Jewish Liberals Grapple With the War : Gulf: Conferences help them air concerns ‘without feeling this is a “correct” line.’

From Religious News Service

“I feel tremendous ambivalence,” Helen Barron, a retired psychotherapist, said to her friend in explaining her feelings about the war in the Middle East.

“I’ve counseled Holocaust survivors in Israel. A Palestinian student lived in my home. One person is no more human than another.”

“So, what’s the solution?” asked the friend.

Barron shrugged. “I’m not Moses. I have no answers.”


The exchange occurred between sessions of a teach-in on the war. The event, attended by 500 and held at Boston University last Sunday, was organized by Tikkun, a bimonthly Jewish journal of progressive politics and culture published in Oakland. The week before, 600 people showed up for a similar conference in San Francisco and a third teach-in is scheduled for next Saturday in Washington.

While mainstream Jewish organizations stand solidly in support of the Gulf War, many among their more liberal brethren are on shakier ground. “We’re dealing with a subject that is very confusing to people in the Jewish liberal camp,” said Tikkun editor and publisher Michael Lerner. “We want to create a safe space for Jewish liberal progressives to think about these issues deeply without feeling this is a ‘correct’ line.”

The house was packed for the morning plenary session, “Linkage? The U.S.-Israeli Relationship and its Meaning for the Gulf War.” It featured two prominent adversaries, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer whose appeal of TV evangelist Jim Bakker’s 45-year fraud sentence was successful this week, and MIT professor of linguistics Noam Chomsky, as well as Bernard Avishai, associate editor of the Harvard Business Review and author of “The Tragedy of Zionism.”

Chomsky lashed out at the Bush Administration for supporting the Iraqi leader. “Before Aug. 1, Saddam Hussein was a murderous gangster, and he was George Bush’s friend and trading partner. On Aug. 2, he became Genghis Khan. Not because he was a worse criminal. He demonstrated that he was not our gangster.”


The proper response to aggression, Chomsky said, is not bombing the aggressor, but applying diplomatic pressure. Sanctions, he said, had proven effective. The United States’ “capitulate or die” ultimatum to Iraq, however, precluded any chance of a peaceful resolution. The United States failed to pursue serious negotiations, he said, because it “opposed a diplomatic settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian problem” and it “did not want a settlement that would have affected Israeli nuclear weapons capacity.”

Avishai argued that if the war ends with the alliance intact, the United States will be more compelled than ever to spearhead a diplomatic resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “Ultimately, the only way the American government can prove that there is no linkage between Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is to decouple Saddam Hussein from the mantle he’s claimed as defender of the Palestinians.”

Will the Israelis go along?

Avishai is optimistic: “I think this war is a watershed for Israeli politics.” He maintains that the conflict has shown a new generation of Israelis that their real security problem is not an external coalition, but the Palestinians, and that territory is no defense against missiles. For the first time, he said, Israel saw it could depend on its allies to fight its battle. “Secretary (of State) Baker speaks of a collective security environment, and he’s backing it up with a United Nations peacekeeping force.”


Dershowitz disagreed vehemently with Chomsky and Avishai.

“I don’t live in a world where the U.S. is adamantly opposed to resolving the Israel-Palestine issue. I don’t live in a world where facts indicate clearly that sanctions would have worked, that Saddam Hussein is a reasonable man who would have accepted a reasonable offer, that we are fighting because of U.S. intransigence. I don’t live in a world where Israel’s major security problem is the Palestinians. Israel is surrounded by nations on all sides sworn to its defeat.

“I opposed the war,” he continued. “I still oppose a ground war. But no matter what Israel would have done, it would not have made one bit of difference in what Saddam Hussein is doing.” The debate degenerated into a battle of barbs between Dershowitz and Chomsky until audience members called for a cease-fire.

A series of smaller workshops was more congenial, particularly a speak-out on the war. Some participants lamented what they saw as a double standard that holds Israel to a higher level of morality than other countries. Others addressed fear of rising anti-Semitism, as well as anti-Arab discrimination. While several pleaded for an immediate cease-fire, some expressed support for the war.


Lerner and the editors of Tikkun favor a cease-fire to prevent the start of a ground war. They are critical, however, of anti-war coalitions that call for bringing the troops home. An international peacekeeping force, they argue, is necessary to contain Hussein.

Helen Barron may not have left the conference with any more answers, but she felt less isolated in the Jewish community. “The week before I sat in a class with 45 women, and every one of them was for the war. Today I heard many varied points of view. There isn’t one Jewish position.”