Bella Zuzel is Sabbath observant but plans to break tradition to march in Saturday’s rally against the war in Iraq.
"For me this is pikuach nefesh, with many lives at stake," she said, referring to the Jewish provision allowing one to break Jewish law in order to save a life.
Zuzel, a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion, may not be typical of most observant American Jews in her politics. But she is among a small number of Jews (many associated with progressive Jewish organizations and synagogues) who will be participating in the antiwar demonstration in Manhattan this weekend. A crowd of 100,000 or more is expected at the rally. (The site, somewhere near the United Nations, had yet to be determined as of press time due to legal complications.)
Several progressive Jewish organizations are part of United for Peace and Justice, the coalition organizing the rally, and Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, will be one of the rally’s official speakers.
Jews against the war with Iraq find themselves caught between two worlds. On the one hand, they must confront the anti-Israel sentiment that is clearly visible among antiwar activists, some of whom have tried to use the cause as a platform to promote Palestinian concerns.
Elyse Newman, a freelance editor and practitioner of Reiki massage from Park Slope, Brooklyn, says she felt uncomfortable with the lack of Jewish presence (and the abundance of anti-Israel voices) at October’s antiwar rally in Washington.
"Jews traditionally in this country have spearheaded lots of left-wing organizations and have put themselves out there for causes that did not necessarily benefit them directly. I identify with being that kind of Jew," she said.
"It made me very unhappy to see that I was being left out, that I could have strong antiwar feelings and not have a place where I could feel comfortable voicing my opinion."
On the other hand, antiwar Jews face disappointment with the broader Jewish community, which they think has been too quick to buy into the Bush administration’s campaign for war without considering the potential negative implications for Iraqis, Americans, Israelis or even American Jews.
"The mainstream Jewish leadership has really been remiss," said Zuzel. "There’s been such a huge vacuum for Jewishly involved people to have good information instead of just manipulative rhetoric, and the place to express their feelings about that Jewishly."
Sarah Eisenstein, a community organizer with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, echoes that concern.
"Progressive Jews are definitely feeling marginalized and are looking for progressive Jewish spaces to speak out against the war," she said. "Hopefully we’re providing that space, but I wish that larger [mainstream Jewish] organizations weren’t abdicating that responsibility."
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Workmen’s Circle, Tikkun and members of B’nai Jeshurun and Stephen Wise Temple, both on the Upper West Side, are coordinating participants for Saturday. Jews with the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center will be traveling in from throughout the Northeast.
While little data exists on the subject, the general sense among most in the Jewish community is that antiwar Jews are the minority and that most Jews believe that removing Saddam Hussein from power will serve the long-term interests of Israel and America.
Few Jewish organizations have adopted strong stances on either side, however. And a recent Shalom Center ad campaign urging Jews to call on mainstream Jewish organizations to speak out against the war generated little grassroots response, even though contact information for several of the groups was listed.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he only received 38 calls and e-mails in response to the ad, and 17 of those were in favor of going to war.
"There’s such a division in this country," Rabbi Epstein said. "The only way it makes sense for us to enter a voice into the fray is if we’re representing our people, and I don’t know that we really have any clear consensus."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he received a similar response to the ad ó approximately 24 against the war and 12 in favor.
"I don’t consider that to be an overwhelming response on either side," he said, adding that "unease and ambivalence is the more prevalent sentiment from what I can tell."
"The fact that I didn’t hear from many people doesn’t mean people are enthusiastic to go to war," Rabbi Yoffie said. "But neither does it mean they want Saddam Hussein sitting there with nuclear weapons, chemical weapons or biological weapons.
"Some of the Jewish leadership has given an impression of enthusiastic, overwhelming support for using military force against Iraq, but my own sense is the support is much more restrained."
Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said her organization (an umbrella for Jewish community relations councils throughout North America) has not taken a stand on the war. However, the JCPA has encouraged local Jewish leaders to communicate with antiwar activists and urge them not to allow their cause to be "hijacked" by anti-Israel activists.
Many in the Jewish community have expressed concerns in particular about the anti-Israel agenda of ANSWER, a group that has organized several antiwar rallies, including the October protest in Washington.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the leftist Tikkun Magazine, recently clashed with ANSWER over its anti-Israel stance, and has been barred from officially speaking at the rally ANSWER is organizing Sunday in San Francisco.
Despite calls by some Jews to boycott the rally (and by others to simply ignore the anti-Israel issue) Rabbi Lerner said he plans to attend anyway but pass out leaflets there opposing ANSWER’s "Israel bashing."
"I and Tikkun have been leading critics of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, but we’re also Zionists and very proud supporters of Israel," he said. "The irony is that in the organized Jewish community there has been a tendency to try to define pro-Israel as supporting the policies of Sharon and the occupation. That would then mean all the people who supported [Labor Party leader Amram] Mitzna were not pro-Israel.
"That same dichotomous thinking …is being expressed by these people in the antiwar movement and they just take a different side. They think Israel is all bad and therefore has no right to exist. It’s the same kind of either-or thinking that can’t see what we’re talking about when we talk about a progressive middle path."
ANSWER is not officially involved in Saturday’s rally in New York, and Jewish activists say United for Peace and Justice has been for more receptive to Jewish concerns about anti-Israel sentiment.
Regardless of feeling squeezed between the Jewish community and the antiwar one, antiwar Jews feel certain of their opposition to the war in Iraq.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, said he is against the war for many reasons, not the least of which is his fear that a war will spur Iraq to use chemical weapons against Israel.
In addition, Rabbi Waskow said he is worried about the implications for American relations with its allies and is not convinced that UN inspections and other non-military strategies aren’t enough to deter him from developing and using nuclear weapons.
"My view is you should use the minimal force necessary in order to protect what’s crucial," he said. "The Talmud teaches that if someone is coming to kill you, you might have to kill him first. But it also says that if you can stop him by maiming or preventing him in some way, then you are not allowed to kill him."
Messinger says that while Hussein "presents a severe threat to the world," there is "too much of a rush to war and a determination of the United States to going it alone instead of in partnership with the broadest possible number of countries."
"We ought to be more certain than we are that we have taken every possible step before we create what will surely be chaos for the Iraqi people," she adds.
For Elyse Newman, the issue is one of hypocrisy.
"We raise our kids telling them use your words and then we go bashing people’s heads in all over the world," she said. "It’s a very big dichotomy."
- Michael Lerner
- Debra Nussbaum Cohen
- United Synagogue
- Eric Yoffie
- Saddam Hussein
- Jerome Epstein
- Arthur Waskow
- Bella Zuzel
- Sarah Eisenstein
- Elyse Newman
- Stephen Wise Temple
- United Nations
- New York
- Ruth Messinger
- Social Issues
- Julie Wiener