Anti-war Activist Addresses Congregation

By Josh Richman

Published October 21, 2005, issue of October 21, 2005.
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Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan wasted no time trying to clear the air on Yom Kippur.

Moments after taking the microphone during an afternoon break in the congregation Beyt Tikkun’s service, the slain soldier’s mother — who drew international attention in August with her weeks-long anti-war vigil outside President Bush’s vacation home — noted that it had been controversial for Rabbi Michael Lerner to invite her.

“There are a lot of lies that go around about me,” she said. “One of those is that I blamed Israel for my son’s death, and I never did.”

According to media reports, in August Sheehan told a Veterans for Peace conference that Bush should “get America out of Iraq and Israel out of Palestine and you’ll stop the terrorism.” That same month, conservative bloggers began circulating an e-mail that she allegedly sent to ABC’s “Nightline” accusing America of going to war to advance a “neocon” agenda and to “benefit Israel,” and stating that her son had “joined the Army to protect America, not Israel.” Through a spokesperson, Sheehan told the Forward later in August that the note had been sent by someone who’d hacked into her e-mail account.

Some right-wing Jewish activists and other White House supporters attempted to paint Sheehan as a symbol of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment that some observers say permeates the anti-war movement. Left-wingers, on the other hand, countered that warmongers were twisting Sheehan’s statements in the hopes of driving a wedge between American Jews — who overwhelmingly oppose the war, according to polls — and the political left.

Led by the left-wing rabbi, the Jewish Renewal congregation welcomed her with open arms and standing ovations. During the Yom Kippur services, held in a multipurpose room at the University of San Francisco, the only sign of strife came when one congregant later asked Sheehan to denounce publicly an avowal of support from white supremacist David Duke. She did so, promptly.

In an October 12 e-mail to congregants, Lerner explained why he had invited Sheehan to speak during his Yom Kippur services. “A majority of Americans today believe that the war in Iraq was a deep mistake,” he wrote. “Yet our government continues to use our tax monies to finance this war and has no plans to get out of Iraq. We are morally liable for the sins of a democratic government, and making war is one such sin.”

It’s true, Lerner added, that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, several American Jewish communal leaders and some prominent Jewish neoconservatives in the Bush Administration encouraged the war, as did Israel’s government under Prime Minister Sharon. “These are activities for which we in Beyt Tikkun atone,” Lerner wrote, “taking collective responsibility for the sins of some.

“But we do not accept the notion that this was a Jewish war or that the Bush Administration suddenly came under the influence of the Jewish people just because some Jews advocated for the war, any more than we would blame African Americans by pointing to the roles of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in advocating for this war.”

Sheehan was not invited for the purpose of turning Yom Kippur into a political rally, Lerner wrote, but to spark “a discussion of our responsibility as Americans.” “We atone for the sins of the U.S. Administration even though we opposed those choices, because America is our homeland and we care deeply for the fate of our country. On Yom Kippur we pray for forgiveness for all the sins in our personal lives, in the lives of the Jewish people, and in the lives of the American people and government, and in the lives of the Israeli people and government.”

Journalists weren’t invited to the service; entry was permitted only with a paid ticket, and, in keeping with Lerner’s wishes, no notes or recordings were made inside.

During her talk to the congregation, Sheehan — who was accompanied to the service by her sister, DeeDee Miller — said that the blame for the Iraq war rests mostly with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and “war profiteers” such as Bechtel, Halliburton and Standard Oil. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill bear some responsibility, too, she added. “Congress was like Pontius Pilate; they washed their hands of it,” she said, referring to the Roman governor whom the New Testament describes as acquiescing to the Sanhedrin’s wish to have Jesus killed. “They gave the keys of our country to a power-drunk man so he could drive it off a cliff.”

Sheehan unleashed a lengthy diatribe against the news media, which she accused of never asking Bush hard questions about why the nation went to war and why it remains in Iraq, even though the media never failed to parse “every little thing a broken mother has said out of her broken heart.”

Her anti-war activism has made her a target for vilification and lies, Sheehan said. But she added that all she aims to do is prevent more unneeded deaths like that of her son, Casey, who was slain in Baghdad’s Sadr City section in April 2004. “I don’t want that to happen to any other mother: Iraqi, American, Israeli, British, German….”

Everyone bears responsibility for that, she said — even her. “For my whole life, I’ll be atoning for the sin of not trying to do anything about it until Casey was killed,” she said, “because I thought one person couldn’t make a difference.”

A mass e-mail sent by Lerner several days after Sheehan’s talk reported that during the question-and-answer session that followed, Sheehan was asked if she would consider running against Senator Dianne Feinstein. A California Democrat, Feinstein did not oppose the war. Sheehan responded by saying that the anti-war movement should run someone against Feinstein but it should be someone else with more knowledge about a variety of issues.

In his mass e-mail, Lerner wrote: “Cindy told me privately that she was aware that 78% of Jews had voted for Gore in 2000 and for Kerry in 2004, and that if the rest of the country had voted the way the Jews vote that there never would have been a war in Iraq.”

Sheehan, a Southern California native who recently moved from her late son’s hometown of Vacaville, Calif., 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, to Berkeley, spent the days before and after Yom Kippur urging California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to pull his state’s National Guard troops out of Iraq. On Thanksgiving, she intends to resume her vigil outside of Bush’s Texas ranch.

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