U.S. Jews and Iraq &mdash puzzling public opinion

The difference between the way most American Jews and most other Americans see the war in Iraq is stunning. It seems that not only is the gap between them very large, but the Jewish attitudes seem riddled with contradictions, and often run in a different direction than might be expected.

Apparent contradictions among Jews on matters of foreign policy are not new. Politicians and pundits always scratched their heads in bewilderment when the polls showed a majority of American Jews favoring more military aid to Israel while, at the same time, favoring a cut in U.S. military spending. But Iraq has made that kind of contradiction more puzzling than ever.

About seven out of 10 Americans, as contrasted with only about four out of 10 American Jews today, say they “support the war in Iraq.” Those figures come from a spate of current national surveys, such as CNN/USA Today/Gallup, Newsweek and the American Jewish Committee. Similarly, about four out of 10 Jews — compared with about seven out of 10 in the American public, including the majority of Democrats — say they support the American war against terrorism.

This does not mean that all those Americans like the way the Bush administration is handling all aspects of this war. Americans are virtually split on whether the administration had “a well thought-out plan for post-war Iraq.” And they are virtually split on whether the Bush administration is properly handling foreign affairs in general, raising questions about the administration’s tactics and talents on the diplomatic front. But, notwithstanding such severe criticisms, Americans still overwhelmingly support the basic undertaking of the war. They remain impressed by the dangers Saddam Hussein presented to our national interest and world peace, by Saddam’s insatiable appetites and his imperviousness to negotiation.

It is not amiss to ask: If such a large majority of Americans basically support the war, why shouldn’t an even larger majority of American Jews do so? To begin with, Israel’s security would seem to be at stake. Israelis were sometimes asked in surveys to identify their most dangerous enemies, and they didn’t name the Palestinians, or even Syria, as often as they named Iraq and Iran. And an expansionist Iraq seemed to present the most immediate danger; witness Israel’s earlier and unilateral bombing of Iraq’s growing nuclear facility.

On those grounds alone, one could be bewildered by the extent and nature of the gap between American Jews and other Americans in their support of the war. But the bewildered could ask other questions. For example, the Jews, of all people, might be expected to understand Winston Churchill’s lament that “if only we had realized what was afoot and had taken steps to prevent it in time.” He was referring, of course, to the danger that expansionist tyranny presents to the cause of world peace and human rights. The American public seems to have absorbed that lesson better than the Jews. Why?

Is it simply that a higher proportion of Jews than of other Americans are smart, clear-sighted, resistant to seduction, altruistic and generally virtuous? An earthier reason might have to do with the fact that Jews continue to be proportionately much more attached to the Democratic Party than is the American public as a whole.

For many years now, the Jewish vote for national Democratic candidates has usually been 20 percent to 25 percent higher than that of the general public. In 2000, for example, Americans virtually split their vote between Gore and Bush, but Jews voted for Gore by a 66 to 14 margin — and, on top of that, were notably activist.

Is it possible that activist Jewish Democrats hate Bush so much that they can’t separate the war from the man under whose watch it occurred — or, unlike the American public at large, they can’t separate the legitimacy of the war from serious errors they perceive the Bush administration to have made in managing that war?

There may be a number of arguable reasons for the startling differences between Jewish and general attitudes on this war, and for the apparent contradictions within those Jewish attitudes. But whatever the reasons, those differences and apparent contradictions provide a moment that urgently requires insight.

We are now faced with a world crisis every bit as fateful for the future of Jewry as the one we faced so haplessly 80 years ago. American foreign policy will be the central, deciding element in that crisis. But American Jews are divided among ourselves as well as from our fellow American — and one root cause is that we are not squarely facing our own seemingly contradictory attitudes. Needed, at the least, is a vigorous intra-Jewish and issue-based debate on American foreign policy in general.

Earl Raab is director emeritus of Brandeis University’s Nathan Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy. He is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.