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War in Iraq As U.S. Troops Reach Baghdad, Rabbis Still Struggle with Position

April 4, 2003
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As U.S. forces pushed to the outskirts of Baghdad this week, 350 Conservative rabbis were embroiled in a fierce Iraq conflict of their own.

Opinions varied so widely and discussions lasted so long at the Rabbinical Assembly’s annual conference in Los Angeles that the participating rabbis put off an equally controversial debate on homosexuality.

At the last minute, the group sent a final position paper on Iraq to its executive committee so the rabbis could deal with other resolutions before adjourning Thursday.

When the executive committee finally issued a resolution, it sent several messages.

The rabbis supported the allied coalition’s aims to “remove the threats posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction,” expressed “maximum concern” for noncombatants, lauded U.S. troops, and underlined that Judaism holds peace as a “supreme value” but also allows defensive wars.

“The American Jewish community as a whole had been ambivalent” going into this war, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the assembly, “and that gets reflected” in such official positions.

Weeks into Operation Iraqi Freedom, it seems, the more liberal streams of American Judaism are more divided than ever about the war.

The Orthodox community, in contrast, is standing firmly behind the war.

For months, rabbis of all denominations have been sermonizing across the board on Iraq, finding Jewish reasons to rally behind the anti-war movement or wholeheartedly support the Bush administration .

That debate crystallized one week into the war, when Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, who had been an outspoken critic of the war, seemed to backtrack in a New York Times article.

Months earlier, Schorsch had told JTA that he feared the Iraq war campaign was a political “sideshow” that would lead to a war that “is not a turkey shoot,” and on Purim, the eve of the war, he warned of a “dark” period.

Once the U.S.-led invasion began, Schorsch asked the seminary’s public relations team to retract critical comments he had made about the war because, he told the Times, “I did not think that I should go on a crusade” while the battle raged.

Schorsch wouldn’t discuss the matter further, but other Conservative colleagues defended his actions.

“I don’t think that was a retraction,” Meyers said. “It’s often very difficult for public figures to be thoughtful about a subject without being cast as retreating.”

One thing is clear: As the war unfolds, the other liberal movements remain similarly conflicted.

The Reform movement’s rabbinical union, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, met in Washington last week and could agree only on a resolution that prayed for the safety of U.S. troops and acknowledged that its ranks were “of varied opinion” about the war.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s synagogue arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, puts the mood this way:

“Ambivalence is the reality from what I can see. It’s true in the rabbinate, its true in the leadership, its true in the grass roots. Reform Jews are exceedingly divided and unsure.”

Not all Reform leaders are ambivalent. The Reform rabbinical group’s immediate past president, Rabbi Martin Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, delivered a sermon to the annual conference that outlined his support for the war.

Titled “Munich, Vietnam and Saddam,” Weiner described his journey from opposition to the Vietnam war to support for toppling the Iraqi dictator.

Weiner said his support stems from the belief not only that it’s necessary to challenge evil, but that the removal of Saddam could push a democratic wave across the Middle East.

The smaller Reconstructionist movement is also deeply divided over the war.

That movement’s three main bodies — the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — issued a joint statement March 21 that referred to a “range of opinion and emotion at this moment.”

Rabbi Judy Wortman, president of the federation, the Reconstructionist synagogue arm, said a few of its 103 member congregations had engaged in anti-war efforts before the war and most members seemed opposed to war at their annual gathering in Montreal in November.

Rabbi Shai Gluskin, the group’s director of education, said that now “we support the troops, but don’t feel this is a just war.”

An anti-war resolution is currently circulating among members, Wortman said. Gluskin said that plank includes a call to join other clergy groups against the war.

Orthodox leaders, meanwhile, remain almost of a single mind about the war.

The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America issued a joint statement backing Bush after the war’s first strikes last month, offering prayers for its “noble objectives” and for peace.

“Usually there’s two Jews, three opinions; but for us, this was one of the easiest positions we’ve had to take,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

In fact, Rabbi Hershel Billet, president of the Orthodox rabbinical union, said that “99 and nine-10ths” of the Orthodox community backs the war.

“Sometimes,” he said, “war is a necessary evil.”

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