Washington - Even as a new study found that American Jews are significantly more opposed to the Iraq War than are Christians, Jewish organizations decided not to take up the issue at their annual policy conference.
Drawing from the results of 13 polls conducted since 2005, the Gallup Organization found that 77% of American Jews think the Iraq War was a mistake, compared with 52% of the general American public. The poll found that Jewish opposition to the war in Iraq transcends political boundaries, with Jewish Democrats and Jewish Republicans being more likely than their respective non-Jewish counterparts to oppose the war.
“These data show that the average American Jew — even those who are Republicans and may support the Bush administration on other matters — opposes the war,” Gallup concluded in the report, released last week.
In sharp contrast, most Jewish organizations have refused to speak out against the war, and at times they displayed support for the administration. This week, the Iraq issue was low on the agenda at the plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the community’s main public policy coordinating body, which is made up of the major synagogue movements, several prominent national organizations and 122 local Jewish communities. The 400 delegates passed a rash of resolutions dealing with a wide variety of issues, but nothing regarding Iraq; an open discussion was held on the topic, but it took place late Monday night and drew only about 20 people.
Before the American invasion in 2003, the JCPA and the community’s other main umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, issued statements that supported the use of force as a last resort to ensure that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Though the statements came relatively late in the run-up to the war and stopped short of directly backing an invasion or support for the administration’s doctrine of spreading democracy, pro-Israel groups have been portrayed in some circles as being chief supporters of the war effort.
At least two influential organizations belonging to both umbrella groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, did issue more direct and broader statements of support for the war. But these statements also came late in the process, after the Bush administration was widely seen as bent on invading Iraq.
In the years since the invasion, only the Union for Reform Judaism has shifted into a more antiwar mode, or even moved aggressively to revisit the issue. This week’s JCPA conference was no exception.
“It is very odd that the organizations have not taken stands on Iraq,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA’s executive director.
Gutow said that while he would have welcomed an attempt to tackle the issue, the member agencies refrained from proposing any resolution on it. In an attempt to explain the lack of interest in revisiting Iraq, Gutow suggested that “it is very complicated for any organization to go against its government when we’re in war.” He also said that “there is a reluctance to oppose this specific administration” because it is seen as being supportive of Israel.
Rank-and-file Jewish opposition to the war is high — at 77% — compared with a more even split among Christians, with a small majority of Catholics opposing the war and a small majority of Protestants backing it. According to the survey data, at least one Christian subgroup — black Protestants — opposes the war at an even higher rate (78%) than Jews do. The war is also opposed by about two-thirds of those without any religious affiliation.
Among religious groups, Mormons voiced the most support, with 72% backing the invasion.
Gallup’s poll found that 89% of Jewish Democrats think the war was a mistake, compared with 78% of non-Jewish Democrats. Among non-Democrats, 65% of Jews believe that the war was a mistake, compared with 60% who do not.
The Gallup report did not provide any explanation for the strong Jewish opposition to the war, suggesting only that it might be tied to the liberal views held in general by American Jews.
No formal Iraq resolution was voted on at the JCPA plenum, but the issue was addressed during a debate that started after midnight. Of the hundreds of delegates that filled the room Monday for the lengthy debates and votes on resolutions earlier in the evening, fewer than 20 remained to discuss the Iraq War. Sitting around empty tables with half-full coffee cups and leftover doughnuts scattered on them, the few delegates with an interest in the issue attempted to conduct a late-night debate.
“This room was filled with people voting on nonsense, and then they all walked out,” yelled 79-year-old Robert Zweiman of the Jewish War Veterans organization when he stepped up to the microphone. Looking around at the empty hall, Zweiman asked: “Does that give you an indication of how important this is?”
The discussion was wrapped up shortly afterward, with several delegates worrying that an immediate withdrawal would further hurt America’s already deteriorating image in the world and others calling for action against the war.
One of the main panels at the conference was dedicated to the Iraq War, yet the keynote speaker, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, chose to focus his speech on Iran. Hagel, a possible contender for the presidency in 2008, reiterated his support for engagement with Tehran, arguing that there were more possibilities than simply choosing between accepting a nuclear Iran and waging war against the Islamic regime. Even though the Nebraska senator called for engaging Iran and Syria — a position opposed by the Bush administration and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — he was received warmly by the Jewish delegates, who praised his views and his courage to speak out against the Iraq War.
As he was concluding his speech, the lights and microphones onstage shut down due to a technical malfunction. “Those damn Iranians,” Hagel called out, drawing applause and laughter from the supportive audience.
Following Hagel, Barbara Stephenson, the State Department’s deputy senior adviser on Iraq, tried to explain President Bush’s new war policy, saying that Monday was “a great day” for Iraq because of the agreement reached by the battling ethnic groups on sharing the country’s oil resources. By that time in the evening, not many delegates were left in the room to hear Stephenson’s upbeat analysis of the situation.
Though Jewish groups have been determined to push for tough international action on Iran, this week at the JCPA plenum they ended up not passing a statement on the issue. But JCPA participants say that the matter was procedural, with a proposed resolution calling for the formation of a “Stop Iran” coalition, which was referred to a task force for technical reasons.
The proposal was introduced by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston after the deadline for new resolutions had already passed. It is expected to be discussed in the coming months.
In order to avoid making the impression that the American Jewry policy body is not strong on lobbying against Iran, the JCPA’s associate director, Martin Raffel, took to the stage, assuring “our brothers and sisters in Israel” that the Jewish community is committed to preventing the Islamic regime from having nuclear weapons.
“Have no fear,” Raffel said, “this issue is at the top of our agenda.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.