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Some Jews Join Anti-war Protests, but Worry About Radical Bedfellows

September 28, 2005
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Hours before a demonstration against the Iraq war swelled to tens of thousands of people, a few dozen protesters packed a stately synagogue in downtown Washington and considered Egypt. Not the current regime of Hosni Mubarak, but the plight of the Hebrews under pharaoh millennia ago — “caught between a rock and a hard place,” as Rabbi Arthur Waskow told the congregants at the Shabbat service last weekend.

The rock the Jewish protesters faced was their impassioned opposition to the Iraq war, while the hard place was the vituperative anti-Israeli sentiment among some of their anti-war allies.

Between sermons, worshippers discussed which events to attend that weekend and which to avoid because of the likely presence of virulent anti-Zionism.

The service, a joyful melding of psalms and protest songs, offered Jewish protesters a way through, Waskow said afterward.

“We figured out a way to honor Shabbat and to celebrate the Jewish values of Israel and the Jewish values of ‘seek peace and pursue it,’ ” said Waskow, who heads Philadelphia’s Shalom Center.

It’s a dilemma that the national Jewish leadership may soon face as support for the war falls. In surveys last year, U.S. Jews opposed the war in even greater numbers than non-Jews, while recent surveys show that a majority of Americans oppose how the Bush administration is handling the situation.

Jewish officials say privately that they’re seeking an outlet for burgeoning anti-war sentiment at the grassroots level, but the problem is that some of the war’s leading opponents — such as Cindy Sheehan, a mother whose son died in the war — equate the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Some of the best-organized groups — and those likeliest to attend anti-war protests — do not stop at criticizing Israeli policy but reject Israel’s very existence. International A.N.S.W.E.R., a cosponsor of several of the weekend events, speaks of Israel as “within the borders of historic Palestine.”

Jewish protesters spoke of their discomfiture at sharing space with placards accusing Israel of being the dog that wags the American tail.

Waskow avoided events associated with A.N.S.W.E.R. Rabbi Michael Lerner, of the San Francisco-based Tikkun community, joined those events, but told followers that he wished organizers had heeded his calls to distance the rally from A.N.S.W.E.R.

That company has kept many of the top Jewish groups silent since the war began in March 2003. Prior to the war, the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox streams each issued statements supporting its objectives — the removal of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction — but stopping short of endorsing the war outright.

More than two years later that equivocation continues. Spokesmen for the Reform and Orthodox movements did not return calls in time for this story, but a Conservative movement official said there was little demand at the grassroots for an organizational position.

“We haven’t had any discussions recently as an organization,” said Mark Waldman, director of public policy for United Synagogue.

Jewish defense organizations and pro-Israel groups by and large also expressed support for Bush administration objectives at the war’s outset, but stopped short of explicitly endorsing the war.

Recently there have been signs of a shift toward criticism. The Reform movement and the Anti-Defamation League noted with alarm revelations last year that captives in U.S. custody had been tortured.

Those images prompted Rabbis for Human Rights-North America to launch a rabbinic letter in January, citing Jewish teachings, to call on President Bush and Congress to end torture, inhumane treatment and degradation of captives. Administration officials say some of the conventions against torture do not apply to captives suspected of terrorism because they are not traditional soldiers in uniform.

“We understand that the most fundamental ethical principle, which results from our belief in God as Creator of the world and Parent of all humanity, is that every human being is seen as reflecting the Image of God,” says the letter, which so far has accrued 600 signatories from all Jewish streams. “Torture shatters and defiles God’s image.”

The group is not contemplating a broader encomium against the war in Iraq, said its executive director, Rabbi Brian Walt, because its mandate is strictly human rights and not broader political issues. But the groundswell of support for the petition suggests a desire for a more substantive statement from the Jewish community, he said.

“Torture is such a challenging topic, no one wants to think about it,” Walt said. “Most Americans do not believe Americans would do such a thing, but the reality is that we are.”

The group was counseling rabbis to address the topic in High Holiday sermons.

Whether a major group moves beyond the specific issue of torture to a broader indictment of the war remains an open question. United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella body that organized this weekend’s events, hopes to nudge the anti-war movement to a middle ground that would make mainstream Jewish groups and others more comfortable with its message, spokesman Bill Dobbs said.

“We planned three days of events: a rally, a march, a concert with speakers, a peace and justice festival, an interfaith service, civil disobedience, a large lobbying effort,” he told JTA. “Of all of those events, two of them” — the march and the concert — “were cosponsored by A.N.S.W.E.R.”

Dobbs suggested the movement could move further toward accommodating those uncomfortable with the radicals’ message.

One problem, he said, is reconciling groups like his that advocate an immediate withdrawal from Iraq with those who advocate a managed exit strategy.

Waskow, who was arrested Monday in front of the White House with another 270 protesters, said that the weekend’s events were successful overall and offered an outlet for young Jews who oppose the war but hear little about it from their community’s leaders.

“We were able to bring a positive Jewish message and to be able to affirm clearly that our Jewish values include an affirmation of the State of Israel,” he said. “I’m deeply disappointed at the silence of the larger Jewish organizations about the war. They’ve wasted a hunk of next generations of Jews, and wasted a connection with decent parts of the anti-war movement.”

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