Why the Silence?
It is August, just a few weeks before the awesome Holy Days, and I am checking my e-mail. I am also, as those days approach, counting up the time since March 2003, when The Shalom Center placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, signed by hundreds of Jews, warning that the impending invasion of Iraq would be a disaster. I am counting up, as we are taught to do, not only days and years but what we have accomplished and what we have failed to accomplish in those days and years.
The Iraq War is four and a half years old. More than 3,700 American soldiers are dead. Many thousands more have lost legs, arms, eyes or genitals, have suffered severe brain damage and are experiencing post-traumatic stress at rates far higher than during the Vietnam War. Between 200,000 and 600,000 Iraqis have died, 2.5 million have fled their country and another 2 million, their homes. Two-thirds of the American public and at least that fraction of American Jews believe the invasion and occupation was a terrible error.
And in my e-mail I receive, from the editor of a Jewish online magazine, her response to my submission of an article she had commissioned me to write. She had asked me to address what the High Holy Days might say about America's predilection for violence, at home and overseas. But now she demands that I revise my article: "I can't have an article taking sides in the Iraqi conflict." (I refused to revise it.)
Is she, or her magazine, anomalous? Far from it. In May the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative rabbis) failed to reach agreement on a motion calling for a "timely draw-down" of American troops from Iraq, describing the military effort in Iraq as a failure and reaffirming their support for the troops.
Other rabbis moved earlier--if "earlier" is an accurate word. This February, four years into the war, Ohalah (the Jewish-renewal rabbinical association) called for an end to the war. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association followed shortly, as did the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis.
In late summer 2005, at its biennial national convention, the most nearly democratic governing body of Reform Judaism had adopted a scathing critique of the war--after members demanded action by the leadership. But the language of the officially approved resolution was vague about what should be done. After the grassroots simmering came to a boil again this spring, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) finally adopted a resolution calling for Congress to set a timetable for an end to the war. In April the Reform movement's Religious Action Center (RAC) invited me to speak at its Consultation on Conscience on what the movement could and should do about the war. I urged that it mobilize grassroots support for Senator Russ Feingold's effort to cut off funds for the war. Months later, in July, the RAC sent out an alert to local activists urging support for the Feingold approach.
Meanwhile, a broad spectrum of mainstream American religious groups--among them the National Council of Churches and the Islamic Society of North America--declared a one-day fast on October 8 to call for bringing troops home and for the government to support an international, nongovernmental effort to help Iraqis rebuild their country. A number of rabbis--but no Jewish organizations except The Shalom Center, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and an ad hoc "Jews Against the War"--joined in calling for a fast. Despite their antiwar resolutions, the URJ and the Reconstructionist rabbis refused.
Two thousand years ago, in Pirkei Avot, the rabbis defined themselves as heirs of the prophets, whose task was to condemn the power grabs of kings and to demand peace and justice, even at the risk of their lives and freedom. Why, then, have almost all rabbis failed on this life-and-death moral issue to lead the American Jewish community--when even elected politicians were way ahead in defining the moral and practical failure of the war? And why have almost all other large Jewish organizations failed to speak out against the war?