Reform Jews, The Shalom Center, & the War

A letter-essay from Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Dear Friends,

For the last three years, and even more intensely the last three months, The Shalom Center has put enormous energy into pioneer work against the Iraq War.

I want to share with you my perceptions of the relationships during the past few months between the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and The Shalom Center in addressing the war, and -- most importantly -- about what could happen next.

(I am sure that others involved will from their different perspectives have other perceptions.)

I have been reflecting on what The Shalom Center's work successfully accomplished and failed to accomplish during that time; on both praise and criticism we have received from various people in the Reform movement for our work; and on some mistakes I think we, and I, made. I have also been reflecting on the URJ's way of dealing with the Iraq War over the past three years.

So part of this letter is about the past. I hope together we can learn from it.

Indeed, I hope that this report will not only explain how The Shalom Center tried to work on this particular issue in this particular framework, but how we and others might act on other issues and other frameworks:

Could this approach of "nurturing seeds of change" be used by activist groups at strategic moments (like the run-up to the Reform biennial) in many religious circles in regard both to moving "beyond oil" in household and congregational energy use, and to changing public energy policy?

Could it be used in many religious circles to encourage the use of "sacred foods" and other forms of "eco-kosher" consumption of many products that come from the earth?

I. The Future

Even though understanding the past is important to guiding the future, I will begin with the future because no matter what the past has been, no matter what the URJ and The Shalom Center may have done well or mistakenly, there is as a result of a new atmosphere in the country and a new resolution passed at the URJ's Houston Biennial a new opportunity for the URJ - and for us all -- to deal with the urgent issue of the Iraq War.

(For the URJ resolution itself, see elsewhere on this Website.)

What I have to say about the opportunities and choices now facing Reform Jews really is about all of us, in our different communities and institutions. From the changes that are beginning in the URJ, we can all learn new possibilities and hope.

Now the UJR has an opportunity to meet the needs of the hour. I would, and I imagine many of us would, call what we are hearing not only "the needs of the hour" but also the Call of God. I implore Reform Jews at every level of the Reform movement to use the Houston resolution with all the creativity possible and to draw on the power of the UJR with all the vigor possible to bring this disgusting and self-destructive war to a swift end.

* If the URJ deals with this issue ass it does with many other public policy issues it takes up, I expect that the URJ as a whole and the grass roots of the Reform movement will work on this issue through lobbying Congressmembers.

* I hope it will go further, encouraging local Reform congregations and regional bodies to vigil at Army recruitment centers; visit Governors to urge them to demand their National Guards be brought home; urge parents of schoolchildren to refuse turning over family information to Army recruiters; recite the names of American and Iraqi dead from the Iraq War and say Kaddish and other memorial prayers for them.

* I hope the URJ as a national body, as well as groups of rabbis and congregations and teachers at the grass roots, will develop sermon materials showing how the war can be measured against Torah standards and Jewish values; will develop materials for teaching the Torah of just war and of nonviolence in Reform adult and teen study sessions and synagogue and day schools; will encourage the observance of Jewish festivals by emphasizing their pro-peace, antiwar aspects.

* I hope the URJ nationally and Reform congregations locally will explore with some antiwar coalitions what the Reform movement might do and might need done, to make joint action possible, and will join those coalitions that are appropriate. I hope they will take part in explicitly antiwar interfaith religious services. And I hope they will reach out to support and be supported by antiwar Jews who are already active in antiwar work outside the Jewish community.

* I hope the Reform movement will take far more vigorous action to move America beyond the oiloholic addiction that not only helped bring on this war, but is also shattering the climatic balance of our planet.

* I hope Reform congregations and the URJ itself will take part in multireligious observance of the confluence of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred seasons that will come again this coming fall and in the fall of 2007, including shared social action by Jews, Christians, and Muslims together to protect human rights, seek peace and justice, end this war, and heal the earth.

* And I hope that all Jews, and those of other communities, take heart from the URJ's change of policy, as well as at the change of heart so apparent in America today.

The story of Jonah teaches us that if we call out prophetically to a community that it is in danger of self-destruction if it does not turn toward justice and peace, it MAY hear not only with the ears but also with the heart. It may change in time to save itself.

Let us not hush our voices.

II. Now let me turn to the past.

For all the years I have been involved in Jewish life, from when Balfour Brickner and Al Vorspan connected with our "Jews for Urban Justice" in Washington in 1969-1970, and as I got to know Gene Lippman in Washington, and then to know David Saperstein after he arrived at the Religious Action Center, I have admired the URJ as a gathering place for a very large and broad-spectrumed number of Jews, many of whom the URJ taught to see Judaism as oriented to social justice; and I have also been conscious of the limitations that flowed from that very fact of large numbers and broad spectrum -- especially that it often took considerable time for the URJ to absorb and respond to a new issue or approach.

I chose to continue my own work in a more pioneering path, sometimes working in an area, whether social-activist or liturgical, that several years later became one the Reform movement pursued.

A perfect example is the area of gay rights in the Jewish and general worlds. I am immensely happy that the Reform movement has become a formidable body, for sure the largest religious force, supporting gay rights. It took the UAHC/URJ years - when I first typed this it came out "tears," and that's true too -- to see this as a major question.

We had a hand in those changes, sometimes at a distance and at least once, directly -- through the New Menorah magazine I edited. We shaped a special issue of New Menorah on same-sex marriage and got it to the CCAR meeting that took up the issue --- and, we were told, it had a real impact on the CCAR's discussions and decisions.

But of course that would not have happened had there not been a pioneering group of Reform rabbis who were working on that. To use the language I've been using more recently about our work on the war, we "nurtured" seeds of change that already existed within the Reform movement. In that case, I think we were useful, but not crucial. In the case of change in Reform policy about the Iraq war, I think - and others think -- our nurturing was crucial, though of course it would have been useless had there not in the first place been growing seeds of change within the Reform movement.

About the Iraq War, even though I have continued to understand the practical issues of redirecting a large ocean liner as compared to a small "swift boat," I have not felt anything like as happy with the URJ's actions.

In my view, it was clear in the whole run-up to the war that the Bush-Cheney Administration was lying about its reasons to go to war, in the teeth of strong evidence that the reasons it gave were false. The starkest piece of evidence was that the UN inspection teams were -- after the US and most of its allies exerted strong pressure -- given carte blanche to inspect Iraq - and kept reporting they could find no evidence of mass-destruction weapons. They could have kept right on with inspections for years, and war would never have been necessary. Something else was at stake in the Bush-Cheney decisions.

It also seemed clear to me that a war against Iraq would stir up much more hatred of America (and against Israel -- for me, a factor not to be ignored) in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and would not be easily ended --- but take years of blood and treasure.

So I thought the stance taken formally by the URJ was a mistake from the beginning. And then I found that a number of key URJ leaders felt that stance tied their hands from taking a more antiwar stance of their own -- even from using the reservations and cautions in the URJ resolution itself; even as it became clearer and clearer that the war was a disaster.

And then over the last years, as the opinions of grass-roots Jews and grass-roots Americans shifted enormously, the URJ still showed no signs of changing its stance. As recently as the spring of 2005, when I was trying to organize support for the multireligious observance of Tishrei/ Ramadan/ St. Francis Day, I was told that it was in part the antiwar overtones of that effort -- even when its language was softened from "end the war" to "seek peace" -- that precluded the URJ's taking part. Indeed, the URJ acted in ways that greatly interfered with our organizing Christian support for that effort.

(I was also told that some URJ leaders felt Yom Kippur should be reserved for personal encounter with God - a view that seemed surprising in view of the Isaiah haftarah we read on Yom Kippur (demanding that the Yom Kippur fast include feeding the hungry and striking off the handcuffs on prisoners) and the Reform movement's self-understanding as prophetic and social-justice committed.)

Meanwhile, the war was killing and maiming thousands of Americans and Iraqis, enabling the legitimation of torture as an instrument of US policy, making impossible the funding of domestic programs of social justice and decency that the URJ supported, undermining civil liberties, and strengthening exactly the same right-wing forces of religious and economic reaction that are dangerous to everything the URJ stands for.

The Shalom Center did what we could to build opposition to the war. I kept wishing I knew how to do more. I kept -- still keep -- being haunted by the Americans and Iraqis who might - only might -- still be alive had we been able to figure out how to do more, and --- a great deal of what I was thinking -- had the Reform movement "sought peace & pursued it" with all the clout & vigor it could have energized and mobilized.
III. Moving toward the Biennial

So I started saying out loud, in The Shalom Report and in some articles in the Jewish press, that I felt the URJ was not fulfilling its own values and that its own grass roots were way ahead of the official leadership.

At that point, one Reform congregation got in touch with me, saying they were prepared to raise the issue at the Biennial and needed four others to bring a resolution to the floor. Evidently, though they did not tell me this till considerably later, they also started talking with the Commission on Social Action (CSA).

Evidently also, they asked me not yet to broadcast this information. I understood, or misunderstood, the request as not to publicize which congregation was exploring this effort but that it was OK to announce the effort, in hopes of gathering four more congregational sponsors.

So I broadcast the information that there was an effort under way to change URJ policy on the war, without naming the congregation that was exploring it, and asked others so inclined to get in touch with me. About a dozen did, I passed on the information to the initiators, and the process went forward. My contact in the original congregation later wrote me that it had all worked out OK, despite my misunderstanding of what they wanted.

As near as I can tell and was told, the initiating congregation moved partly because The Shalom Center was raising the questions about URJ's policy, and only after they raised the question did the CSA get involved. I am very happy the CSA did get involved, and very happy The Shalom Center struck the spark and then gently fanned the flames by publicizing the effort and making the connections.

Out of all that came a resolution that the CSA helped to strengthen and that still, in the eyes of three of its sponsors was much more cautious about ending the war than those sponsors liked. (They wrote each other and me their concerns.) But they felt this was the best bet to get passed, and it would release antiwar energy in many places on the URJ. Worth it.

Just as the Biennial was gathering, Congressman Murtha called for an immediate redeployment of US troops out of Iraq. To me this act, and the excitement it caused, signaled two things: that there was great sentiment in the country, way beyond conventional peace circles, for a very swift end to the war; and that the White House, going ballistic with fear of Murtha's influence, would try to shut down the energy by attacking him.

I thought it might be important to back Murtha against attacks, and to support a position like his. If the URJ did that, it might well be major news, far beyond the Jewish community, and a major blow to the war and the White House

So I responded by suddenly writing Reform folk to ask whether it was possible to strengthen the resolution even then. The way I did it was insensitive, in its language and its haste, to the feelings of some of the people who were already finding in Houston a swirl of emotion and tension around the Iraq question. So my question, or at least the way I put it, was a mistake, one I regret.

(Later I was told by a competent independent reporter who was at the Biennial that the grass-roots energy there was indeed ready to go much further to delineate an early end to the US military presence in Iraq, until Madeline Albright spoke and criticized "time-lines" for withdrawal.)
IV. Back to the Future

I have no doubt that the resolution the URJ adopted is an important step forward. I am glad The Shalom Center helped move the process forward, especially since some of the proponents of the Houston resolution wrote me to say they thought it would not have happened without the voice we brought into the process.

I also wish the resolution had been stronger, had indeed set specific time-lines for an end to the US presence in Iraq. Without such statements, and strong lobbying for them, I think we may be stuck with years more of blood and resources lost, less freedom at home, still more thousands of anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorists motivated and trained.

I also want to address two other criticisms that some in the Reform movement have made of our work.

One antiwar person warned me that some Reform rabbis think it is "meddling" for a non-Reform rabbi to take action to change a Reform position.

I was also told that I was not being "collegial" in that I did not inform the chief officials of URJ what I was planning to do before I did it. I promised to think this over, and I have.

My conclusion is that The Shalom Center is and will always be happy to be "collegial" in the sense of sharing our creative approaches and materials with any level -- grass-roots, regional, national -- of the URJ (and other larger organizations). We do not expect to defer to officials of any organization, if we feel that those officials are out of tune with what the grass roots of their organization want or with what the Jewish people and the world need. That applies especially when people are dying and killing, when the "prime directive" of pekuach nefesh (saving life) applies.

We see ourselves as an independent energy in Jewish, multireligious, and American life, sometimes critical and sometimes supportive. If some of the issues we raise strike sparks of change within one or another Jewish organization, good!

And now, as I wrote at the beginning of this letter, the new URJ resolution could matter a great deal. There I made a number of suggestions of what the Reform movement (and all of us) could now do. Most of all, most basic of all, I urge us all to treat the swift ending of this war as a question of pekuach nefesh, transcending all other concerns.

And not only transcending but including our concerns for social and economic justice, civil liberties, human rights, religious freedom -- all of which are threatened by this war.

It is not possible to tolerate the war and support universal health care, tolerate the war and support good schools for all, tolerate the war and protect the earth, tolerate the war and feed the hungry, tolerate the war and heal our own souls.

Time to choose.

With blessings of shalom,
With prayers that we all find
within ourselves
and from the One
the creativity and courage
to keep struggling for shalom --