Jewish leaders agree to disagree on Iraq

washington | A defining moment at this week’s gathering of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an organization that seeks consensus on Jewish policy, came during a fierce debate on the Iraq war.

It was defining because the organizers had already decided they would not formally debate Jewish policy on the war.

The decision to debate the Iraq war — but not vote on it — was typical of a three-day plenum that saw disagreements over how to deal with topics as diverse as how to deal with a Hamas-ruled Palestinian Authority, reform at the United Nations and the devastation wrought in the wake of last year’s hurricane season.

The exception was a resolution on the massacres in Darfur that reiterated the JCPA’s 2005 appeal “for the mobilization of both the Jewish and world community to end the genocide in the Sudan.”

The JCPA, the umbrella body for the nation’s Jewish community relations councils and about a dozen national Jewish groups that span the religious and political spectrum, creates policy by consensus. It’s a process that many participants themselves privately call frustrating because it is difficult to achieve consensus from such a diverse range of people and organizations.

That frustration typically bubbles to the surface during the annual gatherings, and this year was no exception.

Rabbi Israel Zoberman, from Virginia Beach, Va., chided the JCPA for even raising the Iraq issue at the conference, which began Sunday night, Feb. 26 and ended on Tuesday, Feb. 28. The Iraq discussion came at a session that, unlike most of the plenum’s sessions, was not tied to any of the resolutions up for debate.

“This is the wrong issue for our great movement and the American Jewish community,” said Zoberman, a Reform rabbi in an area with a high concentration of servicemen and women.

In contrast, Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he and his movement advocated markers that would signal an end to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, but whatever one believed, it was essential for Jews to debate the issue.

“What we can no longer afford to do is to walk away from the tough task of grappling with this war,” said Saperstein, whose movement last summer approved a resolution to set such boundaries on the war.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, the executive director of the S.F.-based, Jewish Community Relations Council, said it was vital to have “two thoughtful and different perspectives” on the Iraq war.

“I think a service was done to the attendees in providing such an engaging discussion which has not received a lot of air time of late in the Jewish community,” Kahn said.

Getting a resolution past the relevant task force to the resolutions committee and through to the final session is arduous, and this year only 10 made it.

All 10 resolutions prepared for the plenum passed, but still engendered enough debate to suggest that even on issues as straightforward as isolating Hamas or supporting federal funds to rebuild the coastal regions after this past devastating hurricane season, there was some disagreement.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief