Changing of the Times; Jews Protested Vietnam, but Are Silent on War with Iraq

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Changing of the Times; Jews Protested Vietnam, but Are Silent on War with Iraq


Byline: Julia Duin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

American Jews, so prominent in anti-Vietnam war activities, have been almost silent on the issue of Iraq.

Using words like "no consensus" and "schizophrenic," Jewish leaders say their once-liberal stances are evaporating in the face of threats to Israel and latent anti-Semitism among anti-war protesters.

"This issue is very volatile with the Jewish community right now," said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

"This war is not the same as Vietnam. There is a concern about Israel. [In 1991], 39 Scud missiles fell on Israel, so you will find an ambivalence on the clarity of the message. There is not a soul who stood up in the 1960s and said we have to go to Vietnam because we are afraid they are creating weapons of mass destruction."

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, says the threat of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein looms over 53 organizations Mr. Hoenlein represents.

"It is essential for the United States and others to act," he says. "The fact is that people understand this is not a war like Vietnam."

Jews were major anti-war organizers during the Vietnam era. Three of the defendants - Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Lee Wiener - in the Chicago Seven trial were Jewish. The case involved the 1968 demonstrations in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

"Jews constituted one-tenth of all students in the 1960s, but they were half or more of the radicals leading protests on campus," said Joshua Plaut, executive director for the Center for Jewish History in New York. "In 1966, half of all the delegates at the national Students for a Democratic Society convention were Jewish."

In 1967, he added, the American Council of Education concluded the most accurate predictor of campus protest was the matriculation of Jewish students.

"Jewish history teaches that one must take all precautions to choose the right course to defend oneself when a neighbor possesses the potential to inflict great harm," Mr. Plaut said. "In the Jewish community today, there is no one opinion as to what is right concerning Iraq."

A poll released today by the American Jewish Committee says 59 percent of American Jews approve of U.S. military action against Iraq, 36 percent oppose it and 5 percent are undecided. Jewish approval of a war is lower than the general American populace, which, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, recently polled at 68 percent in favor of a war in Iraq, 25 percent in opposition and 7 percent undecided.

"I'd guess the mainstream liberal Jewish organizations would be more supportive of Bush because this is a war against an enemy of Israel," said Mel Small, author of "Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Struggle for America's Hearts and Minds" and a history professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. "That wasn't the case in Vietnam."

Shaiya Baer, executive director of the Schulman Center for Jewish life at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., says the Jewish community always has been kind of "schizophrenic" in terms of war.

"It's put some Jewish students on the defensive," he said. "Even Jews who are opposed to intervention in Iraq are put on the defensive about Israel. What took place in the 1960s was premised on the draft. But this is not the 1960s or early 1970s anymore, and I think students are more low-key about the war because it doesn't affect them."

Their elders are more incensed over the idea, says Herbert Shapiro, a retired history professor from the University of Cincinnati, who says he marched against the war during the early 1960s along with many rabbis, rabbinical students and faculty members from Jewish colleges. …

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