Reform Body Poised For Resolution Against War
URJ’s expected call for clear Iraq exit strategy at Houston biennial could be ‘tipping point’ for further activism.
James D. Besser/Washington - Washington Correspondent
The Union for Reform Judaism, representing more than 1.5 million American Jews, is poised to be the first major Jewish body to aggressively challenge the Bush administration’s Iraq war policies — a vote that could trigger a broader outpouring of Jewish antiwar activism.
The URJ is scheduled to vote Friday on a resolution demanding a clear exit strategy and calling for an investigation into administration actions leading up to the war. The resolution at the group’s biennial meetings in Houston could represent a turning point for a community that has been less supportive of the war than the general public, but whose leaders have been reluctant to publicly criticize administration policy.
“There may be opposition to the resolution — but my guess is that it will be mostly from those who don’t think the resolution goes far enough,” said one official of the Reform movement, which is the largest religious faction in American Jewry.
Several Jewish activists said that if the Reform resolution passes, it could open the door to much wider antiwar activism by the organized Jewish community and individual Jews.
“This could be a major step forward for the community if it is passed,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, leader of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and a leading war critic. Rabbi Waskow was due in court on Wednesday on charges stemming from an antiwar protest in front of the White House with antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan. “It’s not the resolution I would have written — it doesn’t explicitly set a date [for withdrawal] — but it’s a very important step forward,” he said.
The Reform debate comes as new polls show Americans disapprove of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war by a 2-to-1 margin, and as even some leading Republicans, worried about a possible backlash at the polls next November, are trying to distance themselves from the administration’s Iraq policy.
On Tuesday the Senate rejected a Democratic proposal to require a plan and estimated timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces, but approved a resolution by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) calling on the Iraqis to “take the lead for the security of a free and sovereign Iraq, thereby creating the conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq.” The 79-13 vote was widely seen as an expression of growing Republican anxiety over how the war and President George W. Bush’s shrinking popularity might affect next year’s midterm congressional elections.
“The Republicans are very jittery about Iraq’s effect at the polls, and they should be,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. The Frist-Warner resolution, he said, represents the maximum the GOP-led Congress is likely to approve. But the fact that even leading Republicans are starting to respond to growing antiwar sentiment is “a good indicator” of the growing political impact of the issue, he said. Sabato said the antiwar movement “is not yet mainstream,” but added “we’re on the edge of a change.”
And that change may be reflected in the move by the Reform movement. This week delegates to the URJ biennial will take up a draft resolution — already approved by its Commission on Social Action — calling on the administration to “immediately provide more transparency regarding all aspects of the war and a clear exit strategy to the American public with specific goals for troop withdrawal.” The resolution states that “some withdrawal of troops should begin after the completion of the parliamentary elections (currently scheduled for Dec. 15, 2005) with the continuation of withdrawal implemented as soon as possible in a way that maintains stability in the nation and empowers Iraqi forces to provide for their national security.”
The report notes the conditional approval of U.S. military action by Reform’s leaders in 2002, but states that the conditions laid out in that approval were unmet. “Now we know, based on a bipartisan U.S. commission … that many of the premises on which the Congress, the American public and the Union’s Executive Committee based their prescriptions were false; that no weapons of mass destruction were stored in Iraq; that there was no attempt on the part of the government of Saddam Hussein to purchase uranium from the nation of Niger; that there were no ties between Saddam Hussein and the events of September 11, 2001; and that there were no ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. These mistakes — be they misrepresentations or misunderstandings — have significantly undermined American credibility.”
The resolution also calls for “more diligent” congressional oversight of the war, a more equitable distribution of its costs and a bipartisan commission to investigate how America got into the war and how leaders in Washington planned for it. That reflects the growing consensus among Reform Jews that the war is causing more harm than good, according to Rabbi Barry Schwartz, senior rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Cherry Hill, N.J., which is a major sponsor of the URJ resolution.
“My congregation is not different from the community at large or the nation,” Rabbi Schwartz told The Jewish Week. “I’m seeing an ever-growing number of people who are very concerned about the ongoing causalities, both American soldiers and civilians, and worried whether there is true progress in Iraq. People are very concerned that our government is not expressing what its overall plan is for the withdrawal of troops, or for the involvement of other nations.”
He said there is not universal agreement in his community on the best way to disengage from Iraq, but there is widespread agreement “that there has to be greater accountability for the past, present and future by the administration and Congress.” Rabbi Schwartz said that some Jewish leaders were initially unwilling to speak out about the war because of the hope that toppling Hussein would remove a major threat to Israel and because of the administration’s argument that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to the entire region.
But those weapons turned out to be a chimera, and many Jews, are now more concerned that “anarchy, civil war and terrorism in Iraq may be as dangerous to Israel as the status quo before the war. You just have to look at what happened in Amman last week,” he said, referring to the deadly hotel bombings for which al Qaeda has claimed credit.
Rabbi Schwartz said that many Jews stayed away from antiwar activities after the start of the Iraq conflict because of the anti-Israel attitudes of some early leaders of the movement. But the growing outcry by centrist forces, he said, could be a “tipping point. If moderate groups raise their voices together, then dissent against the war can’t be dismissed as a radical fringe. That’s why it’s so important for the Reform movement to join with other centrist groups and speak out.”
Rabbi Schwartz expressed frustration that it’s taken so long for Jewish groups, including Reform organizations, to speak up. “I’m quite disappointed that the institutional Jewish community has not found its voice — at the very least to demand that the questions be asked,” he said. “I believe that is not only necessary, but true patriotism.”
But an official with one major Jewish organization that generally takes liberal positions defended that silence. “Look, even if we have concerns, there is no consensus in our group and in our community over the best course of action,” this activist said. “And we’re kidding ourselves if we think this is an issue we — with all our uncertainty — are going to have a real impact on. So why speak out decisively? It doesn’t make sense.”
Still, this official said that the Reform resolution, if it passes, could “really change the whole debate in our community. Other groups probably won’t follow the Reform to the barricades, but it could have a big impact on the community as a whole.”