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Jewish World Review Feb. 24, 2003 / 22 Adar I, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The darker side of peace protests

Coming to grips with anti-Semitism in the debate over war with Iraq | Skimming the voluminous coverage of the anti-war demonstrations held around the world quickly leads you to some interesting observations.

Though opponents of the use of force to oust the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq are a diverse lot, their objections are fairly easy to summarize: They distrust America, and fear the war may benefit Israel.

The former sentiment is a combination of old-left hatred of the victor in the Cold War, spiced with dark and illogical conspiratorial theories about oil and imperialism. Whether expressed by European pseudo-intellectuals or leftist partisans, these protests speak volumes about the resentment of American power.

Envy of America is nothing new, but the 21st-century version is an odd concoction. It lacks the intellectual coherence of the sniping at this country that was common during the Cold War. Without the triumphalism of the anti-anti-Communist sensibility, all the latter-day anti-Americans have to fall back on is spite, nostalgia for the protests against the Vietnam war and farcical expressions of faith in the United Nations.

Though they claim to be concerned about human rights and the casualties of war, theirs is the cause of a status quo that will protect a tyrant, and allow his abuses and slaughters to continue undisturbed.


That leaves us to deal with the not so subtle undercurrent of anti-Israel sentiment that animates many of Bush's opponents both here and abroad. Everywhere these demonstrations sprout, the banners excoriating Israel and promoting a "free Palestine" fly.

Everywhere the critics gather, there is rhetoric denouncing Zionism and dark talk that the true purpose of the war will be to aid Israel. Are they right? In support of this thesis is the fact that Saddam Hussein hates Israel and has attacked it in the past. The removal of his regime will certainly remove a threat to the Jewish state. That the people of Israel support the Bush administration's plans in overwhelming numbers also feeds the suspicions of the war critics. Against it is the plain fact that neither this proposed war nor the previous campaign against Iraq was primarily motivated by concerns for Israel.

Though it can be asserted that Israel benefited from the paring down of Iraqi military power as a result of Saddam's defeat, it paid a heavy price both during and after that war for little return. Israel was forced to absorb scud missile attacks from Iraq without responding at the behest of the United States, which wanted Israel to take no part in the fighting.

As a result, Israel's military deterrent was seriously damaged, a development that would encourage both Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists in the decade to come. And to protect the delicate sensibilities of America's Arab "allies," Israel was forced into a series of negotiations after the war that led to its current disastrous situation with the Palestinians.

Many within the administration assert that the ultimate goal of war on Iraq will be to replace the tyrannical Saddam Hussein regime with one that is more likely to be democratic. If planting the first seeds of democracy within the Muslim/Arab world is good for Israel, it is surely even better for the Muslims and Arabs.

Yet the war critics oppose this plan. Their argument that it is none of our business who runs Iraq used to have some merit. But that point lost its power on Sept. 11. If powerful forces with the Arab/Islamic world are at war with America and all it represents, then they can't hide behind sovereignty anymore.


You also don't have to dig too deeply into the reservoir of anti-war sentiment to see how much hostility to Israel plays a factor here. France, Germany, the United Nations and other forces that oppose war have not been shy about saying that they believe America's priorities are backward. They want pressure on Israel to make concessions to the terrorist Palestinian Authority to be the international community's Middle East focus, not Iraq. The only "regime change" they are interested in is deposing the democratically elected government of Israel with one that will do their bidding.

The so-called "human rights" movement sees Israel's limited attempts to defend itself against Palestinian terror as worthy of vitriolic protest, not Saddam's efforts to hide his illegal weapons or the threat he poses to regional security.

The fact that the Bush administration has reversed U.S. policy and no longer seeks to undermine Israel's security or the democratically expressed will of its people is a source of tremendous resentment among those on the hard-left here, as well as abroad.

Lurking here is also the not so thinly veiled spirit of anti-Semitism. The Europe that U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rightly denigrated as "old" and "sick" is still suffering from the disease of Jew-hatred. Anti-Semitism has risen as the campaign to delegitimize Israel has escalated during the current 29-month-old Palestinian terror war.

While most Americans have come, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, to see the terror war waged against Israel as no different from that launched against the United States, Europeans seem to think a Jewish state that they see as wholly or at least partly illegitimate deserves to suffer from Arab terror. And they oppose anything that will divert the world's attention from efforts to undermine Israel.

While the governments of France and Germany are subtler than the demonstrators spewing anger at America and Israel, there is a powerful link between European policy and anti-Semitism in the streets.

The saga of Michael Lerner, the far-left Jewish figure who was excluded from a San Francisco anti-war demonstration because he was deemed "pro-Israel" also illustrates the ideological trap that war critics have created for themselves. Ironically, Lerner's "pro-Israel" credentials rest solely on the fact that he doesn't want to see the Jewish state destroyed. In truth, the Tikkun Magazine editor supports every measure against Israel short of its immediate destruction and often makes common cause with those who do plot the eradication of Israel's Jews.

Lerner is a charlatan whose snub by fellow America-hating radicals ought to earn him no sympathy. But he does show us that there is no easy way to extract the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic ingredients from the anti-war recipe without the whole rotten soufflé collapsing.

In Europe, the lethal combination of traditional anti-Semitism and appeasement of tyrants is one that ought to be familiar to us. An international community that is more eager to subdue Israel than it is to attack Iraq is not one that even the purest of Jewish idealists can afford to follow. Nor can those Jews whose partisan instincts incline them to hostility toward a Republican president allow themselves to be co-opted into an anti-war movement that is dangerously compromised by animus for Israel.

American Jews, especially those with misty memories of past anti-war movements, cannot ignore this issue. It is possible to oppose the war without hostility to Israel. But doing so inevitably puts you on the side of many with darker motives.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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