American Jews' split personality

By Avi Beker

The attack by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., on the Bush administration over its handling of the Iranian nuclear question, is unprecedented. It took the shape of a broad media campaign that included press releases and targeted members of Congress. Last week the Washington Post, which is read by the top political echelon in the capital, noted that this is the first time that AIPAC has issued broad and open criticism of the Bush administration. In a background paper that AIPAC officials distributed among members of Congress, the pro-Israel lobby describes Bush's recent policy decisions on Iran as "dangerous" and "disturbing," and even claims that they are actually helping Iran to achieve nuclear capability.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which mounted a similar offensive, refrained from directly criticizing the president and called on its member groups to exert pressure on Congress and foreign governments, and to send letters to top administration officials. Earlier, organization leaders like Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League had argued that this issue should not be made into a "Jewish" struggle like the fight for Soviet Jewry in the past, or the fight against Palestinian terrorism.

However, AIPAC chose a more militant line, and consciously decided to criticize the White House after the administration decided last month to accept the more conciliatory Russian approach, which recommended avoiding an open confrontation with Iran in the UN Security Council for the time being. According to media reports, Bush even shared his problems with the Jewish lobby with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Anyone observing the political trends and moods in the American Jewish community cannot but raise an eyebrow over what seems to be a split personality. Alongside the massive attack on the passiveness the Bush administration is demonstrating in everything related to Iran, the media - especially the Jewish press - gave extensive coverage last week to the results of an annual survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee. The survey reported that 70 percent of American Jews oppose the U.S. involvement in Iraq, an opposition rate that is about 10 percent higher than among the general public. After refraining until now from publicly expressing opposition to the war, several Jewish organizations have also decided to openly come out against it.

The decline in the popularity of the war led the Reform movement to issue a call at its annual convention last month for all American forces to be pulled out of Iraq. The decision generated a public dispute on the pages of the New York Times, when a Republican Jewish group published a giant advertisement in support of Bush and criticized the decision by the Reform movement. President Bush himself referred to this at a meeting of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia in mid-December, saying that he expected people who care about Israel's existence and security to support the administration's efforts to strengthen democracy in the Middle East.

From a historical perspective, one could argue that the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is replacing Saddam Hussein in the pretension to lead the Middle East and develop nuclear capabilities, and in threatening Israel. And, indeed, the Jewish media has expressed the sentiment that opposition among the majority of American Jews to the war in Iraq is detrimental to the effort to pressure the administration to display much greater firmness toward Iran.

AIPAC and the proponents of a tough line in the Jewish community will soon have to convince not only the administration but also a Jewish majority that is skeptical about American involvement in the Middle East. The American Jewish Committee's survey results indicate that the camps within the Jewish community are clearly divided according to religious streams, with the Orthodox on one side and Reform and Conservative Jews on the other. Seventy-eight percent of Reform Jews, for example, oppose the war in Iraq, compared to 38 percent of Orthodox Jews.

A similar split is evident on the questions of dividing Jerusalem, the separation fence, identification with Israel and visits to Israel. In accordance with these same camps, American Jews are also divided on domestic issues such as the separation of church and state. The leadership of AIPAC certainly believed that support for the firm stance against Iran would grow after the anti-Semitic statements of the president of Iran, but the double messages coming out of the Jewish community in regard to American involvement in the Middle East are liable to weaken the Jewish lobby in its struggle against the administration on the issue of Iran.