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A preemptive attack on Iran? US Jews are deeply divided.

The AIPAC conference in Washington elicited one hawkish pronouncement after another from US leaders. But American Jews are deeply split over how to deal with Iran's nuclear aspirations.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / March 8, 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in Washington, Tuesday, March 6.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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New York

Americans watching President Obama and the Republican presidential candidates address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee might be surprised to learn that American Jews hold widely divergent views on the issue of Iran and its possible development of a nuclear bomb.

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In fact, the American Jewish community is deeply split over the difficult policy challenge of confronting Iran’s nuclear program, with “hawks” and “doves” in the community engaged in heated, and at times acrimonious, exchanges.

On Wednesday, for example, in The New York Times, a full-page ad taken out by the liberal magazine Tikkun, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and The Shalom Center was headlined in part: “No War on Iran and No First Strike.”

“We want to speak directly to the public as well as Congress and the president,” says Rabbi Arthur Waskow, leader of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, in an interview. “We think there is a deep opposition to going to war; this is totally crazy this whole policy of a preemptive strike.”

The long-brewing crisis over Iran’s nuclear program seemed to become even more urgent over the weekend, as Republican presidential candidates addressed AIPAC's annual policy conference, with each one trying to sound more hawkish. Former Sen. Rick Santorum declared, for example, “If Iran doesn’t get rid of nuclear facilities, we will tear them down ourselves.”

President Obama likewise warned Iran to halt any effort to build a bomb. As the Shalom Center ad noted, the only difference between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to be how long to use economic sanctions against Iran before resorting to military strikes. Obama did caution, however, that “Already there is too much loose talk of war.”

The issue of supporting Israel in the face of Iran’s nuclear aspirations is particularly sensitive for Obama as he seeks reelection. According to a September survey of American Jewish opinion conducted for the American Jewish Committee, 45 percent of Jews disapprove of the president’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue, while 43 percent approved.

But if sanctions and diplomacy – the preferred path so far for the Obama administration – fail, the survey found, some 56 percent said they supported military action against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon; 68 percent supported Israel taking military action.

There are, nevertheless, many Jews who publicly disagree with the need for war, says Rabbi Waskow, whose supporters include Bianca Jagger, Jonathan Demme, the film maker, and Barry Commoner, an environmentalist who ran for president in 1980 under the Citizens Party ticket.

“There were so many people who signed and contributed we could not have printed all the names,” says Waskow. “It is important for people to know there are Jewish organizations and flesh and blood Jews who oppose the notion of a first strike against Iran.”

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