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The Wrong Answer to the Iraq War

If you are a Jew who believes that the American government’s invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a terrible ethical and practical misdeed, you now find yourself walking amid landmines.

There is a broad spectrum of organizations that opposed the invasion of Iraq and is working to end the American military presence there. Many of these groups are also critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. That’s not terrible — after all, so are you.

But some of these anti-war activists taint their opposition by demonizing the whole of Israeli society and by refusing to criticize the “violence of the oppressed,” even when it includes terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinian groups. Their misguided views make it much easier for some parts of mainstream America to reciprocally demonize the entire anti-war camp and deprive it of support.

They have posed a problem to a major anti-war rally scheduled for September 24 in Washington. The broad anti-war group organizing the weekend-long gathering, United for Peace and Justice, had insisted for months that on principle it would not co-sponsor the event with Act Now to Stop War & End Racism, an ultra-left fraction, known as Answer, that has a bitterly anti-Israel policy.

But just three weeks before the event, United for Peace and Justice agreed to do just that. The Shalom Center had been urging Jewish support for the anti-war weekend, and we and many other progressives felt betrayed and outraged by the change.

Why did United for Peace and Justice switch positions? When I asked the group’s head, Leslie Cagan, she said that local groups were troubled by “disunity,” that they were querulous about the prospect of having to choose the rally to which their buses would go. I said that United for Peace and Justice could have repeated its principled position and told the local groups they would need to choose — challenging them to be adults. She sighed.

What to do? Our Jewish values teach us that the war is increasing the danger of terrorist attacks on America; is undermining American schools, health care, police and fire protection, and even disaster prevention; is endangering civil liberties, and strengthening the oil industry and the most right-wing Christian elements in American life. We believe the war is bad for Jews, bad for America and bad for the world. And we believe we must continue to oppose it, with vigor and determination.

Our Jewish values also teach us that we must not remain supine while speakers from organizations such as Answer malign Israel from the podium. We will not be silent when decent peace groups surrender to simple-minded calls for a spurious “unity,” any more than when President Bush calls for a spurious “unity.”

What to do, then? Draw on Jewish roots and practice.

We are organizing a special Sabbath service, focused on pursuing peace, at the 6th and I Street Historic Synagogue in Washington, during the same period on Saturday morning when Answer will be on the podium. People will gather at 9 a.m. to nosh on bagels, and from 10 a.m. on to pray, chant, celebrate, hear brief talks and converse together about peacemaking and this misbegotten war. Afterward, they will leave to join as they like in the anti-war march and other events of the weekend.

In all fairness, some of the responsibility for the disconnect between anti-war action and Jewish communal organizations must be laid at Jewish doorsteps. Although two-thirds of American Jews now describe the war as a mistake and a majority seek to bring American troops safely and speedily home, no large Jewish organization is voicing such demands.

Many Jewish organizations supported or stayed silent about the war because they believed Bush administration statements that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that could badly wound Israel and the United States. Yet even though these claims have since been proven false, Jewish organizations have yet to revise their position.

The starvation of crucial domestic programs in order to waste money on the war, the deaths of more than 1,800 Americans and an untold number of innocent Iraqis, the damage to civil liberties, the absence of National Guard members who might have saved thousands in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — none of these tragedies has convinced Jewish organizations to listen to their own members and to the many disgusted Jews who are increasingly shrugging off Judaism because the large Jewish organizations are silent on today’s big issues.

The only Jewish organizations making their voices heard, it seems, are those pushing an agenda out of step with American Jewry at large. Take, for example, Cindy Sheehan’s demand last month in front of Bush’s home in Crawford, Texas, that he face her to explain for what noble cause he had sent her soldier son to die in Iraq. She became a “Jewish issue” when the Republican Jewish Coalition claimed she had said her son died for Israel, not America. Sheehan denied it, and pro-Israel peace people who had been in touch with her for months, myself included, can recall no such statement.

The Republican Jewish Coalition claimed that the entire Democratic Party believed what it asserted Sheehan had said. This claim was a transparent and ridiculous partisan defense of a president whose popularity has been dropping precipitously. But no large Jewish organization denounced this manipulative misuse of Jewish self-defense concerns.

This hangover from prewar assumptions about the danger posed by Saddam Hussein, coupled with preconceived notions about the anti-war camp, has held back Jewish groups from joining in the active opposition to the occupation of Iraq, even though the values they promote would seem to argue for such an effort. There are anti-war coalitions comprising an array of mainstream liberal organizations, such as Win Without War, which includes the National Council of Churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Sierra Club and MoveOn. Noticeably absent from such lists are large Jewish organizations such as the Union for Reform Judaism.

So the anti-Israel actions of a few anti-war groups and the absence of anti-war action by large Jewish groups create a vicious circle — more distrust and disdain in both directions.

It is sad, for affirmation of peace between a safe Israel and a safe Palestine is very much in accord with anti-war values. It is sad, for opposition to the war in Iraq — driven, as it is, by a blinding thirst for oil and by right-wing religious zealotry — is very much in keeping with Jewish values.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center.




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