Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Behind the Headlines Jews Raise a Small but Visible Flag Against Possible War in Iraq by Rachel Pome

December 11, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Three rabbis were among 100 people arrested here Tuesday after blocking the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to protest a possible war with Iraq.

Hours later, from his prison cell packed with 62 men, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of Philadelphia’s Shalom Center, told JTA that those arrested were “joyful and determined.”

“Whether the war is on or whether we’ve been able to force it to delay, either way there will be these demonstrations,” Waskow blared, rousing the prisoners.

Tuesday’s arrest of the rabbis marks one of the first visible signs of Jewish activism in the small but growing American movement to oppose a war in Iraq.

While Jews have historically embraced anti-war movements, they have not been in the forefront of this one — in part because of concern about Iraq’s threat to Israel and in part because a majority of American Jews, like a majority of Americans, appear to back President Bush’s link between action against Iraq and the war on terrorism.

Michael Feinberg and Ellen Lippmann, two New York rabbis, were also arrested for civil disobedience during the anti-war demonstration organized by the New York City Forum of Concerned Religious Leaders that drew more than 200 .

Singing peace songs, the activists, many wearing placards with pictures of Iraqi women and children, stressed the impact of a war with Iraq on innocent Iraqis they claim have already suffered under a U.S. embargo.

Held in conjunction with International Human Rights Day, anti-war demonstrations were held in more than 100 cities throughout the country.

European rallies drew even larger crowds, with thousands thronging demonstrations in Rome and Paris, according to CNN.

While individual Jews were represented at the rallies — Waskow spoke as did Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream — Jewish involvement in the fledgling anti-war movement appears minimal.

Other left-wing groups speaking out against war include Tikkun, headed by Rabbi Michael Lerner, and Jewish Voice for Peace, a San Francisco-based Jewish organization that advocates for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Jewish Voice for Peace was one of the sponsors of an anti-war demonstration in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, which drew about 300 people.

But most mainstream Jewish organizations, across the religious and political spectrum, have come out at least in cautious support of a war.

There’s a perception in the Jewish community that “to remove Saddam Hussein would somehow strengthen the security of Israel,” said Feinberg, who directs an interfaith organization in New York.

“I think a war against Iraq could inflame the tensions and the violence that already exists in the whole region and turn it into complete conflagration which would help no one’s security, not Israelis, not Palestinians, not Iraqis and not Americans.”

Most Christian denominations have made statements opposing the war, according to Feinberg, adding that he hopes that rabbis and Jewish communal organizations will follow suit.

But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, had a different take.

Jews “understand that the war on terrorism is vital to the security of the United States of America’s interests abroad, to the stability of the world, to any prospect of stability in the Middle East, for peace for Israel. This is an integral part of that war.”

The Conference of Presidents, which is an umbrella group of Jewish groups, stands by its statement issued two months ago that war should be employed as a last resort, but war may be the “only option,” Hoenlein said.

“I think that people have to put into context the developments and recognize the true nature of the enemy that we are confronting,” which is part of a terrorist network that has declared war on Jews all over the world, he said.

But according to Waskow, supporting war with Iraq endangers Israel.

“The Bush policy puts Israel in enormous danger, and the Jews should be opposing that policy with all their energy,” he said, citing CIA officials who claim Iraq would only employ weapons of mass destruction if faced with no negotiating room.

And the most likely target of an attack would be Israel, said Waskow, who was released Tuesday afternoon along with the others.

He and the others now must appear in court to face charges of disordely conduct.

Waskow believes Bush’ intentions are to strengthen his own standing and to empower “big oil,” without regard for the U.N. inspections process.

Waskow, who is organizing fast days in support of the anti-war effort, thinks that Jews have not been active in the anti-war movement because they are waiting for other Jews to step forward.

“We are making it visible that there are committed Jews who are opposed to war and as that becomes more visible, I think many more Jews will” become activists, he said.

John Berman, a 44-year old congregant at Brooklyn’s Kolot Chayeinu, who hushed another activist shouting “Free Palestine” during Tuesday’s demonstration in New York, is hoping to broaden the tent for Jews in the anti-war movement.

The “silent majority” of Jews stems from the fact that “they see the U.S. administration as a big Israel ally right now,” he said

But that’s a dangerous alliance, Berman said.

“I think the Bush administration is profoundly reactionary and really goes against what I consider fundamental Jewish” values of peace and social justice. “I think we’re making a pact with the devil.”

But according to Hoenlein, war with Iraq may be a necessary part of the war on terrorism.

It may increase tension for Israel in the short term, he said.

“In the longer term, I think it will be extremely beneficial if it is pursued properly and successfully.

“If we fail to act or act and fail, and Saddam emerges again as he did after 1991, I think it will embolden more terrorists and more Islamic extremism in the region.”

Recommended from JTA