US Affairs: War matters

As more US Jews support leaving Iraq, Israel is forced to reassure Democrats of its bipartisanship.

salai meridor 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
salai meridor 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israeli Ambassador to Washington Sallai Meridor was wrapping up a recent speech on Israel's interest in peace and the threat posed by Iran to general acclaim from the National Jewish Democratic Council audience, when his attention was drawn to a point of some discord. Cameron Kerry, brother of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and NJDC executive committee member, asked Meridor to speak about a delicate topic that had been avoided until that very moment. "The elephant in the room is, in fact, an elephant. It is the perception that sometimes members of the Israeli government have sent messages that cut across bipartisanship" when it comes to Israel, Kerry said of statements made by then prime minister Ariel Sharon in support of Bush in 2004 and, he implied, current Israeli officials' comments about the Iraq war. "When there's a perception that governments are putting their thumb on the scales, I think that erodes the perception of bipartisanship," Kerry continued. "So I hope you reaffirm that the commitment - the bond between the United States and Israel on both sides of the relationship - is one that transcends governments and transcends political parties." Meridor, who began by responding that he had forgotten his glasses in Israel, "so I didn't see an elephant in the room," stressed that Israel appreciates the importance of bipartisan support. "Unequivocally, the core of this relationship is bipartisan, and we are not only thankful to both Republicans and Democrats, Democrats and Republicans, but this is an asset that Israel would not like in any way to shake." But when it comes to Iraq, he told the audience: "Realize that this war is in our neighborhood [and] could have major, major ramifications for Israel," such as the strengthening of Iran or the destabilizing of Jordan. "When we express our positions, our concerns, we're in no way doing that to interfere in the legitimate political discussion in America. But sometimes, we have to express our concerns, because they deal with critical issues for Israel." This might have reassured Kerry on Israel's respect for - and appreciation of the need to work with - both parties. In fact, Kerry told The Jerusalem Post that Meridor's comments "did affirm that it's bipartisan" when it come to the government's dealings with the American political system. But it most certainly did not put the larger issue to rest. Indeed, it only highlighted a growing gulf between Israel's view on Iraq and that of American Jews. The divide says something about how distance can shape perspectives, as well as how American Jewry balances its allegiances to ideology and to Israel. American Jews oppose the war in Iraq more than members of any other major religious group in the United States, and well more than the American public as a whole, according to a February Gallup poll. That survey found that 77 percent of Jews felt it was a mistake for the US to send troops to Iraq, compared to 52% of all Americans. More recently the Union for Reform Judaism, America's largest Jewish denomination, passed a resolution calling for a timetable for the phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Though many Jewish organizations have stayed out of the Iraq fray, the Reform movement is not alone, particularly on the more progressive fringe of the Jewish community. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, for instance, also adopted a resolution calling for a "rapid and responsible withdrawal" of US forces from Iraq in March. ISRAEL, HOWEVER, is in no rush to see US troops leave Saddam Hussein's former stomping grounds. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took the unusual step of warning politicians and pro-Israel activists gathered at AIPAC's Washington policy conference in March that "when America succeeds in Iraq, Israel is safer... The consequences of premature action in Iraq" could potentially affect the security of the Middle East, particularly "on those threats emerging from Iran." The statements provoked outrage among some Democrats in the audience, whose party is pushing for a schedule for withdrawal. With Jews overwhelmingly voting Democrat (some 78% chose John Kerry over George Bush in 2004, according to a National Election Pool exit poll), that position puts many of them in conflict with Israel, torn between their desire to see America out of Iraq and their desire to back Israel's security. "There's a moment in which a large part of American Jewry and the political leadership in Israel are not on the same page," said David Twersky, senior adviser for international affairs at the American Jewish Congress. "The undertow of Democratic party politics is pulling them in a direction of 'Let's get out of the Middle East,'" he continued, "and most American Jews are Democrats. That puts them on the opposite track from the conservative administration which happens to have a similar view of Iraq to Israel. "These kinds of things come up. It can't be seamless, without bumps," Twersky said of the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, given the complex issues each community faces. "It's a bumpy road." That road could get bumpier if Israel were to frame its perspective in a black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us frame, according to Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "If Israel is suggesting that in order to be for Israel you have to be for the war, [then] it would be a very egregious political blunder," he said. "It will end up alienating growing numbers of Americans." However, Saperstein said that hasn't happened yet, and he made a distinction between such an approach and the exchange of perspectives currently under way. "There's always danger of that happening, and that's something the Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders must be sensitive about." But one DC activist for a progressive Jewish organization said Israel's take on Iraq only drives a further wedge between Jews on the Left and Israel. "The schism already exists," he said, asking that his name not be used so that his views didn't reflect on his organization. "I don't know why Olmert would want to associate himself with Bush policies that are so overwhelmingly criticized by the American Jewish community, especially the progressive community." He called Olmert's comments to American Jews on Iraq, which he saw as an effort to influence their opinions, "offensive." He explained, "It's a little bit insulting when he's saying... we're not aware of the implications for Israel's security or haven't thought about its consequences." On the other hand, the activist dismissed Olmert's utterances as stemming from politics and a desire to curry favor with the Bush administration. In the end, he said he didn't believe withdrawing from Iraq would hurt Israel. "The war in Iraq has been bad for Israel's security." "Most of us want to love Israel and America, and to try to remove the distance between the two loyalties," said Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, of American Jewish activists. "They tend to make their view of Israel conform with what's best for America... even if they don't coincide." He predicted that most Democrat-oriented Jews would see an Iraq withdrawal as in Israel's interest, and that even if that didn't mesh with Jerusalem's assessment, "It doesn't seem like a big break. It seems like a conversation." Kerry, for one, argued that getting the US out of Iraq would be good for Israel. "Speaking for many Democrats and some Republicans as well, there's an increasing perception that the security of Iraq and the Middle East won't be adversely affected by US disengagement," he told the Post. He added that he also appreciated Israel's point of view. "There are differences in perceptions in what's in Israel's or America's best interests," Kerry said. "I understand that his [Meridor's] job and the Israeli government's job is to look out for the interests of Israel, and what he said about Iraq in that context I completely understand."