Why the Silence?

Why the Silence?

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


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?

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?

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.

Like great ocean liners, large organizations like the Reform movement need time to change course (though similar organizations like the United Methodist Church saw early that this would be a disastrous war). I sometimes see The Shalom Center as a feisty tugboat, nudging the great ships toward change. In the meantime I honor the excellent work some groups do on issues like rights for women, gays and immigrants. But how much time do they need to catch up with their own constituents when it comes to the Iraq War? And what would it take to renew prophetic energy at least among the rabbis who claim that mantle?

At the Great March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, I heard Rabbi Joachim Prinz proclaim that silence is a crime. What is breeding silence now? The same old demons: Fear of the wealthy, deference to the powerful and a desire not to alienate “friends,” merely to prevent thousands of deaths and maimings–so long as the dead are in someone else’s family. Why should this decade be different from any other decade?

When that Jewish antiwar ad appeared in the Times back in 2003, I called my daughter in Chicago to tell her it was there. She and my son, who had been children in the 1970s, had bravely walked in antiwar demonstrations then, and they had signed the new ad. In the midst of our conversation, I burst into unexpected tears. I told my daughter that I felt like apologizing to them for my generation’s failure. I had thought that what we did in the late sixties and seventies had made another war like that one, like this coming one, impossible. Yet–here we were.

A few weeks later I got up early to carry out my household garbage for the weekly pickup. Grumpy, muttering, cursing–“Every week, the **** garbage!”

And then it hit me: Just as every week we must carry out the garbage from our homes, so every generation, every decade, we must carry out the social and political garbage from our midst. I thought we had “taken out the garbage” of the Vietnam War once and for all. I thought we had “taken out the garbage” of the imperial, pharaonic presidency once and for all. Not so. Again and again, every decade, every generation–new garbage, new wars, new pharaohs, new denials of human rights, new palls of silence, new clouds of despair–to be taken out.

It is only the grassroots Jews–the great majority of whom have already realized how corrupt and lethal the Iraq War is, who have already carried out that garbage from their own homes–who can carry out the garbage of war, of silence, of despair so as to cleanse anew our institutional houses.

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