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December 20, 2005

A Reform Jewish dissenter on Iraq

Last week, the Republican Jewish Coalition ran an ad criticizing the Union for Reform Judaism for acting as if it spoke for all Jews, even all Reform Jews, in attacking the war in Iraq.

Yesterday, the RJC circulated this column in Newsweek by Rabbi Marc Gellman, a reform rabbi, entitled "Historical Blindness." He observes that, while the war is being fought for American reasons, there are some important Jewish reasons to support it as well.

This war was and is being fought for American reasons, not Jewish reasons. However, to see this war that toppled one of Israel's fiercest enemies—an anti-Semitic dictator who sent $25,000 to the families of every jihadist who had been able to kill and maim Israeli children and other innocents—opposed by Jews is more than an act of ingratitude to this country and this president. This vote was an act of stunning and incomprehensible historical blindness.
For Rabbi Gellman, the most important Jewish reason to support the war is that we must never allow to happen to others what happened to us in the Holocaust.

The Jews of Europe are now the Kurds of Iraq, and the Shiites, and the Marsh Arabs. The point of war is not only to defend one's own country from attack but also to free from the jaws of death millions of innocent human beings who lack the military means to secure their own freedom. This may not be a universally supported political or military view of war, but it is a religious view of war, and it is my view of this and other wars. I do not know a single Kurd or a single Marsh Arab or a single Iraqi Shiite, but I do know that they have been slaughtered by the thousands, and because of this war they are now free. The Iraqi killing machine has been destroyed. I also know, and every person of even moderate intelligence also knows, that if our troops withdraw now, before victory has been fully achieved they will be slaughtered again. When I say never again in memory of the Holocaust, I don't mean "never again Jews," I mean "never again anyone."
He goes on to say that this is, for him, a "war of shelter":

Isaiah (25:4), speaking for God, commands us, "You are a refuge to the poor, to the needy in distress, a shelter from the storm." This war, and the larger war of which it is a part, is not a war against terror for me. It is a war of refuge, a war of shelter. A religious movement should feel that, and I am disconsolate that they do not. The Reform moment in Judaism has no official hierarchy and does not speak for all Reform Jews. Their resolutions bind no one and compel no one to do anything. Sometime anarchy is a good thing. That we embarrassed ourselves before America means little to me. That we may have embarrassed ourselves before the survivors of the kingdom of night and before the commandment to freedom from our God is a matter of much more gravity.
Although I support the Iraq war, I can't say I'm comfortable with Rabbi Gellman's theory. He undoubtedly makes an important moral point that is easily lost in the moral preening of the Left, and it's urgent that his point be heard by the Reform rabbinate.

But his religious position is not enough. We can help end the suffering of others when it's possible. We are not able as a country to end suffering everywhere it's found, and we surely cannot use our military to rid the world of tyrants wherever they are found.

What's needed to distinguish those cases in which we intervene from those in which we do not is some concept of American self-interest. We have to distinguish between Iraq (and Iran, Syria, etc.) on the one hand and, say, Somalia or Rwanda or Darfur, on the other. In Iraq, we have a clear national interest; Iraq is one stop in our fight against Islamic terrorism. In contrast, our intervention in Somalia was purely altruistic, which is why, I might add, the Left was willing to support it, at least for a time. When we have a national interest as well as a humanitarian interest, we must be ready to fight. When we have a purely humanitarian interest, we should not intervene ourselves. We should ask the U.N. and countries like Belgium, France, Germany, and Canada to do the job. These are countries that generally are not going to be of much use to us in a military intervention but are fully capable of intervening under U.N. auspices in out-of-the-way parts of the world where people are suffering. If the U.N. can't supply forces to do purely humanitarian work, it really has no legitimate purpose at all.

This distinction between self-interested interventions and altruistic interventions explains much of the Reform movement's position on Iraq. Think of it this way: If you took this same group of left-wing Reform rabbis and asked them whether the United States should send its military to Darfur to stop the genocide there, you'd get a totally different resolution from the one on Iraq. The reason, again, is simple: We have no national interest in Darfur (other than our humanity).

We may have freed millions of Iraqis from tyranny in the course of overthrowing Saddam, but we had a national interest there, and the Left will never be satisfied. Rabbi Gellman's statement is useful, but it has serious limitations.