The Silent Debate: American Jews and the Iraq War

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

[This essay was circulated in early March 2007 by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as an Op/Ed piece for its member newspapers of the Jewish press.]

What to do about the Iraq war has made for the sharpest and most important disconnect between the political behavior of large Jewish organizations and the opinions of the flesh-and-blood Jews who actually make up the American Jewish community.

Surveys by the American Jewish Committee in the fall of 2005 and 2006 showed about two-thirds of American Jews thought the war a mistake. The Gallup Poll reports that over a three-year span, more than three-fourths of American Jews – the most in any religious group – thought the war a mistake. The nearest there is to a grass-roots gathering of the largest organization, the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, in September 2005 overwhelmingly adopted a resolution vigorously critical of the war.

Yet neither the URJ nor any other of the organizations that call themselves "the community" and claim to represent these people has taken any serious political action to demand that the war be ended. The Jewish Council on Public Affairs, which claims to carry out the policy agenda of the "Jewish community," had a major convention in Washington just days ago, and scheduled a "discussion" of Iraq so late at night that only thirty people showed up. As for a policy decision – the hottest and most consequential issue facing the American people was not even on the JCPA agenda.

The URJ board is finally reported to be considering urging Congress to call for a time table and benchmarks for ending the war, but is not itself likely to name a date certain or urge Congress to use its appropriation power. Far from lifting a prophetic moral banner before Members of Congress, the URJ is way behind such Jewish members of Congress as Jerrold Nadler and Russ Feingold. The Congressfolk are clear that given the stubborn attachment of the Bush-Cheney Administration to the war, redirecting military money is the only way to bring our soldiers safely home.

Every day the official Jewish institutions delay bringing their moral and political clout to bear, means some delay in getting Congress to end the war. And every day the war continues, American soldiers and Iraqi civilians die.

There are three factors preventing action. One is that synagogues and communities like them are loathe to risk divisive decisions when even a small proportion of the membership demur. These are the people who will celebrate your children, mourn your death; can you pass a resolution that upsets them? Of course, Protestant churches face exactly the same tensions; yet many of them have been vigorous opponents of the war.

Second: When the US invaded Iraq, Israel and the US were the only countries where both the government and a majority of the public supported the invasion. Israeli security experts now say it was a disastrous mistake, empowering a much more troublesome Middle Eastern power – Iran —and generating a wave of Arabs newly enraged and newly trained to express their rage in violence. But in 2003, many American Jewish officials danced to the Israeli government's tunes, as they habitually do even if they secretly dislike the music. Now it is hard to create their own melodies.

Third, although Jews vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, the governing boards of all the "major" Jewish organizations include some extremely rich "machers" who give a great deal of money to these Jewish groups – and vote Republican. They are unhappy about embarrassing their friends in and around the White House. Indeed, some of these organizations and their Israeli contacts have had close ties with some of the strongest and earliest proponents of the war inside the Bush Administration, and the embarrassment of abandoning these folks may be even greater.

Some antiwar Jews feel their opposition is rooted in Jewish values and in concern for Jewish interests. Some have walked away from formal Jewish life out of distaste for the silence they hear. How to make their – our -- voice heard?

It will take public appeals in the Jewish and general media to find such people. It will take bringing them together across denominational and institutional lines, and developing Jewish symbols and practices that connect to their antiwar politics. (For example: Passover and its warning about a Pharaoh addicted to repression and war.)

It is for these reasons that The Shalom Center developed a call to begin the "exodus" of US soldiers from Iraq by Passover and to complete bringing them safely home by the convergence of 9/11, Rosh Hashanah, and Ramadan. After several hundred signers – a cross-section of rabbis, businessfolk, philanthropists, teachers, and "Jews in the pews" -- joined in the call, The Shalom Center placed the call as an ad in the Forward, the Nation, and other Jewish and general media.

(FOR THE TEXT OF THE AD & HOW TO SIGN AND SUPPORT IT, SEE OUR HOME PAGE, BELOW, and the blue "Donate" button on the right-hand margin of tbhis page.)

From such work can emerge a network that will demand responses both from their own silent Jewish organizations and from public policy-makers.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and the author of many books on renewing Jewish life, including Seasons of Our Joy and The Tent of Abraham.