Jews & the Antiwar Movement, Part 1 (1/03)

Personal Observations by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 7/21/2003


Dear Chevra,

In the past few days, I have received a number of letters asking me how I feel about Jewish relationships with the anti-war movement.

The questions are important, especially as we move into this weekend of major anti-war action. I am glad to share my thoughts about this, especially growing from my personal experiences over the past few months.

And I want to begin by noting that today is the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, as three weeks ago was the yohrzeit death-anniversary of his close co-worker, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. May their teachings continue to inspire us!

There are two aspects to this relationship: On the one hand, the different behavior of different parts of the anti-war movement toward Jewish interests, values, and participants; on the other, the behavior of different parts of the Jewish world toward the anti-war movement.

Note: neither party to the relationship is monolithic.

The first aspect is more important in regard to information that Jews need, and for action awareness by others in the antiwar movement; the second aspect, which I discuss at the end of this essay, is more important in regard to Jewish action.

I. What is happening in the anti-war movement that has stimulated some people in the Jewish world to express anxiety about what some call "anti-Israel" stances of some elements within the anti-war movement?

There are indeed some such outlooks in PART of the anti-war movement. Let me be clear: By "anti-Israel," I mean a politics that blames all of Israel, and only Israel, for the present conflict, or sees it only as a colonialist patsy of the US, or sees it as a settler state with no legitimacy.

I do NOT mean those who vigorously oppose both the Sharon government and terrorist suicide bombers, who call for an end to the Occupation and its replacement with a two-state peace settlement in which Israel continues to have a special relationship with the Jewish people and Palestine has viable borders very close to the '67 borders, with mutually agreed adjustments. By my lights, such people are strongly and creatively pro-Israel.

By these criteria, there are indeed a few groups or people in the anti-war movement that are "anti-Israel." There are many more that are creatively and strongly pro-Israel in the way I've just described, and many many others that have no platform on Israeli-Palestinian questions at all.

It's crucial to know that there are now three important anti-war groupings. One, a "quasi-coalition," is called A.N.S.W.E.R. It is tightly controlled by a knee-jerk Marxist fraction/faction with a strong anti-Israel, anti-US bent to its politics.

Its tight internal discipline has paid off in one way: it came into existence earlier than either of the real coalitions that have emerged since, and planned ahead. Thus before it was clear to most Americans how far the Bush Administration was going in order to pursue war against Iraq, A.N.S.W.E.R. had made arrangements for permits, buses, etc., etc., for a large march in Washington (and San Francisco) this past November and also for large marches on Martin Luther King weekend that is, this coming Saturday.

In November, despite A.N.S.W.E.R.'s internal politics there seem to have been no anti-Israel speeches from the podium in Washington. Reports from the West Coast indicate that there were one or two passages that were. Hundreds of groups, local, regional, occupational, and national, took part in those marches in a pro-American, anti-war spirit. Most carried no banners or signs about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some were critical of the Sharon government's policies, as they were of Palestinian terrorists, but did not demonize Israel. A few had signs that criticized Israel with no sense of empathy for Israelis' fear and despair.

In short, in November almost everybody present took advantage of A.N.S.W.E.R.'s organizing efforts and head-start on permits, without feeling or making any commitment to or support of A.N.S.W.E.R.'s politics beyond opposition to a US war against Iraq.

Every report I have is that the same is likely to happen this weekend. For that reason, I don't think that individual Jews or secular Jewish organizations that don't set aside Shabbat as a sacred day that for them means such demonstrations are problematic will be compromising legitimate Jewish concerns by taking part on their own terms in the Saturday event this weekend.

(I'll come back to the Shabbat question.)

On the same weekend the November march happened, a much broader, true anti-war coalition was founded precisely because many many groups had found that working with A.N.S.W.E.R. was extremely difficult.

This coalition is now called United for Peace and Justice.

Among its members are a wide variety of peace, religious, labor, environmental, campus, veterans, and other groups. The Shalom Center became a member, and has taken part in its telephone-conference-call steering committee meetings. We are the only national Jewish group that has.

UFPJ has called for and begun planning for a major mobilization against the war in New York City on February 15-16.

In the meantime, it is encouraging a whole array of actions on the "outskirts" of the MLKing weekend march, such as our Tu B'Shvat Seder that Friday evening; a nonviolent civil-disobedience action at the White House on Sunday Nov. 19 (initiated by a group called "Pledge of Resistance"); a Christian anti-war service at the National Cathedral on Monday, Jan.20, the MLKing Birthday itself, sponsored especially by the National Council of Churches, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and Sojourners magazine; a leadership training institute on Jan. 20 sponsored by Black Voices for Peace; etc.

More recently, a second true coalition has formed, called "Win without War." It is based on a dozen or so large-membership groups like the National Council of Churches, Sojourners magazine and/or its Call to Renewal, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, etc. No Jewish group is a member. I don't believe The Shalom Center qualifies by the (unofficial) large-membership standards; I wish we did. The organizational membership of Win Without War overlaps with that of United for Peace & Justice.

UFPJ focuses on the plans for a US war against Iraq and on the injustices that are flowing from those plans (like deprivations of the US poor, students, the sick, elders, & the environment, that will flow from the war costs; like invasions of civil liberties and human rights that the war is enabling).

UFPJ has no coalition position on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Though some member groups may at some point urge that it should, I think that is likely to happen only if some turn in the two conflicts brings them into much closer connection than is yet the case.

(I must say, the fact that the Sharon government is the only forceful ally for Mr. Bush, now that the UK's Prime Minister Blair is showing signs of responsiveness to the doubts being expressed all over Britain, makes me most uneasy. Not that I wish for more allies for Mr. Bush; I wish Israel would look to its own real safety and values on this question, as on others, and would take a very different approach.)

UFPJ has been most responsive to questions we in The Shalom Center have raised. For example, we raised the question about aiming at Saturday Feb. 15 Shabbat as the main demonstration day for NYC. We pointed out that for almost all Christians, Sunday observance is very different from Shabbat in Jewish understanding. We raised the possibility that Sunday be the day instead. We even suggested that for churches in NYC, Sunday morning services focused on peace might act as a "galvanizing" time, after which congregants might as a body join the demonstration.

The steering committee took the question very seriously, appointing a subcommittee (on which I was a member) to explore the possibilities. People checked with churches, with the travel plans involved in a Sunday vs. Saturday event, and other factors, and concluded that a Saturday event was likely to be stronger in numbers and in participation of churches from outside and even probably inside NYC.

The evidence convinced me it was likely the demo would be stronger on Saturday, and I did not think it was either workable or desirable to insist that a multi-religious/ multi-secular/ multi-cultural coalition weaken its demonstration to meet Jewish needs. (I was also conscious that for many Jews who were likely to want to take part, Shabbat would not be a problem; and that for those who would be concerned, there were halakhic ways and aggadic ways to take part in good order, if such people put enough energy into it.)

The subcommittee did suggest and encourage that a multi-religious event might happen on Sunday in addition to the Saturday march. That is up to us, working with Christians and Muslims and Buddhists, to make happen.

Another issue of special Jewish interest: When a statement was being considered that denounced racism & anti-Muslim, anti-Arab bias, I was the 2d to suggest adding anti-Semitism. There was no disagreement.

Given the weight and breadth of the United for Peace and Justice coalition as compared with the A.N.S.W.E.R. group, I expect that more and more of the anti-war movement will be involved in UFPJ.

It is a simple fact of human connection that if more of the Jewish community decides to oppose the war and becomes part of the UfPJ coalition, the coalition will listen more carefully to Jewish concerns.

At the same time, I do not desire, expect, or encourage Jewish (or other) followers of the Sharon line to feel comfortable in any of these coalitions.

II. What about the behavior of Jews toward the anti-war movement? Why is there so little participation from exactly the institutions that have in the past been vigorous for peace, for social justice, and for the environment?

These usual groups are internally paralyzed by the Israel crisis. Even for example the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, supposedly the repository/umbrella for Jewish social concerns, has almost no staff devoted to that pursuit; almost all are focused on Hasbara PR in support of the present Israeli government and its policies.

Yet beneath this layer of official institutional paralysis, there is for sure a part of the Jewish community out there that is committed to seeking peace, pursuing justice, and healing the earth. But they are not focused in a single or a few denominations or organizations.

Instead, they are now dispersed and wandering in a variety of different institutional structures. A Reconstructionist synagogue here, a Reform one there, an independent-Conservative one somewhere else, a former AJCongress chapter (offed by its now very right-wing national board and operating as a local independent group) here; another such ex-chapter (similarly offed, and now independent) there; the Jewish Social Justice Network; some of its local COEJL affiliates; Tikkun; Brit Tzedek; The Shalom Center and some ALEPH-related congregations; and so on.

Says one of our prayers, "O YAH, bring together from the four corners of the earth the dispersed among your people!"

The Shalom Center has begun to reach these separated, dismembered limbs of tikkun-olam Judaism. From their different formal locations, we are hoping to help "re-member" them - us into a loose but committed network.

Then a much larger Jewish group can authentically reassert in this crisis of American, Jewish, and planetary history our prophetic/mystic message that all life is One, is intertwined.

Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center