The simmering debate over the role of Jewish neoconservatives in drawing America into war in Iraq erupted with new fury this week. One of America’s most respected ex-generals took to the airwaves to charge on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” that the war had been fought for Israel’s benefit, just days after a similar charge was leveled on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
The retired general, Anthony Zinni, a past chief of the U.S. Central Command and President Bush’s former Middle East special envoy, told “60 Minutes” on Sunday that the neoconservatives’ role in pushing the war for Israel’s benefit was “the worst-kept secret in Washington.” Three days earlier, Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, rose on the Senate floor to defend a newspaper essay he had written earlier in the month making the same charge. Both men complained that they had been unfairly labeled antisemitic for speaking out.
Their comments come just weeks after the United Nations’ special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, called Israel a “poison in the region” and said that American support for Israeli policies was making his job more difficult.
In the face of these mounting criticisms, a leading Jewish Democrat on Capitol Hill, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, told the Forward that the president’s policies were increasing the danger to Jews across the world.
“We are very worried about the rise of antisemitism internationally,” said Lowey in an interview Monday with the Forward. She argued that disdain for the president and his policies has “stirred up” antisemitic feelings worldwide. “It’s a real concern for me as a Jewish member of Congress.”
Lowey’s comments drew sharp criticisms from officials at the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress. “That’s absurd,” said the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, when informed of Lowey’s comments. “It’s worse than blaming the victim. It’s blaming someone who stands up for the victim.” David Twersky, the director of international programs at the American Jewish Congress, also objected, telling the Forward: “Without being partisan about it, I am appalled that anyone should attribute the rise of antisemitism in the Islamic world, and separately in Western Europe, to George Bush’s policies in the Middle East.”
One Democratic activist, who asked not to be identified, defended Lowey’s comments: “There is certainly a strong stream within the party, and particularly among progressives — and many Jews are progressives — that George Bush’s inability to play well with others and his inability to think diplomatically and multinationally … has increased world hatred of the United States. There are many in the Arab world who believe that America is run by and owned by Jews. So it is not that hard to get from A to B. I tend to think that any independent analyst would tend to say the same thing. So why try to give [Bush] the benefit of the doubt? If he could connect these dots it would modify his behavior and make him think more diplomatically.”
The Bush administration also was portrayed as reckless by Gen. Anthony Zinni during his interview with “60 Minutes,” in which he said it “was the worst-kept secret in Washington” that neoconservatives had sold Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on a plan to democratize the Middle East. Those remarks drew criticisms from officials at both the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Just three days before Zinni’s interview was broadcast, Hollings took to the Senate floor to defend his little-noticed claim earlier this month that Bush sent the country to war in order to win Jewish votes and protect Israel, after consulting with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. In his May 20 floor speech, Hollings also blasted the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobbying powerhouse in Washington known as Aipac.
“You can’t have an Israel policy other than what Aipac gives you around here,” Hollings said. “I have followed them mostly in the main, but I have also resisted signing certain letters from time to time, to give the poor president a chance.”
Hollings said he was motivated by a concern for Israel, which he insisted has been threatened by the turmoil in Iraq. But the South Carolina senator drew sharp criticism from Jewish communal leaders, Jewish political activists from both parties, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including Senator John Kerry (Please see story on Page 4).
Foxman sent Hollings a letter May 14 arguing that the senator’s remarks were “reminiscent of age-old, antisemitic canards about a Jewish conspiracy to control and manipulate the government.”
During his floor speech, Hollings spoke angrily about critics who raised such claims. “I won’t apologize,” Hollings declared during a May 20 speech from the Senate floor. “I want them to apologize to me.”
Zinni sounded a similar note in his “60 Minutes” interview, complaining that he was “called antisemitic” for writing an article in which he mentioned Bush’s neoconservative advisers.
“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,” Zinni said. “I certainly didn’t criticize who they were. I certainly don’t know what their ethnic religious backgrounds are. And I’m not interested.”