October 8, 2007 Issue
Copyright © 2007 The American Conservative

Surge Protectors

The mixed motives behind the Freedom’s Watch ad campaign

by Philip Weiss

Late this summer, just as American political armies were squaring off over the next, and likely last, act of President Bush’s Iraq War policy, a new pro-war group called Freedom’s Watch announced a $15-million ad buy over several months in key states. The first ads featured soldiers who had been maimed in Iraq but stood by the cause of a global war on terror. Political observers said they were targeted at the districts of Republican congressmen who were going wobbly on the war.

The rollout was not auspicious. Ari Fleischer, a board member of Freedom’s Watch and the former White House spokesman, stumbled on MSNBC’s “Hardball” when Mike Barnicle screened one of the ads and asked, “What’s that soldier’s name?” “I don’t have that soldier’s name in front of me,” Fleischer said. (His name is John Kriesel, and he lost both legs in Fallujah last year). The fact that Fleischer and another member of the group’s board had worked in the Bush White House seemed to support the view that that the group was an administration front. Says Moira Mack of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (which has its own smaller ad campaign): “This is a desperate attempt to counter the strong and growing movement to end the war. We have the public backing of millions of members. They have money and ads, but they don’t have public support.”

The Jewish press offered a different take. “Pro-Surge Group Is Almost All Jewish,” reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the lead wire service for Jewish news. Four out of five members of the Freedom’s Watch board are Jews, and half of its donors are Jewish. The JTA quoted one of its directors, Matthew Brooks, saying this was strictly a “coincidence.”

As a progressive Jew, I don’t think it is that simple. Right-wing Jewish support has always been a crucial prop for the Iraq War. The neoconservatives, who pushed for the war for years and then got their way after 9/11, originated as a largely Jewish movement that formed in the 1970s in good part out of concern for Israel’s security. Many of the neocons cited Saddam’s attacks on Israel as a reason for the U.S. to invade Iraq, and similar pro-war arguments spread to liberal Jews. The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman pointed at Saddam’s payments to suicide bombers in Tel Aviv as justification for the invasion, and I remember being shocked when my own brother said he didn’t know what to think about the Iraq War. He had demonstrated against the Vietnam War, but his Jewish newspaper said this one would be “good for Israel.”

National polls show that Jews opposed the war by a higher percentage than other groups (about 60 percent against), but that opposition was soft. The National Jewish Democratic Council, the body that advocates for Jewish values in the Democratic Party, takes a strong stand in favor of abortion rights, but had no opinion on the Iraq War—its own membership was divided. The Union of Reform Judaism supported the war in 2002 as a “just cause.” Three years later, it changed its mind and in doing so, issued a lament I share, that Jews were largely AWOL from the antiwar movement. The Reform rabbis then called for withdrawal, which prompted an attack by one liberal Jewish writer, who wrote, “A premature withdrawal from Iraq would be devastating to the cause of the Jewish state.”

These days, few Jews are making such open statements about a Jewish interest in the Iraq War. The war is a debacle, and even the left-leaning Jewish Forward has expressed fear that a populist American movement against the war will blame Jews for it and turn on them. The Forward became apprehensive last year when two leading political scientists at the University of Chicago and Harvard published a lengthy paper in the London Review of Books that argued that without Israel’s friends pushing for the war, it probably wouldn’t have happened. Authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have since expanded their argument, publishing a heavily-footnoted book called The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy in September, this time in the U.S. with a leading publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Freedom’s Watch board member Matthew Brooks also directs the Republican Jewish Coalition. (Indeed, the president once hailed him as “Old Matty” during an Israel-related speech.) I asked him whether Freedom’s Watch was devoted to Israel’s security, and he bridled: “That is absolutely not true. This is a broad-based organization. For anyone to draw any conclusion that we are focused on Jewish issues is an incorrect assumption and false in reality. … We are vehemently and strongly focused on making the case for the war on terror as being in America’s interest. Israel’s interest is totally irrelevant.”

In Brooks’s favor, Freedom’s Watch obviously draws support from gentiles; about half of its donors would appear to have little interest in what is good for Israel. Its ads are straightforward in that respect. The first round said that staying the course will maintain stability in the Middle East (whatever that means), while the second round of print ads listed a handful of countries that had suffered terrorist attacks since 9/11, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Israel.

Yet like the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, this Jew counts the number of Jews on Freedom’s Watch’s leadership, and I would say that it is no coincidence that the bitter-enders draw on heavy Jewish support. As Walt and Mearsheimer point out, since 9/11, supporters of Israel have managed to convince themselves and the Bush administration that the United States is in the same war against terror as Israel is. This conviction has proved disastrous for the U.S., but it draws on a deeply imbedded understanding in the Jewish community of the intransigence of the Arab world.

The three principals of Freedom’s Watch have all expressed Israel-centered views. Matt Brooks himself cited Israel’s interests two years back when attacking the antiwar movement. Addressing members of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Brooks wrote, “You know, as well as I, that Saddam Hussein launched scud missiles at Israel. … You know that Saddam paid a bounty of $25,000 to the families of Palestinian homicide bombers.”

Bradley Blakeman, the president of Freedom’s Watch, who is Jewish and once did scheduling for George Bush, argued on television during the misbegotten Lebanon war last year that Israel “could have wiped out Lebanon in a day if they chose to” but that the Israelis were “fighting with one hand tied behind their back … according to international law.” (Meantime, Blakeman’s brother Bruce told the Forward that Bush had launched the Iraq War after realizing that Iraq “had designs on attacking Israel.”)

During the last presidential campaign, Ari Fleischer told a Jewish audience in Cincinnati that Bush’s policies (including the Iraq invasion) had been so good for Israel that even his mother, a Democrat, was thinking of voting for him. Lately, Fleischer cited the Hamas triumph in Gaza as evidence that Arabs don’t know how to handle democracy—making it all the more important for the U.S. to stand by Iraq’s fledgling parliament.

Fleischer is a sophisticated guy, but at least three of his donors have expressed attitudes that strike me as very parochial. Last year I interviewed one of them, Gary Erlbaum, a leader of the Jewish community in Philadelphia, and asked him why American Jews, who were then collecting money to help Israel rebuild, shouldn’t give aid to the shattered people of south Lebanon. “Until we take care of our community, absolutely not,” he said. “First you take care of your family, then you take care of your community, then you take care of the world.” Erlbaum blamed the Lebanese people for what had befallen them—“The Lebanese allowed this to fester.” On the domestic front, Erlbaum has fostered efforts like Jewish camping and Jewish schools so that Jewish kids won’t marry non-Jews. He described these efforts to me as “hand to hand combat.”

Richard J. Fox also lives in Philadelphia. A real-estate king, he heads the Jewish Policy Center, which the ubiquitous Brooks directs and which opposes the peace process in Israel/Palestine. Its mission statement addresses “foreign policies that impact the Jewish community in the United States” and includes in that category “appeasement of dictators, and unrealistic hopes that dangerous realities in the Middle East might simply change without tougher U.S. policies”—i.e., Israel has no choice but to demolish Arabs’ homes.

Then there’s Freedom’s Watch donor Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul who is the third-richest man in the United States, per the Forbes list. Adelson is cited in The Israel Lobby because he gave money to Georgetown University to expand a program in Jewish civilization so as to “moderate the Arab presence at the University,” per the superb Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, which often covers political events in the United States better than our press does. The newspaper has also reported that Adelson is married to an Israeli doctor and that he has given a staggering $60 million to the birthright program, which sends young American Jews on free trips to Israel so that they will identify with the Jewish state (and maybe marry another kid on the bus!). Gentiles need not apply. (Fox, Erlbaum, and Adelson did not return my phone calls.)

It gives me no pleasure to recite these attitudes. They might be no one’s concern outside the Jewish community were it not for 9/11 and the war on terror. But since then, a militant response to the Arab world growing out of Israel’s experience has captured the Jewish community, and—because we are so important in the political process—major segments of American political culture as well. None of the Jews associated with Freedom’s Watch seems to have demonstrated any compassion for the Palestinians being brutalized by the Israeli occupation. A couple have dismissed the idea of a Palestinian state.

It is true that liberal Jews like the Union of Reform Judaism are for a Palestinian state. But the URJ also expresses a hardened attitude toward the Arab world—for instance, when it emphasizes Palestinian terrorism as the greatest problem in Israel/Palestine and makes no mention of the horrifying actions of religious settlers, and when it all but rationalizes the confiscation of Palestinian land in the construction of Israel’s security fence.

These obdurate attitudes concern me because Jews once led the noble opposition to the Vietnam War. This debacle around, support for Israel has fractured that opposition. Still, I would contend that these attitudes are softening. Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was read by many open-minded Jews. Walt and Mearsheimer are getting a fair reception in the press, even though they were disinvited from a major foreign-policy forum in Chicago and the Forward’s editor declined to host a debate on their ideas in New York.

My generation was galvanized by ’67 and ’73, when Israel seemed to face an “existential” threat. Today, young Jews see an Israel that has been isolated in world opinion, and which litters southern Lebanon with cluster bombs. When even Bush’s ambassador to Iraq argues that the solution to terrorism there is “political” equity among the various sects, progressive Jews have to wonder whether Israel’s troubles don’t have similar roots. Myself, I have pushed for a Jewish soul-searching to figure out how it is that the neocon ideology gained so much traction in my community.

Not that the leaders of Freedom’s Watch want anyone to examine their motivation. “Didn’t you invoke Israel’s security in 2005?” I asked Matt Brooks—referring to a period when the Republican Jewish Coalition attacked the Union of Reform Judaism for coming out against the war.

“Now you got me, hold on a second,” Brooks said, before digging up the full-page ad the RJC ran at that time in support of the war effort. “No!” he crowed triumphantly. “It says we support the president and the war on terrorism. … There is absolutely zero reference to Israel. It’s about stability, it’s about making the world a safer place.”

Later, though, on the RJC’s own website, I found an article the coalition had posted from The Jewish Week newspaper during that same brouhaha. This article quoted another RJC ad, apparently from the Jewish press, that did mention Israel: “This mission is vital not only for the continuing fight against terrorism, but also for the security of Israel and the stability of the Middle East.”

For the last four years, American democracy has suffered from the fact that no one is quite sure just why we invaded Iraq. It would be good for all of us if pro-war Jews were more straightforward about their agenda.  

Philip Weiss is at work on a book about Jewish issues. He blogs at www.philipweiss.org/mondoweiss/.