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An Unseemly Silence

As President Bush attempted to sell the American public and the international community on the need for a war in Iraq, America’s most important Jewish organizations rallied as one to his defense. In statement after statement community leaders stressed the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. Some groups went even further, arguing that the removal of the Iraqi leader would represent a significant step toward bringing peace to the Middle East and winning America’s war on terrorism.

Now, however, with questions mushrooming about the basis for war and America’s occupation of Iraq, Jewish groups are staying low. Their newfound silence is both strategically misguided and morally alarming.

The question here is not whether the Jewish organizations were somehow responsible for America’s entry into the war. Conspiracy theories of a Jewish-Israeli cabal dragging America into war for Jerusalem’s benefit do not deserve serious attention. It is true that concern for Israel’s safety rightfully factored into the deliberations of the main Jewish groups. But they did not send troops into Iraq; the Bush administration did, for a host of its own reasons. Its main premise was that so long as Saddam remained in power, he would be a destabilizing force threatening the United States and its allies. The administration’s view resonated widely, even with liberal Jewish organizations that would have had no stomach for a war fought solely to cement Israel’s hold on the territories.

There’s no need to question the motivations of those who endorsed the war. Fair-minded communal leaders of many political and religious stripes ended up supporting the war. The problem arises now, one year later, when those Jewish groups that spoke out for the war refuse to wrestle with the consequences of an invasion that so far has cost the lives of more than 700 U.S. troops and hampered the fight against terrorism, while failing to turn up a single weapon of mass destruction.

Jewish community leaders need not issue any apologies for taking the administration at its word on the immediacy of Saddam’s threat. But, having done so, they should now be leading the push for an investigation into why America’s pre-war intelligence was so flawed and whether the country was misled by a White House bent on war. They should be encouraging a national debate over whether the war has hurt or helped the war against Al Qaeda. And, finally, as reports of poor planning, cronyism and prisoner abuse in Iraq mount, Jewish leaders have an obligation to call for an accounting from the administration. They took a stand a year ago. They owe it to their constituency to speak out now.

The Jewish communal leadership has a credibility on the national and world stage because of its presumed moral stature as the voice of a community of conscience. Its silence now represents a betrayal of that trust.

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