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Reform Jews Step into Minefield with Opposition to Iraq War, Alito

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The Reform movement in the United States has voted overwhelmingly to oppose both the war in Iraq and the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito for the U.S. Supreme Court. The resolutions passed here over the weekend put the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella body of Reform congregations, front and center in the political debates roiling Washington.

The stances also place the movement, the largest stream in the United States, at odds with much of the organized Jewish community, which has avoided controversial stances on key political issues in recent years.

A White House official called the movement’s Iraq resolution “deeply disappointing and short-sighted.” The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested the Bush administration went into Iraq to fight political and religious persecution. He compared Iraq to the genocide in Darfur, where the Reform movement has sought White House intervention.

“You can’t say you want us to get out of this conflict, if you want the president to get involved in Darfur, which are the same issues,” the official said.

But participants at the movement’s biennial convention here last week said the positions are in tune with what many American Jews are saying at home, or at least where they likely will be heading.

“I honestly think we’re ahead of the curve,” said Rabbi Jack Paskoff, 44, of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, Pa. But, he added, he didn’t think the movement was as outspoken as it should be.

Throughout the halls of the vast George R. Brown Convention Center, participants seemed determined to mitigate the stronghold they say Christian conservatives have on American politics. On both resolutions, participants said, they were angry and fearful of the impact decisions made today would have on future generations.

“There is an overbidding disgust of politicians in Washington who aren’t getting the job done,” said Richard Davis, a retired salesman from Houston.

The disdain for those in power in Washington was palpable throughout the convention, which brought together some 4,000 Jews from congregations across the United States.

Ironically, the votes against the Bush administration policies occurred in the George Bush Ballroom of the convention center, named for the current president’s father, who once represented Texas in Congress.

The disdain extended to the union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who used his address Saturday to chastise the religious right.

“We are particularly offended by the suggestion that the opposite of the religious right is the voice of atheism,” Yoffie said. “We are appalled when ‘people of faith’ is used in such a way that it excludes us, as well as most Jews, Catholics and Muslims. What could be more bigoted than to claim that you have a monopoly on God and that anyone who disagrees with you is not a person of faith.”

He called the religious right’s opposition to gay rights reminiscent of the Nazis.

“We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations,” Yoffie said.

The Iraq war resolution called for some troops to be withdrawn beginning next month, and sought more transparency on the war and a clear exit strategy for the conflict. The resolution also calls for an examination of prewar intelligence.

While the resolution doesn’t explicitly oppose the war, the movement hailed it as such, making it the first major American Jewish group to take that stance.

The timing was significant. The vote came a day after Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a senior lawmaker known for his military expertise, called for an immediate withdrawal of forces — and on the same day that the House of Representatives, after a rancorous debate, voted against bringing troops back home right away.

Some here wanted the union to debate an immediate withdrawal as well, officials said, but an amendment to the resolution was not introduced.

Indeed, only one person lined up to speak against the war resolution, and it passed by an overwhelming voice vote, after limited debate.

The debate on Alito was more extensive, but focused largely on the merits of speaking out against the nomination before his confirmation hearings conclude in January.

“No man should be presumed guilty before getting a proper hearing,” said Rob Weisgrav of Cardiff By The Sea, Calif. “Before this process has gone through, I don’t think we can take a stand.”

Despite a spirited presentation from Jeff Wasserstein, a self-proclaimed liberal Jew who clerked for Alito and said the judge had a strong respect for precedents, few seemed convinced the judge would further the movement’s core values.

“For us to sit this out, knowing 10 years from now we will have wished he wasn’t there, is wrong,” said Jane Wishner of Albuquerque, who chairs the union’s Commission on Social Action.

The resolution said Alito “would threaten protection of the most fundamental rights which our movement supports” and “would shift the ideological balance of the Supreme Court on matters of core concern to the Reform Movement,” including reproductive rights and separation of church and state.

The union became the second major Jewish group to oppose Alito, joining the National Council of Jewish Women. While several Jewish leaders have expressed concerns about Alito’s stance on reproductive rights and other civil rights issues, many Jewish groups have chosen to stay out of confirmation battles.

The White House official called the Alito resolution “misguided.”

“If you look at Judge Alito’s record, he has a tremendous record on welcoming religion into our lives and arguing we all should have the freedom to worship,” he said.

Many at the biennial said they were looking for the Reform movement to speak out more on controversial issues, to mirror the intense feelings of local Jewish communities.

“I get the sense back home that there is a real level of frustration about the war in Iraq,” said Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman of Temple Beth Or in Everett, Wash. “The dislike and the betrayal is a lot stronger than what our resolution says.”

That is not the case everywhere, however. Some participants from smaller and more conservative Jewish communities said the Reform movement’s positions went beyond where their peers are.

“By and large, our Jewish community would support social action goals, but not to the extent that they do,” said Marzy Bauer, a hospital administrator from South Bend, Ind. “I think most of the community looks at the national organizations for leadership. They need to take a position so people can see how it fits with their community.”

The social action debates this year were a change from recent biennials, when congregational issues dominated the agenda.

“In the past, we’ve moved in this direction where we are doing less resolution work,” Yoffie told reporters, adding the change this year “reflects the fact that there is a sense of urgency now.”

Several veteran Reform leaders compared the movement’s stance on the war to its position in 1969 against the Vietnam War. The movement received threats from President Johnson at the time, and was pressured by Israeli officials not to oppose the war.

“We will face great threats here, too,” said Al Vorspan, then the director of the movement’s Commission on Social Action and now its vice president emeritus.

“For this movement to turn its back on this kind of moral challenge is a betrayal of our history, and a betrayal of these kids,” he said last Friday, pointing to high school students attending the convention as delegates of the Reform youth movement, the North American Federation of Temple Youth.

JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.

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