Groups Try to Galvanize Jewish Antiwar Activism

Friday, November 21st, 2008

James Besser in Washington

It’s been an anomaly of Jewish life since 2003: Jews have been more opposed to the Iraq war than almost any other group, and yet Jewish organizations have been mostly silent on the subject. Among major Jewish groups, only the Reform movement has called for an end to the conflict, and they have done so with exquisite caution.

We’ve written about the reasons for this silence many times: a lack of consensus within big, politically diverse Jewish groups; uncertainty about what a quick pullout would mean for a vulnerable Israel; a reluctance to cross swords with an embattled administration; arguments that the Iraq war is just not relevant to the core missions of the Jewish groups.

But it’s also true that the silence coming from Jewish board rooms reflects the national mood.  Polls show strong opposition to the conflict – but the antiwar movement has been relatively quiet and fringy.

Now a group of Jewish activists hopes to change that.  The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and Jewish Currents will hold a day-long “Call to Conscience for the American Jewish Community” in New York on Sunday.

The lineup includes Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Jeremy Ben-Ami of the new J Street political action committee and lobby, former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).

Also on tap: Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center (See Waskow’s Jewish Week op-ed here).

The event smacks of a Vietnam-era “teach in.” The goal, organizers say, is to galvanize a new wave of antiwar activism, with the Jewish community in the front ranks.

But that effort faces some big obstacles, starting with a deepening economic crisis that has pushed almost every other issue off the table – for Jews and for American voters in general.

Concerns about the Iraq war almost fell off the charts in September’s American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish public opinion – and that was before the stock market started dropping in earnest and before unemployment started its rapid climb.

And Jewish groups are scrambling to survive in what has become a potentially catastrophic philanthropic climate. If they were were afraid of offending big donors by taking an anti-war stance before, how likely are they to go out on that particular limb now?

The available evidence suggests the Jewish grassroots are strongly opposed to the war, but in the absence of a large and mainstream anti-war movement, how likely are people to get involved, especially when they’re watching their retirement accounts go up in smoke and wondering how to pay the next tuition bill?

Anti-war leaders say we have to connect the dots, and that the astronomical costs of fighting two wars for years are a big part of the economic meltdown.

That may be true, but there’s little evidence anybody is paying much attention outside a core of activists.

This Sunday’s event in New York aims to change that; the jury’s out on the question of whether planners can succeed in rousing a Jewish community with a lot of other things on its mind.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.