Jews, Weapons, & War

Jews, Weapons, & War

On October 14, thirty Jews with a considerable range of politics and religious/ secular involvement met (invited by Break the Silence) in Philadelphia for a discussion of possible Jewish responses to the War Against Iraq.

Among those present were a member of the board of the New Israel Fund, a member of the Reform movement's Commission on Social Action (both as individuals), several anti-war activists, a few congregational social-action people, and several congregational rabbis. Geographically, one Oregonian, several from New York City, several from the Washington area, several from nearby areas of PA & NJ, and a number from Philadelphia.

The meeting was full of energy, serious attention to the facts about Iraq and about US war plans, careful listening to a range of viewpoints, and plans for action.

We began with a factual presentation of the existing evidence (drawn mostly from an analysis by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which we will have up on our Website [] as soon as we can) —
that Iraq probably does possess stocks of chemical & bio weapons, though far less than before the Gulf War because of their destruction by inspectors;

that it may have a very limited stock (25 to 100) of 150-kilometer-delivery missiles;

that it does not now (since destruction of nuclear facilities by inspectors after the Gulf War) possess any way of achieving nuclear weapons without transfer of fissile materials from other countries;

that its govt does see possessing weapons of mass destruction as a useful strategic tool to deter attack and to win dominance in the region.

There was broad agreement on seven major concerns:


1. The danger of war, including large numbers of civilian deaths, possible general conflagration in the Middle East and beyond, possible retaliations on the US, shattering of international law & institutions.

2. The dangers of Iraqi possession of bio & chemical weapons and their threat or use to win dominance of the region. (The information given us, including a recent CIA assessment submitted to Congress, suggested these are much likelier to be used as a desperate response to an attempt to crush the Saddam govt.)

3. The danger of a global US empire, as urged by key people in the US govt and by the President, with deep consequences for social justice, democracy, and the environment at home, as well as abroad.


4. Increased dangers to both Israel (from last-ditch attacks by Saddam Hussein facing imminent overthrow or death) and the Palestinians (through ethnic-cleansing, expulsion, or total-reconquest actions by the Sharon govt under cover of the wider war against Iraq), and to any possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

5. Danger of intensified anti-Semitism, esp. from the Left, and of false cries of anti-Semitism from some Jewish organizations seeking to circle the wagons and increase their support in time of crisis.

6. Passivity (or worse) of major American Jewish organizations toward the dangers of war and of global empire and the danger of risks to Israel.

7. Desire to reaffirm and act on the deep meanings of Jewish spirituality and ethics when powerful interests in the world are moving in a destructive direction.

Several possible active expressions of Jewish concern were discussed:

1. The Shalom Center has been working on a multi-religious call to a Fast for Peace, and is close to having a final version of the call and an impressive list of initiating signers from the three traditions. There was a good deal of excitement about the possibilities for local Jewish and multi-religious organizing around this.

2. Brit Tzedek v'Shalom's board has just decided in general, but has not yet formulated its position in detail, to oppose a war against Iraq. It will base its view on the grounds (deliberately narrowly keyed to its basic mission) that such a war bears great danger of disrupting efforts toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

3. There was discussion of whether it would be wise to create a visible Jewish presence in the October 26 march in Washington against the war. There was no agreement or commitment to be a presence on October 26, and no one agreed to organize one.

On the one hand, there was great concern about past anti-Israeli and verging-on-anti-Semitic behavior of the initiators of Oct 26 (callled A.N.S.W.E.R.), and the danger this might contaminate the March as a whole.

On the other hand, under the impact of the onrushing Iraq war, the sponsoring coalition has become a great deal broader. Some participants in our meeting had been in touch with some members of the steering committee of the broader Coalition, and reported the steering committee is making conscious efforts to focus on Iraq, not Israeli-Palestinian issues, and especailly trying to end the hostility to Israel, even while expecting serious critique of the occupation of the West Bank.

The upshot was uncertain. There was agreement that if some people do choose to create a Jewish contingent, it might have to be explicit about affirming the legitimacy of Israel because some elements in the Oct. 26 March may explicitly say the opposite.

But — how to take up the many issues involved while avoiding wordiness and while affirming broad and basic Jewish values?

One proposal was to create a placard in the graphic form we so often see of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, with very terse slogans/ teachings on them (as terse as most of the Commandments), perhaps five on each "tablet," like:

Stop War
Inspect Iraq [or, Eliminate WMD's]
Protect Israel
Free Palestine
End Nuclear Proliferation [or, End the H-bomb]
Feed the Hungry
Create Job
Pursue Justice
Seek Peace

Heal the Earth
There was broad agreement that since the govt and the media encourage us to feel powerless and hopeless, it is important to remember that large numbers of people, politicians, and even policy analysts within the government oppose any action without explicit UN sanction.

And that it is important for Jews to raise these issues in Jewish terms in both Jewish and general contexts, to show the diversity of the community to both Jews and the public-at-large.

Indeed, a number of those present committed themselves to raise the issues in the local communities, synagogues and institutions of which they are a part.

Break the Silence will continue to operate and send out as needed regular announcements of Jewish peace-related activities connected to Iraq.

We'd be glad to hear your thoughts and suggestions in regard to all these concerns, perspectives, and proposals.

Shalom, Arthur, Mordechai, & Cherie

Rabbi Arthur Waskow,
Director, The Shalom Center
Steering Committee, Break the Silence

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling,
Director, Torah of Money Program, The Shefa Fund
Steering Committee, Break the Silence

Cherie Brown,
Director, National Coalition-Building Institute
Board of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Steering Committee, Break the Silence