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October 3, 2015 | 20th Tishrei 5776

Reflections on Iraq

By Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

The resolution on the war in Iraq passed at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial has generated much discussion in the Reform Movement and the greater Jewish community. This debate was expected and is surely a blessing. The resolution also generated an intense reaction in Republican and conservative circles, including full-page ads attacking it placed by the Republican Jewish coalition in the New York Times, the Washington Post and several Jewish papers, and a nasty op-ed article on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. These attacks, in a way, were also a blessing, because they publicized our position to a far larger audience. Still, our resolutions rarely elicit such a reaction. Why, then, was the response so vociferous?

It was, I suspect, the moderate nature of our resolution that made it so threatening. Extreme statements can be dismissed; cautious and responsible ones cannot be. Also, Jewish supporters of the war have taken comfort in the fact that the Jewish community, which is generally liberal in its politics and skeptical of American military involvement abroad, has remained silent on Iraq. Our resolution, careful in its wording and coming from the largest grassroots body in American Jewry, signaled an unmistakable shift in Jewish sentiment that these supporters found deeply troubling.

Responses to our resolution have fallen into two major categories. The first is the claim that our resolution does not truly represent the feelings of the community. This claim is simply absurd. The most recent survey of the American Jewish Committee revealed that 70% of American Jews and 78% of Reform Jews oppose the war, and other surveys point to the same conclusion. It is important to emphasize, as we have repeatedly, that no resolution speaks for everyone, and that if 20% of Reform Jews support the war, their views need to be heard and respected. And in retrospect, we should have made more of an effort to assure that opposing opinions were expressed during the Biennial debate. Still, there is no reason whatever to think that our resolution does not broadly reflect the views of our Reform constituency and the Jewish community as a whole.

The second line of attack is the suggestion that, representative or not, our resolution runs contrary to basic Jewish values and interests. This argument was given dramatic expression in an on-line column in Newsweek by Rabbi Marc Gellman, who invoked the memory of the Holocaust in claiming that Jews must support the war in Iraq because “never again” means supporting military interventions such as this one intended to free innocents who lack the military means to secure their own freedom. Rabbi Gellman is often a thoughtful and insightful commentator, but his use of the Holocaust analogy in this instance is staggeringly inappropriate. If “never again” requires us to fight for freedom everywhere, why are we not fighting in Saudi Arabia, Tibet, Zimbabwe, and a hundred other places where freedom is despised by despotic rulers? And with Sadam gone, how does “never again” require us to remain engaged in a messy civil war in Iraq? If the Holocaust teaches us anything at all, surely it teaches that civilized people must put a stop to true acts of genocide wherever they may occur. Yet while genocidal killings continue against Muslims in Darfur, neither Rabbi Gellman nor the government he supports calls for American action to stop the slaughter.

But why, we are asked, was it important for the Union to adopt this resolution at this time? The answer is that the situation in Iraq compels us to speak out now.

No reasonable person can fault the Americans for not doing their share to support the forces of democracy and moderation in Iraq. The promise we made when we intervened has been kept. Whatever one thinks about how America entered the war, and despite bungled planning and the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, American achievements there are apparent to all: American forces have toppled a dictator, helped to write a constitution, made possible democratic elections, and trained Iraqi troops. But now, almost three years after the American invasion and with more than 2000 American dead, it is time to realize that America can do only so much to defend Iraq from its demons. Our government can still provide political, logistical, and air support for the forces of democracy in Iraq, but with a freely elected Iraqi government in place, Iraqis must take responsibility for their future.

Even recognizing this fact, our resolution, as noted above, was exceedingly cautious. We did not call for immediate withdrawal or artificial deadlines, and we did not attempt to second-guess the commanders on the ground. We stated plainly that future withdrawals are to be carried out so as to preserve democracy and stability in Iraq. At the same time, we did call for a clear exit strategy, specific goals for withdrawal, and for complete transparency in all aspects of the war. We also called for some withdrawals to be made now, a step that the Bush Administration has apparently agreed to take.

Is there a danger that when our forces eventually withdraw, no matter how carefully it is done, Iraq might descend into chaos? There is. But there is a point beyond which American men and women cannot be asked to sacrifice their lives for an Iraqi government that is unwilling and unable to fight for itself. And there is a heavy cost to be paid for an open-ended American commitment to Iraq that erodes our international standing and leaves us less able to deal with significant threats elsewhere, including the nuclear threat from Iran and the moral horror of Darfur.

While other attacks are sure to follow, the Union has every reason to be proud of its resolution on Iraq and pleased by the debate it has generated throughout the Jewish community. The resolution gave voice to ethical concerns that, in my opinion, are deeply rooted in our tradition and that correctly reflect the profound beliefs of most—although not all—of our members. The resolution, I admit, was generated not by the Union leadership but by our congregations, which in this case were wiser than we and understood what we did not: that Reform Judaism could no longer afford to sit out a debate that, in many ways, is the defining debate of our time.

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