their ranks. Might it, this time around, occur to them that it is they who have opted for the irrelevance to which growing numbers of Jews consign them?

Tomorrow, they will again flood their fundraising appeals with talk of the imminent threat from Iran; now more than ever, and all that. But what of the war that is being waged today? Silence: a feckless evasion of responsibility.


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