On March 12, the Union for Reform Judaism became the first national Jewish organization to take more than a tongue-clucking position on the Iraq war. It did what the U.S. Senate has been unable to do: It voted overwhelmingly to oppose President Bush's "surge" of new troops, and it called on the president to set and announce a specific timetable for the phased withdrawal of troops.
Alas, the URJ decision is very much nonbinding.
What's surprising — bordering on astonishing — is that the URJ, joined since by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which passed a similar resolution last week, was the only major national Jewish group to have spoken out so decisively on this misbegotten and misconducted war. I say "astonishing" because the American Jewish public, which is represented by a broad array of organizations, has very clear views on the war.
At the end of February, the Gallup organization conducted a poll of more than 12,000 Americans. Overall, it found that 52 percent of Americans think the war a mistake, and 46 percent do not. But the same poll found that 77 percent of Jews called the war a mistake, while 21 percent support it.
It was a strange week for Jews to express themselves quite so decisively.
It was, after all, the same week in which Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at the annual convention of American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said: "My friends, it is simply not consistent for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace posed by the Iranian regime, while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave our worst enemies dramatically emboldened, and Israel's best friend — the United States — dangerously weakened."
This was reportedly received with considerably less than the enthusiasm Cheney is accustomed to when he addresses AIPAC. Perhaps what the AIPAC people now know is that it is exactly because of the wicked policies of the president and vice president that America has already been dangerously weakened.
Not to be outdone, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also weighed in on the subject last week to AIPAC via a video link from Jerusalem to echo Cheney.
No serious person can take pleasure from the very sour pickle in which the United States now finds itself. Never mind that the Bush administration have mixed the brine themselves; their comeuppance is hardly adequate compensation — not for the dead, not for the wounded, not for the chaos, and not for the cost to America's treasury and dignity.
All that's left these days are bad choices.
Among them, President Bush has, predictably, seen fit to pick the very worst — a creeping open-ended escalation that resolves nothing.
Among these bad choices, the major American Jewish organizations — save only the Union for Reform Judaism — take a pass.
Questions of war and peace are properly the provenance of religious institutions. In the case at hand, because Israel's security is so directly at stake, America's Iraq policy would seem to be of immediate interest to all the single-issue pro-Israel groups in the Jewish firmament, as also to all those — American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, JCPA and others — that so often opine on matters of less immediate Jewish relevance. What can account for their timidity?
Some organizational leaders likely support the war; roughly 10 percent of Jews are of the Republican pro-war persuasion, and we may surmise that these, typically wealthier, are disproportionately represented in the ranks of Jewish leadership.
But more prevalently, I believe, many "leaders" are curled up in a little ball in the corner, seeking to hide from the headache of taking a stand. These same leaders frequently fret out loud about Jewish continuity, about their own failure to attract young Jews to their ranks.
Might it, this time around, occur to them that it is they who have opted for the irrelevance to which growing numbers of Jews consign them?
Tomorrow, they will again flood their fundraising appeals with talk of the imminent threat from Iran. But what of the war that is being waged today? Their silence on Iraq is a feckless evasion of responsibility.
Leonard Fein is a Boston-based columnist.