We cant just laugh off Jewish conspiracy comments

The basic points made by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) about American Jews and the war in Iraq would be comic — if anyone felt like laughing. He wrote, in a newspaper column earlier this month, that the Jews were pushing the occupation of the troubled country because of Israel, and that President Bush was pushing forward with U.S. efforts in Iraq in order to garner Jewish votes.

To begin with, some observers have been highly baffled by the contrary fact that American Jews have been less supportive of this war than has the American public at large. That bafflement was expressed early in the year when the American Jewish Committee annual poll showed that only about 4 out of 10 American Jews said they approved of the war — at about the same time that seven different major polls found an overwhelming majority of the American public saying that the initiation of the war had been “the right thing,” or “worthwhile.”

How, it was asked, could so many American Jews oppose a war whose success would be in their best self-interest? The Saddam Hussein regime, with one of the world’s largest armies, had been one of Israel’s most dangerous enemies, calling for another holocaust and helping to finance the suicide bombers that were terrorizing Israelis. And, more than that, how could so many Jews oppose the effort to bring down a model of expansionist tyranny in that part of the world, when Jews have long been acquainted with Saddam’s threat to world peace and human rights?

One of the explanations offered for this puzzling behavior by American Jews is that so many of them are activist Democrats, and this is a presidential election year. One distinguished San Francisco Jew wrote me after a heated dinner discussion, saying that many Democrats’ distrust of Bush spilled over to his initiation of the war. According to the letter writer, “Undoubtedly Bush’s support of Israel and his exclusion of Arafat are commendable, but I for one cannot separate this or the war or the man from his domestic policy. To me, it’s all of one piece …”

But this just highlights another cockeyed aspect of Hollings’ comments. Largely on grounds of domestic policy, American Jews have for many decades voted for national Democratic Party candidates at a rate 20 to 25 percent higher than the American public at large. While American Jews generally do appreciate President Bush’s attitudes on Israel, there is no indication that there is going to be such a substantial shift in their party voting that it will affect the outcome of the presidential race — and such a shift will certainly not take place because of an Iraqi war of which most American Jews disapprove.

Is it possible that Hollings doesn’t know all this? Does he not know that his political rhetoric could help drive an anti-Semitic wave in America? Others, like Pat Buchanan, are already openly trying to fan such a wave, using similar rhetoric.

Actually, it is already a popular American thought that Jews have a special interest in the Iraqi war because of Israel, but that thought is not necessarily wrapped in hostility. For many years, at least a third of all Americans have told pollsters they thought American Jews to be at least as loyal to Israel as to America, but they were not necessarily hostile towards Jews as a result. These Americans understood that in this country it is proper to have ties to homelands, as long as those ties are not against American national interest — and they believed that support of Israel was in the American interest.

The prevailing public opinion in America still holds that support of Israel is in America’s best interest. That positive opinion has been strengthened since 9/11. Since then, it’s become clear that Israel and America have the same anti-democratic enemies.

However, this positive opinion is not set in concrete. Criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the war is one thing; most Americans now hold such opinions. But if they come to the belief that the very idea and initiation of the war to oust Saddam Hussein was a mistake, a conspiracy and now a burden they must bear, then Sen. Hollings’ words could strike more fertile — and poisonous — soil.

For that reason, just criticizing the senator’s words as anti-Semitic will not be enough. To counter his anti-Semitic message, it will be necessary to strengthen the understanding that America and Israel are partners in the same war. It will also be necessary to strengthen the understanding that America’s action in Iraq (not necessarily all its subsequent management) was undertaken as part of that same common war against a new 21st century movement of tyranny that threatens us all.

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.