Jews & the Antiwar Movement, Part 2 (7/20/2003)

Comments by Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

Below you will find a distressing report from Jewishly committed strongly progressive Jews concerning a recent important national gathering of United for Peace and Justice, a major US antiwar coalition. Before the report, some background. After the report, I will add some comments of my own.

The Shalom Center has been a constituent member of two US antiwar coalitions: Win Without War and United for Peace and Justice.

WWW is based on several major national mass-membership organizations, such as the National Council of Churches, NAACP, and Sierra Club. Its only Jewish members are The Shalom Center and Tikkun (which to some extent, and increasingly, defines itself as a multi-spiritual organization). (The failure of other Jewish organizations to join in this coalition with groups that even a few years ago they would have seen as their natural allies is distressing; we have tried to encourage other Jewish groups to join it, so far to no avail.)

UPJ has as members hundreds of disparate organizations, some national, some grass-roots local; some pacifist, some left- wing, some anti-imperialist, some progressive. Several Jewish organizations are members.

The Shalom Center has been a strongly supportive constituent member of UPJ since late 2002, and has vigorously and proactively contributed to UPJ's over-all policy-making, to mobilizing participation in UPJ events of Jewishly motivated progressive Jews, and to building good contacts between UPJ and the more progressive parts of the mainstream Jewish world.

We initiated the organizing of a Jewish contingent in the February 15 UPJ march in NYC, and made the connections that brought Ruth Messinger, head of American Jewish World Service and a former Borough President of Manhattan and Democratic Party candidate for mayor, into a speaker role there. We initiated a major full-page ad in the NY Times that brought 150 rabbis and 300 other Jewish leaders into public condemnation of the war.

Since its founding 20 years ago, The Shalom Center has brought Jewish values and wisdom to issues that affect not only the Jewish people but the world as a whole — the nuclear arms race, racism, dangers ot the environment, the issues of overwork in American society, globalization, etc. We have also consistently struggled for a just peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.

After the collapse of the Iraqi government and the beginning of US occupation of Iraq, UPJ addressed broader issues beyond the Iraq war. The Shalom Center contributed to helping frame a broader view of US imperial policy and behavior, and connecting it with the present US government's anti-democratic behavior inside the US.

And we engaged in a sometimes difficult dialogue within UPJ on Middle East policy, affirming both the legitimacy of Israel as a state with a special relationship to the Jewish people, and the right of the Palestinian people to a secure and viable state of their own. Our efforts were important in preserving a tenuous balance in the UPJ statement of goals and practice — against a considerable amount of pressure from some UPJ-member groups that would have delegitimated Israel as a state and society. We at The Shalom Center do oppose the Sharon government's policies of occupation, and the Bush Administration's support for those policies.

UPJ held its first national assembly in June on days that included Shavuot, the Jewish festival that celebrates the revelation of Torah at Sinai. For that reason, The Shalom Center did not take part in the gathering.

Some Jewish groups did send representatives, and we kept in close touch with several of them. We asked Charles Lenchner to write a report, for public circulation, on his sense of how the gathering dealt with issues of special concern to Jews. Charles is a leader of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, in Washington.

He and Malka Fenyvesi — a member of the JPPI board — have sent the report that follows. It represents their own personal views, not those of any organization. Charles, who holds US and Israeli citizenship, has taken part in a number of Israeli groups and actions devoted to a just peace between Israel and an emerging Palestine and devoted to the protection of Palestinian human rights.

Their report is disturbing and distressing. I welcome your comments and thoughts.


Rabbi Arthur Waskow,
Director The Shalom Center


Report to The Shalom Center on the Chicago UFPJ Conference

1. Jewish Peace Groups and the Conference

UFPJ held an organizing conference on June 6-8. More than 350 organizations took part and over 500 delegates attended. The main results of the conference were deciding on process, campaign priorities, and electing a steering committee.

A number of Jewish peace groups had representatives at the conference: Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, A Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Against the Occupation, Brit Tzedek V'Shalom, Support Sanity, and Tikkun. It should be noted however, that the conference took place on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which certainly prevented some Jewish leaders and activists from attending.

There were far more Jews present than representatives of Jewish peace groups.

2. Experiencing Anti-Semitism

Most of the Jews we spoke to in a serious manner stated that they experienced anti-Semitism at the conference. Generally, it was the result of subtle behavior. In almost every instance, one could argue that it was something else besides anti-Semitism. In other words, a bunch of Jews felt hostility which seemed anti-Semitic, but which could be interpreted differently in each case. Taken as a whole though, it seems an odd coincidence. It left us feeling unsafe.

    Jewish groups not invited, seen as opponents to be outvoted.
      * One of the mornings, a group met calling itself the 'Palestine Caucus,' for the purpose of discussing proposals on the Palestinian issue. None of the Jewish organizations were invited, nor was the representative of the U.S. Campaign Against the Occupation (a leading member of a Jewish organization as well).

      * During discussions on campaign proposals on Israel/ Palestine, a number of representatives of Jewish organizations spoke out about concerns over language and content. (For example, against using the word 'apartheid' and against calling for divestment from Israel.) What happened is that the discussion became a debate between 'Jews' and those seen to be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The 'Jews' lost the vote. The reason this is problematic, is that on most other issues the goal was to reach consensus, to find a way to work together - but not in this case. (Needless to say, Jews present did have diverse opinions, as did non-Jews.)

      * On the last day, an angry debate took place on the question of working with ANSWER on an International Day of Action to take place on Rosh Hashanah. A vocal minority felt that this would be very important, even though others understood why scheduling a demonstration targeting Israeli occupation on a major Jewish holiday might be unwise - especially given the history of anti-Semitism at ANSWER events. One speaker declared that Rosh Hashanah was an appropriate day for scheduling an anti-Occupation event, because 'if the Israelis can take away Palestinian land on Yom Kippur, then we can sure as hell demand that they return it on Rosh Hashanah." [This is a paraphrase based on our recollections, not a direct quote.]

    Crude remarks and antipathy

      * A Jewish delegate was addressing the need for a more inclusive anti-discrimination statement, one that included both Jews and Muslims. He was quickly told that Jews ran all the US media and business so his request was not relevant or important.

      * Another incident occurred when a Jewish peace activist was wearing a T-shirt with the word "JEWCY" on the front, and was confronted by a man who demanded that she explain her views on Palestine - but walked away without waiting for an answer.

      * Jews who were out there as representatives of Jewish groups experienced people walking away, overheard derogatory remarks aimed at 'those Jews who don't get it,' and saw how some people were simply uncomfortable at having to deal with Jewish concerns.

    Most frustrating of all - no role for Jewish peace group

      * On the Israel/Palestine issue, Jewish groups have opinions that flow from their experience and knowledge as groups working primarily on this issue. In expressing that wisdom, they aren't demanding special rights for Israel or for the Jewish people. They are asking to be included in decision making as holders of important knowledge. The perception however, was that a bunch of not-very-radical Jews were trying to make sure that UFPJ isn't as pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel as it 'should' be.

      * If someone were to suggest holding an event on Easter, would this be seen as anti-Christian? Our opinion is that it would merely be stupid and insensitive, not anti-Christian. But the debate over scheduling an event on Rosh Hashanah brought forth hostility towards those arguing that it would be a mistake; in essence, voices were heard demanding that the Jewish special interest not be catered to. In vain, Jews tried to explain the difference between acquiescing to a Jewish interest, and simply rejecting a bad idea. This is where the sense of insecurity became much stronger.

    Because Jews aren't really a 'minority'

      * At this conference, there was consensus around the idea that certain groups should be given preferential treatment: people of color, gays and lesbians, women, and youth. The steering committee was formed with this in mind, as each group had a target of representation. For example, women and people of color should comprise 50 per cent, and if not - special actions could be taken. Groups not targeted in this manner include immigrants, religious folk, and low/high socioeconomic status.

      * When Jews are out and about in a highly visible manner as Jews, they confound expectations. Jews who are invisible, or who distance themselves from a Jewish constituency ("I'm not like those other Jews..."), are accepted without reservation. But Jews demanding to be seen as part of a Jewish community are seen as suspicious, as though they are tainted with the same kind of nationalism that makes Israel so problematic.

      * What we hear: "Why can't your religion be a personal matter? And if you insist on identifying demographically, why as Jews and not some other category (mentioned above)? And why can't the left be 'anti-Israel' the same way it was wholly against South Africa? And why can't the left be simply pro-Palestinian the way it was simply pro-ANC? Why do Jewish peace groups insist on complicating things and being a thorn in our side, unlike our far left wing Jewish friends who support us?"

    The UFPJ leadership

    Some leaders within UFPJ are very strategic regarding Jewish peace groups. They are careful about language, support our presence, and seek outcomes that we can live with. This needs to be said because it contrasts with other interactions at the conference. However, despite efforts to get an Israeli or Jewish peace camp leader to address the conference, this was not done. (Even worse; it was promised, but not done, and no Jewish group was asked for help.) The biggest difficulty seems to be this: UFPJ does not see a special role for the Jewish peace camp, and is not making an effort to work with Jewish peace groups in ratcheting up cooperation around Israel/ Palestine. We hope this will change. It is very important not to treat the UFPJ leadership as the problem.

    There are some members of the newly elected steering committee who have promised to serve as a liaison between Jewish peace groups and UFPJ. However, this promise is as yet unfulfilled.

We fully support UFPJ's efforts to make combating oppressions part of both the structure of the organization and the grander peace and justice movement. This is what makes our feelings of marginalization difficult, painful, and contradictory. We cannot imagine other groups being treated in this way. The concern with inclusiveness on the one hand, and the repeated hostility towards out and proud Jews on the other, needs to be addressed.

In peace & solidarity,

Charles Lenchner
Malka Fenyvesi

Additional comment by Arthur Waskow:

In most human beings, there is a tug toward demonizing groups in which some members of the group have acted hurtfully and destructively. That is what Al Qaeda did when out of rage against some specific actions of the US government, it killed thousands of Americans. It is what some Americans and some parts of the US government did after 9/11 when they attacked, demeaned, imprisoned, and expelled immigrants from Arab and Musliom countries — acts less lethal than 9/11 but still destructive. Both of these kinds of demonization and dehumanization were denounced and opposed by progressive and antiwar groups.

Yet some individuals, and perhaps some groups, within the antiwar movement have also sometimes fallen into some aspects of demonization and dehumanization. This has mostly been occasioned by or explained on the basis of certain specific acts of the Israeli government, but the hostility engendered by these acts has sometimes not been confined to the actors alone, but broadened to include Israeli society as a whole or Jewishly focused and motivated Jews, as a whole — even strongly progressive Jews who strongly oppose those actions of the Israeli government.

Charles and Malka's report shows how hurtful and dangerous this can be — dangerous not only to the targets, but also both ethically and politically to those who fall into such acts of demonization and dehumanization, which undermine efforts to find and involve new allies for progressive and antiwar work.

I do not think this attitude pervades the antiwar movement in general, or UPJ as a whole. But I do not think that UPJ has been prepared to hear and vigorously respond to this syndrome. If this syndrome is not confronted, it may by default take on legitimacy.

What should be done? I think UPJ leadership should be prepared not to squelch free speech inside the movement but to clearly and publicly rebuke such remarks as those mentioned in Charles' and Malka's report above. And to act the same way if aspersions are made (as also happened at Chicago) on religion in general — as if Martin Luther King, Martin Buber, Dorothy Day, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz were not motivated by religion.

And I think UPJ as a whole should recognize that progressive Jews who work explicitly and vigorously out of Jewish values and identities are a "minority community" — in numbers, power, and treatment — in the progressive community, in the Jewish community, and in American society.

UPJ is too valuable a gathering of opposition to let it fall into the dangers of demonization. We need its opposition to the Bushcroft policies of building empire abroad, while at home shifting enormous wealth to the already super-rich, undermining civil liberties and the labor movement, and shredding schools, health care, pensions, and environmental protections.

At the same time, Win Without War — where I have never experienced or sensed any of the sorts of hostility to Jews or Jewish concerns that Charles and Malka report from some persons at the UPJ gathering — remains an important framework for opposition to the power-hungry actions of the present US government.

WWW has not as a coalition dealt directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I have heard no expressions in WWW of desire to delegitimate Israel. I think most or all of its member groups agree with The Shalom Center on a two-state policy to make peace between Israel and an emerging Palestine.

As things stand now, The Shalom Center hopes to continue working in and with United for Peace and Justice, despite — or because of — the problems we have as Jews experienced with some of its members.

We will also keep working in Win Without War (WWW). Many "mainstream" Jewish groups may find membership in WWW the most comfortable way of entering antiwar coalition work. Yet as I noted earlier, no Jewish organizations except The Shalom Center and Tikkun have joined. The absence of others betokened a disturbing withdrawal of the official leadership of the "mainstream" Jewish community from a proactive progressive stance in American society.

It is not that progressive Jews disappeared from the earth last fall. At that moment, their voices inside the "mainstream," speaking out against the Bush policies, were less vigorous than the voices urging acquiescence in the Bush policies. So the mainstream organizations mostly acquiesced.

The Shalom Center did speak out then, and will keep on. We need support to do that well.

And perhaps the "mainstream" situation is now changing, as the lies keep unraveling and the US occupation of Iraq keeps unraveling.

The two large Jewish organizations that we might now expect to take part in WWW are the Reform movement and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. Other, smaller, national groups are the Reconstructionist movement, the Arbeterring/Workmen's Circle and the Jewish Labor Committee.

There are two possible progressive responses to their absence.

One is to strengthen and support the progressive Jewish groups that have taken vigorous public stands, such as The Shalom Center.

The other is to bring grass-roots pressure to bear within these groups, urging them to vigorously oppose the Bush Administration's power grab and to join in the WWW antiwar coalition.

We urge progressive Jews to do both.

And to act on their own, as well.

To sum up:

    1. Please write a letter to the editor of your local general and your local Jewish newspaper and to one of your three Members of Congress, demanding a vigorous independent investigation of the pre-war lies and the present cover-up.

    2. Ask the Board of your own synagogue and your own local chapter of any Jewish organization you belong to, to do the same.

    3. Write Rabbi David Saperstein, Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, 2027 Mass. Ave NW, Washington DC 20036, and Dr. Hannah Rosenthal, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, 443 Park Ave. Soth, 11th floor, New York NY 10016, to urge that their organizations join WWW. Urge your own national Jewish organization to do the same.

    If you are stretched for time and wary of doing all these, PLEASE CHOOSE ANY ONE OF THEM AND DO THAT. None of us, taught the ancient Rabbis, has to accomplish the whole job — but we are each obligated to take some part.

    PLUS ___

    4. Please send a contribution to The Shalom Center, to help us both defend Jews and the Jewish people in the antiwar movement, and defend the Jewish values of truth, justice, and peace in the world.

Remember: "On three pillars is the world is based: truth, justice, and peace. Yet all these are one; for where truth is spoken, justice is achieved and peace emerges."