04/04/2007 06:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Praying with Our Hands for Passover and Holy Week: Action for Peace

Dear friends --

Passover is about reflection - and action. In this letter, I want to reflect on where we have come in dealing with our generation's "Pharaoh" - and then invite and assist us all to take some action. If you want to jump ahead to look at the action, look below for the paragraphs in bold, like this.

I also want to take into account that today, April 4, is the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's greatest and most profound speech. Exactly one year before he was killed, he spoke at Riverside Church in New York City, before a gathering of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, calling for an end to the US war against Vietnam, naming the dangerous triplets besetting America -- militarism, racism, and materialism -- and warning that unless America was healed from them, a generation thence there would need to be a "Clergy and Laity Concerned About ... " another war.

And -- Here we are!

For the full text of the King speech, click here.

When Dr. King, flanked at the CALCAV meeting by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, did this, both of them were faced with angry attacks from some who had previously supported their work for civil rights.

From the Black community, some argued that opposing the war was a distraction from civil rights work, and would alienate the Johnson Administration that had supported civil rights and initiated the war.

In the Jewish community, many leaders heeded quiet pressure from Israeli officials who wanted to keep American Jews quiet about the war lest the Johnson (and later Nixon) administration retaliate by dropping its support for Israel. But King and Heschel knew the war was a profound moral question. They refused to shut up.


In the Jewish community, there is one large organization that has both the numbers and the values to make a gigantic push to end the war. That is the Union for Reform Judaism, led by its Religious Action Center in Washington.

The URJ has just in the last month demanded that Congress set a time table to end the war. That was a huge step forward. It responded to the 77% of American Jews who, according to Gallup Polls, think the war a major mistake. It bespoke the will of the million American Jews who belong to Reform synagogues. And it reflected both Jewish values and Jewish interests.

But the URJ was immediately faced with an unprecedented public challenge by Prime Minister Olmert of Israel, who argued that the US occupation of Iraq is crucial to Israel's security. Note that Olmert's own "favorability" ratings among Israelis is below 10%. There is a general view in Israel that his policies have been stupid and self-destructive. Most Israeli security experts, who supported the US invasion of Iraq four years ago, now think it was a terrible mistake --breeding and training far more Arabs enraged at the US and Israel, teaching them far more effective tactics for attacking both, and greatly strengthening Iran -- a far more formidable opponent than Iraq was.

Yet Olmert's condemnation of the Reform action was the signal for attacks from various Jewish organizations -- especially one Orthodox group, which leaped at the opportunity to attack a Reform initiative. The Republican Jewish Coalition had already attacked the Reform decision, for obvious reasons.

Despite the broad support among American Jews for ending the war, a call from even a discredited Israeli Prime Minister evokes strong emotional support.

So -- what will the Reform movement and the Religious Action Center do to put teeth in its demand to end the war? Imaginably, under this pressure it will publicly defend the resolution it passed but do little to act on it. Or imaginably, it will move forward to mobilize American Jews into real action. Will the RAC make lobbying to end the war the first priority for its highly skilled and widely respected leadership and staff? Even more important, will the RAC mobilize its synagogue grass roots to flood Congress with visitors and mail to end the war?

We have already won one great victory: both houses of Congress have voted to set dates for ending the war. The House date is September 2008, and it is mandatory; the Senate date is six months earlier, but only advisory.

Now we have three crucial opportunities to act:

First, the differing Senate and House bills must be reconciled in conference committee. Our task should be to press for the mandatory provisions in the House bill, while also urging that the Senate's time scale be adopted.

President W is sure to veto the resulting bill. The Congress will vote on overriding the veto. Here we have a second opportunity to stiffen the resistance, winning new Members of Congress to the opposition as they face what an aroused public will do in the next election.

But two-thirds of both houses must vote to override the veto. Assume the veto is upheld. What then?

The conventional wisdom is that Congress must then cave in and pass an appropriation bill with no time table for ending the war, for fear that if it does not, it will be blamed for failing to send money to "support the troops." (Actually, of course, the money to keep getting them killed to no purpose.)

So that is the third opportunity. What if Congress were to pass again the exact same bill it passed before? What if the onus for signing the bill or getting no appropriation were put squarely on the President?

The Shalom Center will be making available to you the tools for turning up the heat on Congress in these three moments of opportunity. What about the organizations you, our members and subscribers, belong to? What will they be doing?

All our religious traditions teach that making peace is a sacred act. We can multiply our clout for peacemaking by persuading our communities to act with vigor.

(1) Will RAC press forward the mandatory House version of the time table, with the Senate's schedule?

(2) Will RAC mobilize the synagogues to urge the Congress to override W's veto?

(3) And when push comes to REAL shove, will RAC mobilize its grass roots to urge Congress to pass the same bill all over again?

I remember how the American public turned against the Vietnam War in 1968, but after Nixon was elected he kept it going for six more years. In those years, thousands of Americans and probably a third of a million Vietnamese were killed.

I am really frightened about some replay of that, especially with a president far far more stubborn -- I would say addicted --- to this war than Nixon was to his.

So I invite you into two sorts of action - one of them this very week; the other in about two weeks, when Congress is about to vote on turning the House and Senate bills into a single bill.

Rabbi Heschel once said that taking part in a civil-rights march was like praying with his legs. We invite you to pray with your hands now, by writing a letter.

The action that we invite you to do NOW is to write your local newspapers -- either general papers or the religious and community press where you live.

Later we will ask you to address Congress directly.

So please either write the largest newspaper in your city or write your local Jewish newspaper -- with a letter something like what follows - changing the text to meet your own values and experience. (You might add a sentence about your congregation, why you care about this, etc..)

Please send us a copy of your letter, either by Emailing it to or by sending an "earth-mail" copy to The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia PA 19119.

Shalom, salaam, peace , Arthur

* * *

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, co-author, The Tent of Abraham; director, The Shalom Center, which voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. To receive the weekly on-line Shalom Report, click on --

Dear Editor,

I am glad that the Union for Reform Judaism has called on Congress to set a time table to end the Iraq war, thereby saving thousands of American lives, preventing even worse instability in the Middle East, and freeing great sums of money for meeting intense American needs for education, health care, and environmental healing. I am sad to see that the prime minister of Israel and some other Jewish groups have criticized this decision. I strongly urge the Reform movement to move forward with vigorous action despite this criticism, affirming the will of the 77% of American Jews who have concluded this war is a terrible mistake. I hope the Reform movement will make it the highest priority to support the mandatory provisions of the end-the-war bill passed by the House of Representatives, with the earlier schedule of the Senate bill. If the President vetoes the bill, I also hope the Jewish community will organize strongly to override the veto or to send him the same schedules in a new bill.

With blessings that we give new meaning to the Passover message of freedom and justice-- .