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Day school teach-in about war in Iraq

ENCINIO, Calif., Feb. 24 (JTA) — “War is never the answer,” my son Gabe, 15, says. “What is the answer?” my husband, Larry, and I ask him, ourselves divided on the advisability of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. At Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, the Jewish day school where Gabe is a sophomore, he is learning some facts to defend his pacifist position, as well as some challenges to that stance. Yes, with the possibility of war with Iraq looming on the horizon, all students in grades nine to 12 recently took part in an old-fashioned teach-in, dividing into groups of 50 to 100 and, in 30-minute sessions, listening to and questioning both pro- and anti-war speakers. “These students are not only studying history, they are living it. They want to know what is happening and why. And what the ramifications are for us in America and for Israel,” says Rennie Wrubel, Milken’s head of school. The impetus for the teach-in originated in the history department, because, according to department chair and teach-in organizer Fran Lapides, “Students have a compelling need to hear both sides clearly presented, beyond the normal current events discussions.” In Gabe’s first session, Aryeh Cohen, chair of rabbinic studies at University of Judaism in Los Angeles, asks, “What is war?” “A deliberate attack on another country,” one student answers. “Self-defense on a large scale.” “Fighting.” Students decide on the definition of “armed conflict between two or more opposing forces,” which Cohen concedes is “probably as specific as you can get.” “Why do we fight wars?” he then asks. “Can war be just?” Students struggle with answers as he forces them to go beyond superficialities and slogans. “Some wars are justified, but they are still evil,” he says, “because war itself is evil.” Cohen explains that, according to Jewish texts and tradition, there are only two legitimate reasons to launch a pre-emptive war attack on another country: If a clear and present danger exists and if all other possibilities of peace have been exhausted. “War with Iraq does not meet these criteria,” he says. In another session, however, Mark Paredes, the press attache for the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, presents an opposing view. He tells a group of students that Saddam Hussein, who has murdered 5 percent of his own people, more than a million individuals, is dangerous and needs to be removed. “We’ve waited 12 years for him to disarm,” he says. Paredes worries about the link between Saddam and terrorism. “Israeli intelligence has discovered that Hussein has entrusted chemical and biological weapons to Syria, which means Hezbollah now has access to them. And we know that Al-Qaida trains at Hezbollah camps.” “But do we have to go to war now” a student asks. The teen-agers are clearly concerned. In a breakout session to process what they are learning, a teacher asks the group about conscription. “I have a 19-year-old brother who could be drafted,” Gabe says. “And if the war drags on, like Vietnam did, we could all be affected.” These teen-agers are clearly concerned about all the repercussions of a war with Iraq. And the United States government’s advice to stock up on duct tape, plastic sheeting and other emergency preparedness supplies does little to quell their fears. “These kids watch or read news that is very disturbing, and they don’t know what to do with that information,” Wrubel says. “Our intent is to provide them with knowledge so they can understand why certain decisions are being made. We hope this will help reduce their anxieties.” In the next session, Gabe listens to Blase Bonpane, director of the Office of the Americas, a nonprofit educational group. Bonpane believes that, while Saddam is “not OK,” Iraq itself does not present a threat. “The cradle of civilization on the Tigris River is destroyed; it’s in ashes,” he tells the students. Bonpane advocates that war, along with all nuclear weapons, be abolished. “But how do you respond to 9/11 without war?” a student asks. “We use international police and international court systems to pursue individual tyrants and terrorists,” he answers. He also warns that the more our civil liberties are curtailed, the more difficult it will be to track down terrorists operating in the United States. Bruce Bialosky, president of the Republican Coalition of Los Angeles, gives the students another perspective. He quotes President Clinton, who in 1998 said, “As long as Saddam Hussein remains in power, he will remain a threat to his people, his region and the world.” “What about Israel?” a teacher asks, voicing one of the students’ primary concerns. “It is clearly possible Israel will be attacked, as it was in 1991,” Bialosky concedes. “But Israel is prepared, and in the long run Israel will benefit.” Other speakers at the Milken teach-in include Lewis Fein, a columnist for the Jewish World Review and former speechwriter and aide to Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich; Ted Harshberger, director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program of Project Air Force at the RAND corporation, a think tank; and Derek Iverson, a member of the Green Party. The morning reaffirms Gabe’s opposition to the war. “Now I have new facts that will help me when I’m arguing with my friends,” he says. He adds, “Our entire nation needs a teach-in. If people knew all the facts, I would respect their opinions more. Of course, I’d still disagree with them.”Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif. She is the mother of four sons.