On November 23, at Central Synagogue in New York, an impressive collection of Jewish activists, thinkers, and leaders will gather for the first national convening of Jewish organizations addressing the war in Iraq. “Jews United to End the War and Heal America” (sponsored by the Shalom Center, the Workman’s Circle/Arbeiter Ring, and Jewish Currents magazine) will explore the implication of the war in Iraq, the abuses of the Bush Administration, and begin to organize the progressive Jewish community to bring about real change under President Obama.

I spoke with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, one of the major initiators of the conference of the Shalom Center. Waskow has been one of the earliest and most prominent Jewish critics of the Iraq war, speaking truth to power in the liberal parts of the Jewish community.

RKT: Why do you think the Jewish community largely avoided discussion of the war, especially early on?

AW: In the beginning, I think most American Jewish organizations thought the Iraq war would be good for Israel’s security because Israelis thought it would be good for Israel. Otherwise you would have seen more opposition, and ultimately we have seen that opposition, but it has taken more than 4 years for it to develop. From the beginning, it was unwise, impractical and incorrect to think that invading Iraq would increase Israel’s security. I understand the concern for Israel’s security, but it was unwise.

RKT: What was your inspiration for the conference?

AW: About six months ago, I had a sense that there was a real grassroots movement emerging. It first bubbled up around opposition to the war but there was also a whole broader question of the nature of American society. Now it’s moving from bubbling to boiling. I felt deep in my kishkes (guts) that something was going on, very early in the Obama movement.

I am convinced that presidents and congresses ratify and codify change, but they don’t make change. No matter who got elected—and I believe from early on that Obama would get elected–there would need to be a grassroots progressive movement after the election.

Even as various Jewish groups that were initially silent on the war have begun to speak out, I noticed that this was producing no real action. We needed people getting together to demand an end to the Iraq war and to begin healing American society. The two Jewish organizations that opposed the war from the beginning were the Shalom Center and the Arbeiter Ring, and that made for a natural partnership in leading the conference.

RKT: What are you most excited about at the conference?

AW: We will explore how to move forward as a progressive Jewish community. People will come to learn and to act. It’s not just a one-shot moment: I want us to create an effective movement for change. The progressive Jewish community, with its laudable commitment to social justice and civil liberties, is finally beginning to see that this commitment is being uncut by the Iraq war.

RKT: What would you tell President-elect Obama if you could?

AW: 1) Move as quickly as physically possible to get troops and contractors back to the US. The money that has been going over there needs to stay here. Stop wasting those hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq and deal with our own society. 2) Reassert the constitution to end torture, close Guantanamo, end wireless wiretapping, and cease FBI intrusions on peaceful demonstrations. 3) Create massive subsidies for wind and renewable energy, and end subsidies to oil and big coal. 4) Use the money set aside for the economic emergency recovery at the grassroots, preventing foreclosures, protecting jobs and keeping people in homes, and creating green jobs. 5) Aim for a broad, comprehensive peace settlement in the broader Middle East, which I see as stretching from Afghanistan to Israel and Palestine. Peacemaking in the broader Middle East will reduce the hunger and desperation to control more oil.

RKT: What unique contribution can Jews make to the progressive movement?

AW: The first relates to our role as Americans in Middle East. There are only two conceivable centers of caring and clout about the broader Middle East as I defined. One center of clout and caring is Big Oil. The other potential coalition would be progressive Jews, Christ, and Muslims, who have strong emotional connection to the broader Middle East but don’t have the clout to do something. The Jewish community can play a crucial role in whether this coalition can be created.

The second contribution is the deeper level, the level of spirit, torah, and God. One of our rabbis teaches that the world is founded on truth, peace, and justice. Together, these values are the foundation that upholds the One that upholds the universe. There has been an incredible wounding that has come to our values in the past 8 years. The Jewish community can devote enormous energy to restore the centrality in American values of justice, shalom, and healing the earth.

RKT: A final question. What would be your bracha (blessing) for “Jews Uniting to End the War and Heal America?”

AW: Barukh atah Yah, Ruach HaOlam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu lirdoph tzedek v’shalom, Praised are You, Yah, Spirit of the World, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to pursue justice and peace. This is the bracha that our meeting is about. We’ve gathered to observe that profound commitment to God, breath of life, to act on our values to bring justice and peace.