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Jewish Journal

Iraq War Not Just Means to Just End

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

February 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Two profound teachings of Jewish tradition should be guiding the actions of Jews today in regard to Iraq.

The first is, "Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof," or "Justice, justice, shall you pursue." The ancient rabbis asked, "Why 'justice' twice?

They answered: "Seek just ends by just means; seek justice for ourselves, justice for all others."

Certainly it is a just goal to make certain that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction and cannot pour death upon Israel or the rest of the world.

But war against Iraq is not the just means of accomplishing this just end. Instead, it is likely to endanger many Iraqi, American, Israeli and other lives. It is also likely to endanger Israel -- bring on, as U.S. intelligence experts have confirmed, the sharpest danger of a last-ditch chemical-biological attack upon the people of Israel -- and endanger the moderate Arab governments that have made peace with Israel.

A war will also take hundreds of billions of dollars from America's own people -- from health care for our seniors, schools for our children, healing for the earth. An attack on Iraq will increase the unaccountable power of the oil companies and regimes that have provided money to both the Al Qaeda terrorists and the Bush administration, that have corrupted American politics and robbed American stockholders, that befoul the seas and scorch the earth.

It will also worsen already deeply wounded human rights and civil liberties, not only for Arabs and Muslims in America, but even for Persian Jewish immigrants, who were recently rounded up along with Muslims, and increase the use of torture of prisoners held overseas by the CIA, as it was reported recently by The Washington Post.

So in good Jewish fashion, what is the practical alternative to war? What would "just means" be?

American Jews could:

  • Support the Franco-German plan to intensify and prolong the U.N. inspection regime in Iraq, for months or years if necessary, while a totally different American and world approach to Iraq, the Middle East and Islam takes hold.

  • Encourage a multilateral "Marshall Plan" for massive relief and rebuilding in Iraq before war, not waiting until afterward, when there will be hundreds of thousands more dead, perhaps millions more refugees than are already suffering and dying under the misapplied sanctions.

The world Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities; the European Union; and many nongovernmental organizations should supply food, medicines and clothing to desperate Iraqis -- and do this actually on the ground, to make sure both that the effort does not just feed the ruling dictatorship and that it is not just used as a tool by the United States or other hostile powers.

  • Urge a worldwide treaty to eliminate weapons of mass destruction held by all nations.

  • Urge the United States to insist on all-Arab peace treaties with Israel, plus a peace settlement between a secure Israel and a viable Palestine.

  • Call a world conference of religious leaders to face and end the use of traditional texts and contemporary fears to justify violence against other religions, like the effort in some Christian communities during the past generation to eliminate anti-Semitic interpretations of Christianity.

  • Urge the United States to join the International Criminal Court and broaden its jurisdiction to include international terrorism, as well as governmental war crimes. 

  • Urge the United States to adhere to the Kyoto treaties and begin an all-out effort to conserve energy and bring renewable energy sources on line, minimizing use of oil and coal.

These specifics are strands in a larger weave of planetary community, and we need to be imagining that weave in all its wholeness. Then we can choose what aspects of this future we can begin to embody in the present.

The second crucial Jewish teaching for this hour comes from Psalm 34: "Bakeysh shalom radfeyhu," or "seek peace and pursue it." Again, the rabbis asked, "Why both 'seek' and 'pursue?'"

They answered: Most mitzvot can be done by sitting (to eat) or standing (to pray) or even walking (to converse). But for the sake of peace, we must not only seek it, but if it is running away, we must chase after it.

Most of the official American Jewish leadership has sat paralyzed, while peace runs away from us all. They should join those peace-seekers of the anti-war movement who take Jewish concerns seriously.

To do this, the mainstream Jewish community should learn to distinguish between anti-Israel and "pro-Israel-pro-peace" strands of the antiwar movement.

The United for Peace & Justice coalition, which sponsored the New York rally on Feb. 15, is in the second strand of antiwar energy. Its first Jewish member was The Shalom Center. Since then, Tikkun, New York's Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and various smaller local groups have joined.

Mainstream Jewish groups should support the efforts of such affirmatively Jewish antiwar groups, and should be making sure that their own staff and leaders get to meet and talk with the Jewish anti-war organizers.

But this is only "seeking" peace. To "pursue" it as well, the larger liberal and progressive parts of the mainstream Jewish community should join such natural allies as the National Council of Churches, Sojourners magazine, the NAACP and the Sierra Club, which have already formed a third antiwar coalition: Win Without War.

For Jews like the Reform movement and the Jewish Community Relations Committee/Jewish Council for Public Affairs network to be absent from this table not only betrays Jewish values and interests but also fails to represent Jewish concerns, when some of the most important American public groups are creating a new center of moral and political energy.

It is as if mainstream Jewish organizations had refused to take part in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s, because some black groups were anti-Semitic.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the havurot, progressive Jewish political groups, Jewish feminists and neo-Chasidic teachers, like Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel, Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi seeded change that sprouted in the mainstream Jewish community during the 1990s.

In much the same way, anti-war Jews today are seeding change that mainstream Jewry needs to learn from. As we now face the dangers to humanity and earth from reckless, unaccountable economic greed and reckless, unaccountable military power, they are drawing on and appealing to Jewish values.

These values are not just empty rhetoric. They are embodied in the practical needs of Jews who are suffering from environmentally caused cancer and asthma, from overwork to the point of emotional and spiritual exhaustion, from robbery of their pensions by Enronic pirates, from health care diminished and schooling worsened to pay for war, from bottom-line downsizing -- even of academic, professional and high-tech jobs -- from attacks on their privacy and civil liberties and perhaps even from death as victims of terrorism in an endless war that could have been averted.

Only at deep peril to itself will mainstream Jewry fail to hear these prophetic voices.



Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center. He is the author of "Godwrestling -- Round 2" and co-author of "A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven."

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