Reform Movement Goes Silent On Its Anti-War Stand

New York Jewish Week.
Friday, April 14, 2006

Reform Movement Goes Silent On Its Anti-War Stand

James D. Besser - Washington Correspondent

Almost six months after putting Judaism’s largest denomination on record calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a divided Reform movement has let languish the resolution it passed with great fanfare at its November biennial convention.

The Union for Reform Judaism resolution, which demanded “a clear exit strategy ... with specific goals for [U.S.] troop withdrawal,” marked the first — and still only — official stand by a major Jewish organization against the war, even as polls consistently show Jews more strongly opposed to the war than the country as a whole.

But since writing President George W. Bush in December repeating the resolution’s main points, Reform leaders have not issued any press statements on the issue. The numerous action alerts sent to Reform congregations nationwide have called for action on issues ranging from the crisis in Darfur to the bloody budget battle on Capitol Hill — but not a word on Iraq.

Now, some of the Reform rabbis and lay leaders who strongly supported the resolution are beginning to voice criticism.

“I believe it is the mission of [the Reform movement] to display moral leadership on issues like Iraq, and I don’t believe they’re doing it,” said Rabbi Philip J. Bentley, spiritual leader of Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, N.C., and honorary president of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, a pacifist group.

Another Reform leader, who was active in the push for the November resolution, agreed.

“Since the resolution was passed, we haven’t seen any real action at the national level,” he said. “There was an expectation the movement would make this a priority, but we haven’t seen that, even though the situation in Iraq seems to be getting even worse, and we seem to have no exit strategy whatever.” He would speak only on condition of anonymity to preserve his relationship with national leaders of the movement.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the URJ president, dismissed speculation that movement leaders were intimidated by an aggressive ad campaign attacking the URJ resolution by the Republican Jewish Coalition soon after the November conference. But Rabbi Yoffie also acknowledged that the sentiments that drove the resolution “haven’t cohered into a strategy.”

“The absence of a respectable, responsible political leadership in Washington to give direction to this has made it very difficult to find a way to follow through on the resolution,” he said. “Who is the political spokesperson here who is galvanizing action?”

While polls show that Americans increasingly disapprove of the war, that feeling hasn’t generated a broad-based, moderate anti-war movement that the Reform movement can rally around, he said.

Rabbi Yoffie also pointed to another factor limiting Reform activism on the issue: the ongoing crisis in Darfur.

“In terms of our agenda, it’s true that we have focused more on Darfur because it is genocide; it’s people dying every day, in large numbers,” he said. “As a result, everything else gets a little less time. We’re not embarrassed about that. We’re proud of our role and plan to continue.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and an anti-war activist who played a role in last year’s URJ resolution, disagreed with the claim that there is no mainstream anti-war movement, pointing to an upcoming anti-war rally in New York called by a broad coalition of groups, including the National Council of Churches.

And he rejected the claim there are no specific political vehicles that could be the focus for URJ activism.

“There are three different vehicles currently before Congress,” he said. “URJ could choose one of these and name a date for large-scale lobbying in Washington, with Reform Jews coming from all over the country to lobby their members of Congress.”

Those resolutions range from one seeking a cutoff in funds for anything other than bringing the troops home to legislation simply calling for an open, active national debate on the issue.

“The Union, at its national convention, made a decision that is profoundly critical of the war and looks toward a swift ending,” he said. “That should inspire creative action by the Reform movement itself, not just waiting for others to do it.”

But Rabbi Richard Jacobs, spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, said recent developments in the Iraq conflict, especially its spiral into civil war, have played a role in the URJ’s inaction.

“What paused the activity in the Jewish community [on Iraq] was the feeling among the thoughtful, liberal majority that while the war has been misguided, there is a moral responsibility to pull out in the best possible way,” he said.

One of the original promoters of the November resolution, which passed overwhelmingly, agreed.

“At a time when Iraq seems to be dissolving into civil war, the elements there make it more complicated and less clear what our course of action should be,” said Rabbi Barry Schwartz of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J. “So events in Iraq have led to some inaction, but the fire that was kindled in November needs to be stoked.”

Rabbi Jacobs also highlighted the importance of Israel as a restraining factor in the URJ’s follow-up. The rise of Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the looming confrontation with Iran have made many liberal Jews more wary of stirring up the Iraq pot, he said.

“The Middle East is a powder keg right now,” said Rabbi Jacobs. “People are more reserved about simplistic solutions.”

Another congregational activist said concern about how more vocal activism might affect Israel had “confounded things a lot.”

But Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the movement’s Commission on Social Action, denied that the group had dropped Iraq activism after last year’s resolution. Rabbi Feldman pointed to a debate on Iraq that was put on the agenda of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ annual conference last February. The debate, which pitted Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington against pro-war journalist Lawrence Kaplan was a result of a push by the URJ, she said.

Rabbi Douglas Krantz of Congregation B’nai Yisrael in Armonk, N.Y., said that many congregations were active on their own, regardless of what was taking place at the national level. “You can rest assured that many of us are speaking regularly about the war in Iraq and the unfolding tragedy for all,” he said. “We are speaking regularly about the nature of the fear mongering engaged in by the current administration.”

But other Reform activists say the lack of concrete action on Iraq has been striking, and made a difference.

“Synagogues haven’t gotten any guidance on the issue,” said one Reform rabbi. “There hasn’t been any signal from URJ that this is a priority issue right now — and to be frank, there hasn’t been much of a clamor at the local level. People may be distracted by other issues and confused by the lack of clear answers about where U.S. policy in Iraq should be heading now.”

One strong supporter of the November resolution said that in the months since its passage, Rabbis Yoffie and Saperstein had sparred within the organization over how aggressively to follow up. Rabbi Saperstein, said the supporter, was “more activist on this.” Rabbi Saperstein did not return several calls seeking comment.

“Yes, I am disappointed,” said one Reform activist. “It’s vital for the anti-war movement to be able to contextualize the war in a moral framework. That’s exactly what URJ did in its resolution — but then it dropped the ball.” n