"Why go to war?" Dr. Aryeh Cohen, chair of rabbinic studies at the University of Judaism, asks a group of teenagers at Milken Community High School.
"To further your political agendas."
"To help your allies."
"To prove you're right."
"To defend yourself."
With a United States-led invasion of Iraq looming, students at Milken Community High School are participating in an old-fashioned teach-in. Classes have been canceled for most of the morning on Wednesday, Feb. 19, and ninth- to 12th-graders, in groups of 50 to 100, take part in 30-minute sessions to hear and talk with both pro- and anti-war speakers.
Cohen tells students that in the Jewish tradition, there are two primary reasons to engage in war: "In a preemptive war, there has to be a clear and imminent danger," he says. "And you have to have exhausted all possibilities of peace."
As U.N. officials proceed with inspections, and with the United States 6th Fleet parked at Iraq's front door, Cohen believes that Iraq does not currently pose a clear and present danger.
On the other hand, Bruce Bialosky, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles, says he believes Sept. 11 qualifies as a bona fide attack and that we can't consider waging war on Iraq as preemptive.
"We have been attacked by terrorism for the last 10 years," he tells a group of 11th-graders. "And there is no question that Saddam Hussein is involved with terrorists."
As Bialosky lays out some reasons for attacking Iraq, even unilaterally, 11th-grader Helena Rosenthal asks a practical question: "How can we prepare for war? Is there anything honestly we can do?"
"There is not much we need to do," Bialosky answers. "Yes, we're under threat of terrorist attack, but the federal, state and local governments are much better prepared than before Sept. 11. And for us, our normal earthquake preparedness should be sufficient."
Although much of the country is engaged in quests for duct tape, plastic wrap and gas masks, educators at Milken feel that the best way to prepare students is to educate them.
"Students have a compelling need to hear both sides clearly presented, beyond the normal current events discussions," says teach-in organizer Fran Lapides, chair of the history department where the idea originated.
"Students are not only studying history but actually living it," says Head of School Dr. Rennie Wrubel. "We don't want students, especially ninth- and 10th-graders, feeling that Iraq is 'over there.' Our goal is to fill in the facts and to get them to think and to argue intelligently."
Throughout the day speakers thoughtfully presented both sides of the issue.
Blasé Bonpane, director of the Office of the Americas, a nonprofit educational corporation, advocates a peaceful approach to what he considers a serious crisis. He tells a group of freshmen that, through the avenues of international law and international cooperation, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction is entirely possible.
"We need to abolish the war system just as we abolished slavery," he says.
"But how do we respond to Sept. 11 without war?" asks ninth-grader Dominic Kalms.
Bonpane favors the use of international police to go after individual terrorists.
"One was convicted today, in Germany," he tells the students.
"We have to protect ourselves," he says, "but Iraq is not a threat to anyone. The cradle of civilization on the Tigris River is destroyed; it's in ashes."
But Mark Paredes, press attaché for the Israeli Consulate of Los Angeles presented a different scenario to his group of 11th-graders. He says that Iraq is dangerous and that there is a direct link between Saddam Hussein and terrorism.
"Israeli Intelligence has discovered that [Saddam] has entrusted chemical and biological weapons to Syria, which means Hezbollah now has access to them. And we know that Al Qaeda trains at Hezbollah camps," he says.
"But Saddam Hussein does not pose an immediate threat to us here, now," counters 11th-grader Nona Farahnik.
"Saddam is not the only problem, but we have to start somewhere," Paredes answers. "And he has brutally murdered more than 5 percent of his own people, plus 500,000 Iranians and tens of thousands of Kuwaitis."
Other speakers include Lewis Fein, a columnist for the Jewish World Review and former speechwriter and aide to Bob Dole and Newt Gringrich; Ted Harshberger, director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program of Project AIR FORCE at RAND; and Derek Iverson, a member of the Green Party and campaign manager for Los Angeles City Council candidate Derek Milosavljevic.
At the close of the teach-in, several students share their reactions.
The number of pro-peace speakers surprises senior Dani Levinson .
"At a Jewish school, it seems most people favor war because of the repercussions Iraq could have on Israel," Levinson says.
Tova Leibovic, also a senior, says, "This was important because a lot of teenagers today are apathetic. It's important that we got different viewpoints and different people to speak to us."