Some Jews fear backlash over support of Iraq war

washington | With each new report of troubles in Iraq, more Jews are getting nervous.

Even though many Jews opposed the war in Iraq — and the organized Jewish community did not vocalize strong support during the lead-up to the war — a few leading voices in Washington have portrayed the Jewish community as overwhelmingly in favor of toppling Saddam Hussein.

The fact that some of the strongest supporters for the war, both in and out of the Bush White House, are Jewish has led some to equate the political philosophy of neo-conservatism with support for Israel.

And now that the war has been beset by a series of scandals and setbacks, some Jewish leaders have expressed concern that Jews may be scapegoats this election year. Anti-war candidates and advocates already are suggesting that Jewish and pro-Israel voices led the country into war.

“Certainly, there is a significant portion of the American people who will buy into this,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “It’s a warning to us and it’s certainly not something we can dismiss.”

The fear is that Jews will be seen as having fostered the war, and that anti-war forces will focus their attention on the Jewish community.

Some people suggest that the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe is related to U.S. policy in Iraq and America’s support for Israel. Though it’s considered unlikely, Jewish organizational leaders worry that anti-Semitic incidents could occur in the United States if more people come to believe that Jews led the country to war in Iraq.

The problematic characterizations of Jews have come from high places.

Last month, Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.) wrote in a newspaper column in his home state that he believed the Bush administration went to war to secure Israel and win Jewish votes. He followed the column with a speech on the Senate floor, chastising the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for its influence over Middle East policy.

A week later, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former presidential envoy in the Middle East, suggested in an interview with CBS News that hawks in the Bush administration backed the Iraq war in part to strengthen Israel, and named some prominent Jews in the administration as the plan’s key architects.

Even before the war began, Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) suggested that Jewish leaders were banging the war drums. Moran was stripped of his leadership post in the Democratic caucus because of the comments.

This week, however, Moran handily triumphed over a challenger in a primary election, leading some Jewish officials to express concern that significant segments of the public don’t consider his charges outlandish.

He won the Democratic nomination for his district with 59 percent of the vote, defeating Andy Rosenberg, a Jewish lawyer.

“It does underscore the need not to be complacent about statements made by public figures that suggest scapegoats,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League.

Rosenberg had made Moran’s comments about the Jews an issue in the campaign, suggesting Moran was unfit for office because he had a loose tongue. Moran also had to defuse a last-minute accusation from his former pollster, who suggested Moran had made an anti-Semitic comment about a Democratic campaign group.

Moran denied the accusation; others who were in the room at the time said they had not heard it.

Moran’s victory had more to do with his 14-year incumbency than with Israel, political analysts said. Additionally, the tendency to blame the war principally on supporters of Israel is confined mostly to the political fringe, Moran and Hollings notwithstanding.

Nonetheless, Jewish groups seek a quick retort when such comments enter the public record.

“We rely on the common sense and wisdom of the average American and other public officials to stand up and say, ‘This is nonsense, this is absurd,'” Hordes said.

Over the past year, Jewish views on the war have mirrored those of the general public.

While some Jews backed the war in Iraq, believing a change in regime in Baghdad would make Israel safer (Bush touted the goals of the war to AIPAC last month, winning rousing applause), others feared Israel would be used as a scapegoat.

Still others believed the evidence against Saddam did not warrant military action, and that the war should not be waged without a larger international coalition.

However, many of the neo-conservatives who staunchly supported the war are Jewish, making it easier for detractors to claim they were motivated by their support for Israel.