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A Battle Ripples Over State of War

November 17, 2005 By:
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A ZOA rally in Times Square, March 2003
In the days following Sept. 11, 2001 - when hijacked airplanes attacked American targets, killing nearly 3,000 people - a significant number of American Jews approved of the United States taking action against those who were behind the attacks.

In fact, according to a survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee in the days following the collapse of the World Trade Center's twin towers, 85 percent of American Jews approved of what President George W. Bush would later call the "war on terror."

Afghanistan, then controlled by the fundamentalist Taliban, was first targeted by the U.S. military for its suspected harboring of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terror group. But in March 2003, the country then set its sights on Iraq, and invaded the nation to oust its dictatorial leader, Saddam Hussein.

The justification for the invasion, according to numerous speeches by Bush-administration officials before the war began, was to locate and destroy weapons of mass destruction that Hussein purportedly possessed and planned to use.

But after 21?2 years of intense conflict - with no nuclear weapons found and billions of tax dollars being poured into a war in which more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives - America's military foray into Iraq is beginning to be seen by many Americans in a different light.

As the president posts his lowest approval ratings since entering the White House, increasingly the question has become: When are the troops coming home?

"In the buildup to the war, I was optimistic. I advocated for the fall of Saddam Hussein," said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank that works to define and promote American interests in the Middle East. "But the tactics are too rushed, too ambitious. The population just wasn't ready for it. I support the goals, but criticize the tactics."

Though a large majority of the Jewish community may now agree with Pipes' pessimism - a more recent AJCommittee survey concluded that 66 percent of American Jews disapprove of the conflict and how it is being handled - some Jewish groups remain fully supportive of the war.

These organizations generally argue that staying the course - and successfully establishing a democracy in Iraq - will bring stability to the region and benefit to Israel.

That was the Zionist Organization of America's argument in 2003, when troops were first being mobilized in the run-up to war. The group even held a rally in Times Square in New York City to show its support.

Morton Klein, national president of the ZOA, said last week that his organization continues in that vein because of the positive effect it can have for Israel. Hussein was a serious threat to world peace, he pointed out, and by removing him from power, a major financial system was eliminated that rewarded families of Palestinian suicide bombers with as much as $25,000.

"I must say, although things look difficult now, this is an important and laudable goal," he continued. "We should not necessarily judge what the outcome may be in light of what is happening right now."

Although the National Council of Young Israel never came out in support of or against Operation Iraqi Freedom, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the group's executive vice president, said that the leadership encourages its members to support the troops. He noted that the council - and many Orthodox Jews, for that matter - would back any attempt to root out terrorism.

"The world learned on Sept. 11 that if we sit back and do nothing, terror will come to our front doorstep," he stated. "Saddam Hussein is Saddam Hussein - with or without weapons of mass destruction - and Al Qaeda is Al Qaeda. There's enough to be said that under all conditions, he had to go."

But Lerner was quick to add that every soldier's death is heartbreaking. He would like to see the Iraqis eventually take control for themselves, and let the coalition troops come home.

At the other end of the spectrum, some Jewish organizations maintain that Bush should never have ordered the invasion in the first place.

In April 2003, just one month after the war started, Reconstructionist Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia approved a formal declaration against the war. To validate its point, the resolution cited Jewish scripture and tradition that requires Jews to "seek peace and pursue it," "to pursue justice," "seek just ends by just means" and to value the saving of human lives.

According to Jim Feldman, a member of the synagogue's tikkun olam committee who helped draft the resolution, though a majority of members agree that U.S. troops should not be in Iraq, there are different views as to what should be the next course of action.

Feldman said he, personally, would like to see U.S. troops withdraw immediately, and have the United Nations take over the reconstruction efforts. He lashed out at the Bush administration for what he said was its contempt for international world bodies like the United Nations.

Others, though, aren't sure the solution is so simple. Speaking for themselves, representatives from organizations such as Americans for a Safe Israel and the Jewish Labor Committee cited rooting out terror as a reason to stand behind the initial declaration of war, but acknowledged they aren't satisfied with the current state of affairs.

"You can't exactly do like the Simon and Garfunkel song, and 'slip out the back, Jack,' " said Avram Lyon, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee. "How can we transform the situation in Iraq so they can defend themselves? If they can't, then it should be divided into three countries. Regardless, though, my concern is getting those troops home."

Working to address the dilemma that some Jews face - wanting the world to be free of terror cells, but at the same time believing the situation in Iraq is out of control, with no tangible end in sight - the Jewish Social Policy Action Network was planning a discussion on the war timed for this week in Elkins Park. According to Susan Myers, chair of JSPAN's board of directors, the goal is to examine all of the issues involved with the war and "get the topic on the table."

Myers said at this point, her group does not have a stance on the war, but it does expect to release one some time after the event.

"My dilemma is that if you broke it, you bought it. We broke it, and now it's our problem and there is no way out," she said. "I wish I had an answer."

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