The Common Good
May-June 2003

Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace, Anti-Occupation

by Arthur Waskow | May-June 2003

Is there anti-Semitism in the anti-war movement?

Some people have expressed anxiety about "anti-Israel" stances in the anti-war movement. By "anti-Israel," I mean a politics that blames all of Israel, and only Israel, for the present conflict, or sees it only as a colonialist patsy of the United States, or sees it as a settler state with no legitimacy.

I do not mean those who vigorously oppose both the Sharon government and terrorist suicide bombers, who call for an end to the occupation and its replacement with a two-state peace settlement in which Israel continues to have a special relationship with the Jewish people and Palestine has viable borders very close to the '67 borders, with mutually agreed adjustments. By my lights, such people are strongly and creatively pro-Israel.

By these criteria, there are indeed a few in the anti-war movement who are "anti-Israel." There are many more that are creatively and strongly pro-Israel.

There are now three important anti-war groupings. One is the quasi-coalition called ANSWER. It is tightly controlled by the Workers World Party, a Marxist faction with a strong anti-Israel, anti-U.S. bent to its politics. It demonizes Israel, treating it simply as a tool of imperialism and as the chief fomenter of the Bush administration's march toward war against Iraq. It is easy for this last attitude to slip into a left-wing version of anti-Semitism, in which the fantasy of a Great Zionist Conspiracy is attached to the present grandiosity of U.S. foreign policy and blamed for most of the world's ills.

Last fall, a much broader, true anti-war coalition was founded—precisely because many groups had found that working with ANSWER was extremely difficult. This coalition, United for Peace and Justice, includes a wide variety of peace, religious, labor, environmental, campus, veterans, and other groups. More recently, a second true coalition has formed, called "Win Without War." It is based on a dozen or so large-membership groups such as Sojourners, the Sierra Club, and the NAACP.

Why is there so little participation from the Jewish institutions that have in the past been vigorous for peace, for social justice, and for the environment? These usual groups are internally paralyzed by the Israel crisis. For example, even the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, supposedly the umbrella for Jewish social concerns, has almost no staff devoted to that pursuit; almost all are focused on public relations in support of the Israeli government and its policies.

Yet beneath this layer of official institutional paralysis, there is a part of the Jewish community that is committed to seeking peace and justice. But they are not focused in a single organization. Instead, they are now dispersed and wandering in a variety of different institutional structures—a Reconstructionist synagogue here, a Reform one there, a former American Jewish Congress chapter somewhere else; and others such as the Jewish Social Justice Network, Tikkun, The Shalom Center, and so on.

There are also some Jews who feel so betrayed by the perversion of Jewish values embodied in many aspects of the occupation that they fail to take into account the real pain and fear of Israelis and the real terrorism carried on by some Palestinian groups. They may adopt so blinkered a vision of the pain of Palestinians and Iraqis that they lose the ability to empathize with the pain of Israelis or Americans.

There is a danger that this attitude can degenerate into a kind of inverted Jewish identity in which most of the Jewish passion is based on rage at the actions of the Israeli government. But among almost all Jews who call themselves "pro-Israel, pro-peace, anti-occupation," the distinctive quality is a vision of what an Israel would be like that could authentically and joyfully speak (and be heard as speaking) in the name of the Jewish people, Torah, and God.

—Arthur Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

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