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Why the Silence? | The Nation

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Why the Silence?

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Let us leave aside the Jewish groups--like the American Jewish Committee and Congress, the Orthodox community, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations--that would not be expected to join the antiwar cause. What about the "natural loci" of opposition?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow | Leaders of the Jewish community who have resisted calls to voice opposition to the war can no longer justify their failure to speak out.

About the Author

Arthur Waskow
Rabbi Arthur Waskow directs the Shalom Center (www.shalomctr.org), 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia, PA 19119. He is...

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There are four reasons for their silence:

First, synagogues are where people hope others will celebrate their children and mourn their deaths. Even when just a small minority of members still support the war, the majority may hesitate to anger these folks, and the rabbis acquiesce lest their boards harass or fire them.

Second, even when huge proportions of the Israeli security elite had abandoned their early support for the war, Prime Minister Olmert publicly criticized the Reform movement for calling for a timetable to end it. (Olmert was being shoved hard by a Bush Administration whose support he desperately needed, since his approval rating among his own citizens was down to 3 percent.) A generation ago, when the Israeli government acted the same way under pressure from Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, most American Jewish "leaders" shut up. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel became a hero to many Jews precisely because he refused to shut up. But while many official Jewish organizations admire the photo of Heschel marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr., they have refused to follow his example. Even the Reform movement, with its strong constituent base, shuddered when the baseless Olmert screeched.

What about organizations (like Jewish Funds for Justice) that have sprouted up in the past two decades to work for social justice, as once-liberal mainstream groups like the American Jewish Congress have moved far right and most Jewish Community Relations Councils have been swallowed up by more conservative federations? Almost all of them, fearing that furious internal disagreement about Israel would disrupt their work at home, have treated anything beyond US borders as a danger zone. The Jewish Council on Public Affairs, which does address US policy toward Israel, did not even have an Iraq resolution on the agenda when it met this spring. Although Iraq is costing half a trillion dollars while unfit US bridges and obsolete sewer lines kill people, and while our public schools and our healthcare are shortchanged by the war--somehow these organizations have not discovered that the war is a domestic issue. A justice issue.

On the flip side of the coin from these domestic-only organizations are some that address only Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab questions: Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) and Jewish Voice for Peace. They have evidently felt that it is so hard to engage even progressive Jews on issues where Israeli policy might come under criticism that they have not wanted to dilute their focus by adding Iraq to it. So they have been unwilling to broaden their mission, despite suggestions that the US occupation of Iraq, US-Iranian hostility, US efforts to engage the Saudis in "stabilization" and US hostility to Israeli-Syrian negotiations are all so intertwined with the Israeli-Palestinian question that peace might best be pursued in any of these arenas by trying to reach a grand settlement in the broader Middle East--including Iraq.

One and only one organization that began by addressing Israel-related human rights issues, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, has expanded its concerns to include US policy elsewhere--by focusing like a laser beam on US denials of human rights, especially the legitimation of torture.

Third, some Jewish organizations may have held back from antiwar organizing for fear of or disgust at working with the few groups in the American antiwar movement that not only criticize some Israeli policies but demonize Israel as a society. But there is one mainstream antiwar coalition--Win Without War--that has no such groups within it and was even mentioned by the URJ resolution of 2005 as laudable. Yet still its only Jewish members are The Shalom Center and Tikkun.

Finally, within almost all the major Jewish organizations there are small numbers of people with very large amounts of money. Most are Republicans, and they hollered to high heaven (or somewhere else, since high heaven is exactly where our Oseh Shalom prayer says God teaches peace) at the idea of condemning the war begun and defended by the Bush Administration.

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