Writing as a private individual (not in any way claiming to represent the views of Meretz USA on this matter), I had an article published in The Forward, Nov. 13, which criticized aspects of the “Jews Uniting to End the War…” conference of Nov. 23. I questioned why there would be an anti-Iraq war conference at the time that Barack Obama is poised to take office with a pledge to end that conflict, and with the global economic crisis now foremost in most people’s minds. I regret any misunderstandings and upset that my article engendered, but my reception that day was overwhelmingly cordial. (One organizer even thanked me for the “free publicity.”)
In his closing remarks, president Robert Kaplan of the Workmen’s Circle acknowledged that recent events had somewhat eclipsed the conference’s theme. Still, it was a serious and largely successful event.
Ann Toback, the new WC executive director, opened with heartfelt remarks in which she mentioned her discomfort at anti-war demonstrations, because of their frequent anti-Israel overtones. This sentiment was shared by some participants throughout the day, but I wish this had been more of an explicit focus and concern for the conference as a whole.
Showing a certain lack of sensitivity, the feisty former member of Congress, Elizabeth Holtzman, made the jolting pronouncement that Jews played a critical role in bringing about the Iraq war and then asked why Israel is “the only country welcoming George Bush.” A problem with her first statement is that it highlights the Jewish ethnicity of most prominent neo-conservative backers of the war rather than their politics. The problem with her second point is that it ignores the understandable human psychology involved in a country that was traumatized by several years of attacks that murdered nearly 1,000 civilians, and is thereby comforted by supportive rhetoric from the president of a friendly power. My complaint with Holtzman has nothing to do with my view of the actual issues, on which I am much closer to her than to those she’s criticizing.
Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Reform movement’s Social Action Center who spoke at the same opening panel, politely took issue with Ms. Holtzman’s sharp tone. He acknowledged that the Iraq war has left both the US and Israel worse off in every way, but the main challenge now is “how to extricate ourselves.”
Similarly, in a breakout panel on Israel and Iraq, J Street lobbyist Jeremy Ben-Ami was a study in contrast with the Israel Policy Forum’s M. J. Rosenberg. Ben-Ami’s first year as the founding director of J Street has been remarkably successful in raising money and in electing friendly legislators to Congress. He is informed by his experience to caution against direct attacks on AIPAC, because “you are attacking a community identity” and many of its 100,000 members actually “agree with us” on the issues. Let’s “frame our arguments on what we stand for, not on what we are against,” he urged. On the other hand, Rosenberg completely buys the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis that equates the “neocons” with the Israel Lobby.
Later that day, Ben-Ami engaged in dialogue with Leslie Cagan, director of the anti-war movement umbrella organization, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). Unsurprisingly, Cagan opposes the Obama campaign plank for a gradual phased withdrawal from Iraq, demanding instead an immediate and complete end to the war “now, not a month from now.” With these words, she makes the assumption that an immediate US withdrawal would simply end the war, rather than very possibly cause a new spike in inter-communal violence.
Ms. Cagan declared herself a “secular Jew,” a likely statement of solidarity with the audience. In response to a comment from the floor on how the anti-Israel framing of anti-war protests has inhibited greater Jewish participation, Cagan admitted to being more interested in opposing manifestations of antisemitism than anti-Israel expressions; but in what may be a significant step for her, she also stated the need to oppose instances of being “anti-the nation of Israel.” Taken at face value, this is something of a departure from the UFPJ’s neutral stance regarding a one versus two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and the UFPJ’s inclusion in its coalition of pro-Palestinian militants who advocate a full “right of return” for Palestinians to what is now Israel.