The antiwar movement, peace, & Israel: Dvar Torah 9/24/05 in Washington, DC

Rabbi Sid Schwarz 9/24/05

This gathering represents Jews of conscience who refuse to sacrifice Israel or their Jewish self-respect on the altar of political correctness. It is not the first time Jews have had to make this choice. In the words of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song: we have all been here before. In 1969, a young Jewish activist named M.J. Rosenberg, disgusted with Jews who joined movements to end the war in Vietnam and to advance the rights of Afro-Americans but who seemed oblivious to the fact that many in those movements were hostile to Israel wrote:

"And thus, from this point on, I shall join no movement that does not accept and support my people's struggle. If I must choose between the Jewish cause and a progressive, anti-Israel cause, I shall choose the Jewish cause. If the barricades are erected, I will fight as a Jew. (MJ Rosenberg, To Uncle Tom and Other Such Jews, Village Voice, Feb. 1969)

Many of us struggle mightily with balancing our commitment to justice and peace with the following realization: many of our fellow travelers in progressive causes would work for the right of every group on the planet for self-determination and, in the same breath, deny it to Jews and the state of Israel. This is why most of us are here today.

We believe that the war being waged in Iraq is built on a pack of lies and half-truths, playing on the fears of Americans about international terrorism. But, at the same time, we cannot participate in a demonstration whose organizers perpetuate lies and accusations, just as outrageous, about the state of Israel.

In this weeks Torah reading of Ki Tavo, Moses reminds the children of Israel that God has offered numerous signs to tell them what they were meant to do in history. Standing on the eve of their entry into the Promised Land, Moses says: Unto this day,(ad hayom hazeh) you (the children of Israel) have still not acquired the mind to understand, or the eyes to see, or the ears to hear the truth(Deut. 29:3).

How eerie. This obtuseness, of which our ancestors were accused in this verse, seems to apply to the world we live in today. The verse reminds us how, year after year, the world engages in the most obscene double standard by accusing Israel of actions that are ignored in dozens of other countries around the globe.

Even more obscene is to see that the strategy employed by Hitler is successful: If you tell a big lie often enough, it will be believed. How else do you explain that much of the Moslem world believes that Israel engineered the Sept. 11th tragedy in New York, Washington and Shanksville, PA.

Judaism and Peace

Judaism has a deep commitment to peace even though ours is not a pacifist religion. The Bible assumes that war is part of the tapestry of history. Yet precisely because of this, our sages put limits on war. Obligatory wars (milchemet chova) could only be fought in defense, not to acquire territory. Discretionary wars (milchemet mitzvah) required broad consensus under carefully prescribed circumstances and many rabbis tried to legislate it out of existence.

The Torah forbids cities from being attacked without providing means of escape or the possibility of surrender. Civilians and non-combatants are not to be harmed (Deut 20:14).And Jews engaged in war are warned not to engage in actions that would harm the land or trees of their enemy (Deut 20:19). After all, the earth is God's gift to all humanity.

The Psalmist says, seek peace and pursue it (34:15). The Mishna teaches: one who destroys a single life, it is as if he destroys an entire world. Isaiahs words are inscribed on a wall across from the United Nations: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn anymore of war.

In our prayer book we say: may the One who makes peace in the heavens, help to bring peace on the earth below. In fact, in several places in rabbinic literature, we are told that God's name is Shalom.

The Jewish pursuit of peace may be motivated by the fact that few peoples in history have suffered as much from war. For this very reason, we as Jews question the recourse to military means to resolve conflict in the world. Americas military incursion into Iraq was sold to the American people on grounds that have now been all but unmasked as false. To the families and loved ones of the dead and injured, a number that grows disturbingly by the day, it is hard to make the case that the world is a safer place as a result of this conflict.

The Case of Israel

We therefore are sympathetic with those who have traveled from around the country today to challenge the U.S. Administrations conduct of the war in Iraq. But we cannot, we will not, participate in a rally that characterizes Israel as the villain in the contemporary middle east.

Jews must be knowledgeable enough and courageous enough to make the case for Israel and we must do it with our friends and in every public medium available to us.

Israel is the most profound and consequential political undertaking of the Jewish people in the last 2000 years. For better or worse, it has become the litmus test against which loyalty to the Jewish people is judged.

Some Jews identify with Israel so strongly that they can accept no criticism of Israel, either from within the community or from outside of it. Any criticism of Israel is seen as an attack on Jews and quickly gets labeled as anti-Semitic.

Other Jews, feeling that Israeli actions should reflect the highest ethical standards of the Judaic heritage, hold Israel to a very high moral standard and are not unwilling to criticize one Israeli policy or the other. Rabbi Yossi b. Hanina in Bereshit Rabbah says that any love that does not include rebuke is not true love.

While I clearly count myself in the second camp, I loathe the self-righteousness of those in both camps. I do not believe that the first camp is made up of simple-minded reactionaries. There is a narrative of the last 60 years of middle-east history that supports the position that Israel has been unfairly accused and ostracized by the world community.

If you have any doubts about this narrative, take a closer look at the 2001 Durban conference on racism that vilified Israel, or at Yasser Arafat's ripping off and betrayal of his own people that he blamed on Israel, or the Nazi-like characterizations of Jews in the Arab press and in the school textbooks of Arab children. Many liberal Jews have not fully appreciated this lesson, ad hayom hazeh, even unto this very day.

The more hawkish, pro-Israel camp has its own massive blind spot. Its tendency to brand any criticism of Israel by Jews as traitorous has driven tens of thousands of thoughtful, committed American Jews away from the Jewish community because they cannot align themselves with a position that demands a love it or leave it approach to a morally complex situation in the middle east. These defenders of Israel have failed to understand this for a very long time, ad hayom hazeh, even unto this very day.

Ecclesiastes says: there is a time and place for everything. There is a time to call Israel to task for its moral and ethical failings, of which there are many. But in the face of attacks on Israel's very right to exist, it is time for Jews to stand up, and, unabashedly, defend the Jewish homeland. It is time for Jews to choose truth.

-Israel is a country that has given up Sinai for peace, Gaza for peace and soon, will give up large sections of the West Bank for peace;

-Israel's Supreme Court ordered the relocation of a barrier that has saved hundreds of Israeli lives because it violated the rights of Palestinians;

-In the midst of intifadah II, when suicide bombers were mudering Israeli men, women and children in pizza parlors, school buses and shopping centers, Israeli Jews started dozens of dialogue groups with Palestinians to explore peaceful coexistence;

-I have not agreed with much that Ariel Sharon has done in his career but he was right when, last week in his speech at the UN, he listed dozens of Israeli initiatives for peace and he asked wistfully, when will any of it be reciprocated by leaders in the Arab world?

About 20 years ago I attended an interfaith program on the Middle East at the National Cathedral. One of the speakers was Mordecai Bar-On, one of the founders of Peace Now and a leading progressive voice in Israeli society. Bar-On shared a panel with a Palestinian and an American academic, both of whom were extremely critical of Israeli policies. Bar-On had been critical of some of those same policies but, as the third speaker, he surprised his audience by launching into one of the most stirring defenses of Israels right to exist and to defend herself that I had ever heard.

I have often recalled that moment to help me find my own center in terms of what can be said about Israel and when. Israelis and Jews cannot afford to be nave about the consequences of underestimating those who would harm us. There is surely a time to criticize Israel for not living up to the highest standards of prophetic justice. Israels very Declaration of Independence holds up that ethical bar. But there is also a time for Jews to rally round Israel and defend her right to exist and to act in defense of her citizens. Today is such a day.

One of the mishnas in Pirke Avot says that the world is sustained through din, emet vshalom, justice, truth and peace. Jews are committed to justice. Jews are committed to peace. In this we join many people who are marching today to end the war in Iraq. But the lesson of this day, the lesson of this weeks parsha, is that both justice and peace must be based on truth and not on lies. This is a lesson the world seems not to have learned, ad hayom hazeh, until this very day.

We must be bearers of this truth to the world.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is the founder/president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. This talk was delivered at a shabbat service sponsored by the Shalom Center as an alternative to part of the anti-war rally in Washington D.C. on September 24, 2005, part of which had been handed over to groups known to be anti-Israel.