Conservative rabbis stand divided on Iraq resolution

cambridge, mass. | Conservative rabbis, gathered here for their annual convention, failed to agree on a resolution that described the U.S. military effort in Iraq as a failure and called for a “timely draw-down” of U.S. troops.

“We really are a house divided,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the assembly’s executive vice president.

The closed-door debate on May 2, described as fierce at times, mirrored the debate now roiling Washington. It came as broad public disillusionment with the war has not yielded a consensus on how to proceed.

In the Jewish community as a whole, there seems to be more of a consensus against the war. Polls consistently show strong Jewish opposition; nearly two-thirds of respondents in a 2006 survey by the American Jewish Committee said the United States should not have invaded Iraq.

While the 12 other resolutions on the rabbis’ docket — including measures on immigration, reproductive freedom and the threat from Iran — passed with minimal discussion and only minor variations, the Iraq resolution generated a fierce and inconclusive debate.

Perhaps no rabbi had more at stake in the discussion than Rabbi Joel Newman, a commander in the U.S. Navy who served in Iraq.

Newman has organized Passover seders on aircraft carriers and in hostile enemy territory in Ramadi. He has lined up with thousands of Marines in the dark of night awaiting transport to his next deployment. And he has accompanied troops in armored convoys through the deadly obstacle course that is Iraq.

Newman acknowledged that Iraq is a “horrific war.” But he worried that the rabbis’ proposed resolution would hurt the troops, who feel they are doing everything they are being asked.

Even so, Newman said. it was important to have the discussion, even though he would abstain on any vote, in accordance with military regulations. “I think it’s important for people to speak their mind because that’s part of democracy,” Newman said. “I’m glad they’re talking about it. President Bush needs to know that Jewish leadership is having this discussion, on both sides.”

Newman served a congregation in St. Paul, Minn., for six years before joining the Navy in 1981. Being a military chaplain offers the chance to make an impact on people’s lives to a degree unattainable as a pulpit rabbi, he says. “If you’re not there,” he said, “they have nothing.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.