Why should Jews unite to end the war & heal America?

[I gave this talk at the opening session of the "Jews Uniting to End the War & Heal America" gathwring in New York City on November 23, 2008.-- Arthur Waskow]

Shalom, salaam, peace. For the last two years, I’ve been making it a spiritual and political practice to use all three of those words when speaking to an audience — whether all or practically all Jewish, or all or practically all Christian, or all or practically all Muslim. Our three different Abrahamic traditions have, for most of our history, acted as if we were in separate rooms. But our planet is too small and too endangered for that to continue, for us to think that only Jews, or only Christians, or only Muslims, are in any room in which we gather.

At this moment, the United States is at war with two nations that are deeply Muslim. And the State of Israel is, de facto, at war with a community that is mostly, though not entirely, Muslim. The Christian-Jewish-Muslim agonies, anguish and passion about that whole region in which Abraham and Hagar and Sarah and Jesus and Mary and Mohammed and Fatima and Ishmael all walked — that passion has been one of the forces that given the war in Iraq such a destructive impact. And it will require, I think, those three communities in the United States — where it is possible, thank God, for at least large parts of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities to come together! — to end the war.

So let us deeply take in what it means to say “Shalom, salaam, peace.” Let us think of all the Jews around the world, the Jews newly self-discovered in Uganda, the Jews of Tel Aviv, the Jews of Sderot, the Jews of New York and of the southside of Chicago, the Jews of Ukraine . . . some desperately poor, some overwhelmingly wealthy, some terribly frightened, some full of rage and even hatred, some full of compassion. And let us think, as well, of the billion and a half Muslims of the world, in all their differences as well, living every where from Chicago and Detroit to Cairo to Islamabad . . . in India, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Saudi Arabia . . . some desperately poor, some overwhelmingly wealthy, some filled with fury, some seeking dialogue, in all of those different communities. And the nearly two billion Christians in the world — also incredibly varied.

The shock of 9-11 drove our country into craziness. It drove us to forget the spiritual depth, the spiritual abundance that we have, along with our material abundance, which would otherwise have inspired us to say, “Wait a minute,” about this war. And then the war itself drove us further into craziness: We have accepted torture — and we have accepted an expenditure of at least a trillion dollars from an America that is privately affluent but publicly poverty-stricken, with schools, roads, health care, firefighting, all of the ordinary fabric of a society, in disrepair.

For me one of the saddest and most upsetting aspects of the failure of large parts of the official Jewish community to act against this war has been the attempt to split, in people’s minds, social justice from the issue of the war itself — as if you could work effectively for social justice in America while a trillion dollars was being spent on destruction. The Jewish connection to this war, however, is not just about the money that could be spent for real needs, both here and around the world — but about power, about taking power from Pharaoh. That’s a connection that goes back thirty-five hundred years: Every Jewish festival, every shabbat, everything we do, every act, is about ending the tyranny of Pharaoh and undertaking the exodus from slavery.

Pharaoh was the embodiment of an imperial, military empire. The horse chariots were the jets bombers of that era, the most advanced weapons of aggression of that day. They were used against peoples who could not afford horse chariots. And Pharaoh’s coercion, internationally, was reproduced at home. He took over ownership of the land. Our tradition teaches that it was Joseph, an Israelite, who taught Pharaoh how to do it so effectively — there’s the neocon of that period! And Pharaoh turned workers into slaves, impoverishing and making them miserable and coercing them through internal military force.

Look again at our story. Look again at the whole experience of the Jewish people: Egypt, Babylonia, Rome, the Inquisition, the tsar . . . and then look at the conditions of extreme danger that we’ve been living under for the past eight years. Thank God — the Jewish God, the Christian God, the Muslim God, the Buddhist Beyond God — thank God the American people have gotten at least to the stage of saying, No, this is not the future America we seek.

We have to be clear that this doesn’t mean turning power over to a new group of leaders and trusting them to do it right. With all the decent will in the world, the institutional pressures from structures already in place are going to be pushing hard to keep there from being any basic change even if the new president and administration do outlaw torture and do end the American military presence in Iraq and do undertake other policy changes — even then, moving in a profoundly new direction at home and abroad is going to depend on us.

When President-elect Obama said at Grant Park — as he said over and over again in the campaign — that his election is not the change, it only makes change possible, he was in some ways making a promise, and in some ways giving us a warning: that there won’t be really serious change if we don’t make it happen. That’s why this gathering is so crucial, and other gatherings like it must be organized. There’s a story about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that in the midst of the Great Depression, he called together the leaders of the new industrial unionism and said to them, “You have got to organize the workers to demand that I do what I would like to do. Because if you don’t organize workers to demand it, I won’t be able to do it.” That is our task today.