WASHINGTON — A majority of American Jewish groups are supporting President Bush's call for action against Iraq, agreeing that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses a grave risk to world stability.
"I believe, at present, it's the most clear and present danger to democracy and freedom," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
The Jewish reaction to Bush's speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 12 represents the clearest statement to date about support for Bush's stance on Iraq.
It comes as the community has been struggling to formulate a policy on an issue fraught with sensitivities.
In his highly anticipated speech at the United Nations, Bush said it would be a "reckless gamble" for the international community to ignore Iraq.
"The history, the logic and the facts lead to one conclusion: Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger," Bush said in New York. "To suggest otherwise is to hope against the evidence."
Bush enumerated numerous U.N. resolutions that Saddam had violated within the last decade, and said the Iraqi president "had made the case against himself."
Without setting a firm deadline for Iraqi compliance, Bush laid out a detailed list of things Saddam must do to avoid conflict.
He said he preferred to get international support for any move against Iraq, but he made it clear that the United States would act unilaterally if necessary.
The "purpose of the United States should not be debated," he said.
In its effort to formulate a policy on Iraq, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has been soliciting the views of its members in an effort to reach consensus not only on whether to support Bush but also how outspoken the community should be.
Members of the umbrella group met via conference call shortly after the speech, but did not reach a conclusion as to how the American Jewish community will respond to Bush's doctrine.
"We have to be careful how the Jewish community handles this," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. "Events are going to dictate the timing."
Developments since Bush's speech have done little to sway that view.
Jewish officials echoed the skepticism emanating from the White House on Tuesday over Iraq's agreement to allow arms inspectors back into the country.
"We have to see what really is here," Hoenlein said Tuesday. "We know Saddam has used these as tactics in the past, and there is no reason to believe this is any different."
Jewish groups have been unusually cautious about taking a stand on the issue for several reasons.
Most Jewish groups believe a regime change in Iraq would reduce the security threat to Israel and remove a key Palestinian ally.
But there is also considerable concern that Iraq will hit Israel with biological or chemical weapons in retaliation for any attack by the United States.
There is also a predominant view that even if Jews generally support Bush's stance, the community should not be vocal in the debate because it would give critics ammunition to portray U.S. action as a fight on Israel's behalf, as some did in the 1991 Gulf War.
Despite their caution and without specifying a formal policy, Jewish leaders predominantly expressed support for Bush's words at the United Nations.
They said he detailed a strong case that Saddam has consistently ignored U.N. resolutions, that he was seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam has shown a propensity towards using them.
"Iraq is the single most important threat right now to world peace and to our safety," said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Orthodox Religious Zionists of America.
He described Saddam as a "maniac" who "has proven that he will gas his own people."
"The fanaticism that exists throughout the Middle East is best addressed by first dealing with Iraq," agreed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Many American Jewish leaders expressed the fear that Saddam has not been quiet for the past decade because of a loss of will, but because he has been using the time to garner weapons for an eventual attack on U.S. interests and allies.
"Do we have to wait until a target is hit, and the world says, 'Ah, yes, he did have weapons of mass destruction,'" asked David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
Support, however, is not unconditional for some.
Some argue that the United States should not act alone, but only through an international coalition of the kind that the senior President Bush assembled during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, said that acting alone would be a mistake.
"I have little doubt that if the United States were to defy world opinion by attacking Saddam Hussein, the Arab street would spawn a tidal wave of terrorism," Schorsch said in a speech on Sept. 11.
Schorsch said that he would encourage new diplomatic initiatives, because "a military victory will only leave the soil saturated with resentment, the poisoned seedbed for the next round of violence."
Indeed, Bush clearly faces an uphill battle in gathering world support for his position that demands against Iraq must be met or "action will be unavoidable."
Several Jewish leaders expressed concern about the remarks made that same day by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who warned against quick military action and directly linked the Iraq issue with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Speaking to the General Assembly directly before Bush, Annan said both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq's defiance of U.N. resolutions were "threats to world peace."
Annan pressed the need for weapons inspections so that the world could know that weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated and lead to suspension of sanctions against the Iraqi people.
But, warned Annan, "If Iraq's defiance continues, the Security Council must face its responsibilities."
The Bush speech also intensified the debate as to whether the Iraqi regime is the largest threat to the world, and thus worthy of intense U.S. efforts.
In the past couple of weeks, questions on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have been raised as to whether Iran, Syria or other regimes are also a threat, and require additional attention from the United States.
As the Jewish community continues to wrestle with policy, some said they would be best poised to speak out when Bush takes his message to Congress.
"If the president asks Congress to support action in Iraq, AIPAC would lobby members of Congress to support him," said Rebecca Needler, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.