THE NATION, October 1, 2007
"Why the Silence? -- American Jews and the Iraq War"
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
It is August, 2007, just a few weeks before the Awesome Holy Days, and I am checking my Email. I am also, as those days approach, counting up the time since January 2003, when The Shalom Center placed a full-page ad in the New York Times , signed by hundreds of Jews, warning that the planned invasion of Iraq would be a disaster. Counting up, as we are taught to do, not only days and years but what we have accomplished and what we have failed to accomplish in those days and years.
The Iraq War is four and a half years old. More than 3600 American soldiers are dead. Many thousands more have lost legs, arms, eyes, or genitals, have suffered severe brain damage, and are experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome at rates far higher, and earlier, than during and after the Vietnam War. Between 200,000 and 600,000 Iraqis have died, two million have fled their country and another two million their homes. Two-thirds of the American public and at least that many American Jews believe the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a terrible error.
And in my Email I receive, from the editor of a Jewish on-line magazine, her response to my submission of an article she had commissioned me to write. She had asked me to address what the High Holy Days might say about America's predilection for violence, at home and overseas. But now she demands that I revise my article: "I can't have an article taking sides in the Iraqi conflict." (I refused to revise it.)
Is she, or her magazine, anomalous? Far from it. In May, 2003, the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative rabbis) failed to reach agreement on a motion calling for a "timely draw-down" in American troops from Iraq, describing the military effort in Iraq as a failure, and reaffirming their support for the troops.
Other rabbis moved earlier –- if "earlier" is an accurate word. In February 2007, four years into the war, Ohalah (the Jewish-renewal rabbinic association) called for an end to the war. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association followed shortly, as did the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis (one of whose members wrote me that Ohalah's action had spurred them to act).
In the late summer of 2005, the most nearly democratic governing body of Reform Judaism, its biennial national convention, had adopted a scathing critique of the war – after rebellious grass-roots members had triggered action by the official leadership. But the officially-approved resolution had no explicit action directive demanding the war be ended, so for another eighteen months nothing happened.
But the grass-roots simmering came to a boil again. Finally, in the spring of 2007, the Union of Reform Judaism adopted a resolution calling for Congress to set a time-table for an end to the war. In April, the Reform movement's Religious Action Center invited me to speak at its Consultation on Conscience on what the movement could/ should do about the war.
I urged that it mobilize grass-roots support for Senator Russ Feingold's effort to cut off funds for the war. For months, as Congress wrestled, no memo ensued. In July, the RAC sent out an alert to local activists asking support for the Feingold approach. And in September, when the war budget came up again, the RAC again urged its activists to write and call the Senate to support the Feingold amendment.
Meanwhile, a broad spectrum of mainstream American religious groups – among them the National Council of Churches and the Islamic Society of North America -- decided to urge a one-day fast on October 8 to call for bringing US troops home and making a major US contribution to (without control of) an international and non-governmental effort to help Iraqis rebuild their country.
A number of individual rabbis, but no Jewish organizations except The Shalom Center, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, and an ad hoc "Jews Against the War" joined in calling for a fast. Despite their antiwar resolutions, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Reconstructionist rabbis refused.
Two thousand years ago, in Pirke Avot, the Rabbis defined themselves as the heirs of the Prophets, whose task was to condemn the immoral power-grabs of kings and to demand peace and justice, even at the risk of their lives and their own freedom. Why, then, have almost all the rabbis failed on this life-and-death moral issue to lead the American Jewish community – where even elected politicians were way ahead in defining the moral and practical failure of the war?
And why have almost all other large Jewish organizations failed to speak out against the war?
Let us leave aside some Jewish groups that are not even within hoping range of wistfulness for antiwar activity -- like the American Jewish Committee and Congress, the Orthodox community, the Conference of Presidents. What about the "natural" loci of opposition?
There are four reasons for their silence:
First, synagogues are where people hope others will celebrate their children and mourn their deaths. Even when just a small minority of members still support the war, the majority may hesitate to anger these folks, and the rabbis acquiesce lest their boards harass or fire them.
Secondly, even when huge proportions of the Israeli security elite had abandoned its early support for the war, Prime Minister Olmert publicly criticized the Reform movement for calling for a time table to end it. (Olmert was being shoved hard by a Bush Administration whose support he desperately needed, since his approval rating among his own citizens was down to 3%, with a 5% error margin.)
A generation ago, when the Israeli government acted the same way under pressure from Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, most American Jewish "leaders" shut up. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel became a hero to many Jews precisely because he refused to shut up. But while many official Jewish organizations boast about the photo of Heschel marching alongside Martin Luther King, they have refused to follow his example. Even the Reform movement, with its strong constituent base, shuddered when the baseless Olmert screeched.
What about organizations (like the Jewish Funds for Justice) that have sprouted in the last two decades to work for social justice as once-liberal mainstream groups like the American Jewish Congress have moved far to the right and most JCRC's have been swallowed up by much more conservative federations?
Almost all of them, fearing furious internal disagreement about Israel would disrupt their praiseworthy work at home, have treated anything beyond the US borders as a zone of danger. The national flagship for Jewish public policy, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, which does address US policy toward Israel, did not even have an Iraq resolution on the agenda when it met in the spring of 2007. Although Iraq is costing half a trillion dollars while unfit US bridges and obsolete sewer lines kill people, although the levees of New Orleans and the Louisiana National Guard were short-changed by the war, although many of our schools are cesspools and our health care is collapsing -- somehow these organizations have not discovered that the war IS a domestic issue. A justice issue.
The one long-standing Jewish organization that has persistently opposed the Iraq war and has recognized the intertwining of the war, human-rights and civil-liberties questions, and domestic economic policy grew from the merger of two progressive secularist organizations, the Arbeterring/ Workmen's Circle and Jewish Currents.
On the flip side of the coin from the domestic-only organizations are some that address only Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab questions: Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), and Jewish Voice for Peace. They have evidently felt that it is so hard to get even progressive Jews to focus on issues where Israeli policy might come under criticism that they have not wanted to dilute their focus by adding Iraq to it. So they have been unwilling to broaden their mission, despite suggestions that the US occupation of Iraq, US-Iranian hostility, US efforts to engage the Saudis in "stabilization," and US hostility to Israeli-Syrian negotiations are all so intertwined with the Israeli-Palestinian question that peace might best be pursued in any one of these arenas by trying to reach a grand settlement in the broader Middle East – including Iraq.
One and only one organization that began by addressing Israel-related human-rights issues, Rabbis for Human Rights/ North America, has expanded its concerns to include US policy elsewhere – by focusing like a laser beam on US denials of human rights, especially the legitimation of torture.
Third, some Jewish organizations may have held back from antiwar organizing for fear of or disgust at working with some few groups within the American antiwar movement that not only criticize some Israeli policies but demonize Israel as a society. But there is one mainstream antiwar coalition – Win Without War – that has no such groups within it, and was even mentioned by the URJ resolution of 2005 as laudable. Yet still its only Jewish members are The Shalom Center and Tikkun.
Finally, within almost all the major Jewish organizations there are small numbers of people with very very large amounts of money. Most of them are Republicans, and they hollered to high heaven (or somewhere else, since High Heaven is exactly where our Oseh Shalom prayer says God teaches peace) at the idea of condemning the war invented and defended by the Bush Administration.
Especially in regard to very large organizations like the Reform movement, I recognize that like great ocean liners, they need time to change course. (But similar organizations like the United Methodist Church saw early that this would be an unjust and disastrous war.) I sometimes see The Shalom Center as a feisty tugboat, nudging and noodging the great ships for change.
In the meantime, I honor the excellent work some of them do on issues like poverty, women's rights, gay rights, and immigrants' rights. But how much time should they need to catch up with their own constituents when it comes to the Iraq war and its machinery of mayhem? And what would it take to renew prophetic energy among at least the various groups of rabbis who claim that mantle?
At the Great March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, I heard Rabbi Joachim Prinz proclaim that silence is a crime. What is breeding silence now? The same old demons: Fear of the wealthy, deference to the powerful, and a desire not to wipe the smiles off "friends" just to prevent thousands of deaths and maimings –- so long as the dead are in someone else's family.
Why should this decade be different from any other decade?
When that Jewish antiwar ad appeared in the Times back in 2003, I called my daughter in Chicago to tell her it was there. She and my son, who had been children in the '70s, had bravely walked in antiwar demonstrations then, to save the dying children of Vietnam; and they had signed the new ad. In the midst of our conversation, I burst into unexpected tears. I told my daughter that I felt like apologizing to them for my generation's failure. I had thought that what we did in the '70s had made another war like that one, like this coming one, impossible. Yet -- here we were. So sad, so sad ---
And then a few weeks later I got up early to carry out my household’s garbage for the weekly pickup. Grumpy, muttering, cursing -- "Every week, the **** garbage!"
And then it hit me: Just as every week we must carry out the garbage to be picked up from our homes, so every generation, every decade, we must carry out the social and political garbage from our midst. I thought we had "taken out the garbage" of the Vietnam War once and for all. I thought we had "taken out the garbage" of the imperial, pharaonic Presidency once and for all. Not so. Again and again, every decade, every generation -- new garbage, new wars, new pharaohs, new denials of human rights, new palls of silence, new clouds of despair -- to be taken out.
It is only the grass-roots Jews – the great majority who have already realized how corrupt and lethal is the Iraq war -- who have already carried out that garbage from their own homes -- who can carry out the garbage of war, of silence, of despair so as to cleanse anew our institutional houses.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center , the author of many books on Jewish thought and practice, and the co-author of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Beacon).