Category Archives: Iraq

Where is the Outrage?

One who is able to protest against a wrong that is being done in his family, his city, his nation or the world and doesn’t do so is held accountable for that wrong. (Talmud, Tractate Shabbat)

As we are currently marking an Iraq War “double-milestone” of five years and 4,000 American military dead, I decided to click on Jews Against the War – the coalition that was launched exactly one year ago. Much to my dismay, I found that the website no longer existed.

What is sadder is that I’m not that surprised. Why should the Jewish anti-war movement (such as it is) be any different than the rest of the anti-war movement, which is essentially in a shambles? I know that there are many reasons for this. I prefer not to analyze them now. I am just so very sad that this horrible anniversary has passed by with nary an ounce of public protest. While most of us who oppose the war are channeling our energies toward a Democratic victory this November, the truth remains that this war will be with us for some time – unless a mass movement of outrage decides differently.

If you’d like to do something, anything, to mark this anniversary, click here to sign an open letter to Congress, calling upon it to:

– Stop funding the war and give the Pentagon only enough money for the safe and orderly redeployment of US troops out of Iraq

– Support a diplomatic offensive – as recommended by the Iraq Study Group – to build a comprehensive solution involving many countries

– Stop funding the construction of permanent military bases in Iraq and military contractors

– Refuse to fund any permanent “security agreement” between President Bush and Iraqi President Maliki unless first approved by Congress and the Iraqi parliament.

And meanwhile, if you are looking for a little outrage to spark your activist conscience, click above for a recent, spot-on Keith Olbermann commentary.

Memorial Day 2007

070324_in02_widehlarge.jpg“A single man was created to teach you that one who destroys a single soul, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world…” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

As we appropriately remember America’s war dead this Memorial Day (see my earlier post), here’s a plea that we honor the memory of all who have fallen as a result of our nation’s tragic, misbegotten war in Iraq:

For Suhad Shakir, 36, her new job was a dream come true. She had always wanted to work with Americans, and she loved helping people. Last September she quit her post as a journalist at state-owned TV and jumped at an opening with the Iraqi Assistance Center, a Coalition-run office in the Green Zone that works with U.S. and Iraqi agencies to provide social services. It seemed safer than reporting, and it paid better.

On Feb. 4 she was on her way to work, waiting in the queue at a checkpoint near an entrance to the Green Zone which is often targeted by suicide bombers. Shakir was in the slow lane, for Iraqi cars that are subject to careful searches. A convoy of armored vehicles came roaring up and got stuck at the checkpoint. One of the bodyguards in the first vehicle threw a bottle of water at the driver in front of Shakir to signal him to move. The driver panicked and backed into Shakir’s car. She tried to get out of the way but backed into the car behind her. Someone aboard the fourth vehicle in the convoy, seeing Shakir’s sudden move, opened fire, hitting her once. The vehicle slowed and a goateed Westerner in khaki leaned out his window and shot her again in the face at close range. Then the convoy raced off into the Green Zone.

Iraqi cops think Shakir’s killer mistook her for a suicide bomber, but they say they’re continuing to investigate. “It is very important I know why she is killed and who killed her,” said Shakir’s mother, Salima Kadhim, dressed in black a month after her daughter’s death. Like many Iraqis, she still waits.

(Newsweek, April 2, 2007)

No Sacrifice At All…

you_talk_of_sacrifice.jpgThe book of Vayikra/Leviticus, which we begin reading this week, is almost exclusively devoted to details of the sacrificial rituals of ancient Israel. Many commentators have pointed out that there is, in fact, no one Hebrew word for “sacrifice” per se. The Torah presents many different words (e.g. olah, zevach, minchah) for various types of sacrificial offerings that function in different ways depending upon their specific purpose.

The most generic word for sacrifice is “korban,” which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “close.” The clear implication is that sacrifice was the spiritual means by which the ancient Israelites were able to feel close to God’s presence.

This, then, is the central focus of Vayikra: the ways in which sacrifice can help us effect a sense of closeness with the Divine. In this way, Vayikra makes it abundantly clear that spirituality and sacrifice are irrevocably intertwined. Only by giving up something precious and valuable could the Israelites find communion with God. To be sure, animal offerings represented a significant personal sacrifice for a community whose wealth was fundamentally tied up with their flocks and herds. Vayikra emphasizes repeatedly that only the best animals – “without blemish” – were worthy of sacrifice upon the altar. These offerings were, without question, truly sacrificial gifts.

Ever since the destruction of the Temple and the end of the formal sacrificial system, the concept of sacrifice has presented a challenge for Jewish tradition. Though the Jewish sages famously taught that prayer effectively became the functional equivalent of animal sacrifice for Jews, it is worth asking if the sacramental aspect of true sacrifice has somehow become lost to us. Indeed, what significance does korban hold for a contemporary Jewish nation that lives far, far away from the milieu we read about in Leviticus?

As contemporary Americans, we might ask ourselves a similar question: is sacrifice even an operative concept in our civic culture any more? This is a particularly critical question for a country engaged in a war that currently entering its fifth year. Witness this exchange during a recent interview between PBS’s Jim Lehrer and President Bush:

Lehrer: “Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you’ve just said – and you’ve said it many times – as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it’s that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military – the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They’re the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.”

President Bush: “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we’ve got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.”

Beyond the war in Iraq, we Americans would do well to ask ourselves further: are we ready to sacrifice to pay higher taxes to ensure the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society? Are we ready to make the financial sacrifices necessary to ensure universal health care in our country? Are we ready to sacrifice our increasing energy consumption to help ensure the survival of our planet?

Are we really, truly ready to open an authentic national conversation about the true meaning of collective sacrifice?

Four Years in Iraq: “Love Always and Forever”

image11.jpgOn this fourth anniversary of our miltary invasion of Iraq, I’m tempted to write a post filled with political analysis and no small measure of bitterness and anger. I will resist this urge and offer you this instead: one soldier’s posthumous letter to his family.

It comes from an article in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune about Capt. Michael MacKinnon (30) who was killed in January 2005 when his Humvee struck an improvised explosive device. He left behind a wife Bethany (now 27), Madison (8) and Noah (7). Shortly before he left for his first deployment to Iraq in 2003, Capt. MacKinnon wrote this letter to his wife and children. He left it in a drawer in their bedroom and asked his wife not to read it unless it was necessary.

I’m posting the letter in its entirety and I implore you to read it until the very end – even if you find the prospect too much to bear. We simply cannot allow ourselves to become numb to the human cost of this conflict. Read this letter, then multiply its sorrow by the thousands. It’s the very least we can do for Capt. MacKinnon and the myriad American soldiers and Iraqi civilians whose precious lives have been sacrificed in a war now officially entering its fifth year.

May their memories be for a blessing.

Dear Bethany, Madison and Noah,

If you are reading this, then I failed to be fast enough, smart enough, or lucky enough. Writing this is very difficult for me so bear with me if I ramble along. I needed to write this letter because there are some things that I needed to say and that I wanted you to hear. Bethany, you are the love of my life. I’ll never forget the first time I say you. You were so beautiful. I had so much fun falling in love with you. Our long walks at West Point, our trips to New York City and Niagra Falls. The times we spent in Montana even if we almost froze on the river that day. I loved every second that I spent with you. I know that through the years we had some rough times, but our love and enjoyment of each other was so much stronger. A funny little thought I always had. You know that all the formals at West Point were nothing but a competition of who had the prettiest date? I’m not going to lie, but I always checked the competition. Every time you were the most strikingly beautiful woman in the room. I know I told you that every time and you brushed it off, but I truly believed it. I think ring weekend was the most beautiful I had ever seen you second only to watching you hold and sing to babies Madison and Noah. I want you to know that my biggest regret during my relationship with you is that I never gave you the wedding ring you/we both deserved. I have never doubted that someday we would make it happen and that we would have our day in the sun. I hope someday you will find someone who loves you as much as I do. I want you to be with someone who sees you as beautiful as I did. Don’t ever feel guilty if you fall in love again. You don’t deserve to be alone and unhappy the rest of your life. I understand. I believe there is a heaven and I think I have been a good enough man to be there. I’ll watch you and I’ll watch the kids grow up with a tear in my eye wishing I was there to see with my own eyes. Some day we will all be together again. I don’t think words could ever describe how much I love you. I want you to know that I loved my life. You made me very happy. I became a better person after meeting you – more complete. When you think of me in years to come, I want you to celebrate my life and not mourn my death. Don’t think about all that you, Madison and Noah and I missed but think of the good times we had together.

Madison, I’m sorry I broke the promise I made to you when I said I was coming back. You were the jewel of my life. You made me so happy every time I saw you. You are the sweetest little girl. Don’t ever change. I wanted nothing more in my life than to be with you as you grew up. I want you to know that I loved you more than I can ever imagine. If you can do anything for me, you can take school seriously and do well. With a good education you can become anything you want. Stay away from drugs. They will ruin your life. Finally, stay away from bad men. You deserve too much. I don’t think that anyone would ever be good enough for you. I have to tell you that you really broke my heart that day when I left you and you said “don’t go, I need my daddy, I don’t want my daddy to go.” I nearly cried in front of all the army guys. Stay beautiful, stay sweet. You will always be daddy’s little girl. I loved every minute of my life that I spent with you. From the first time I held you, to pushing you on the swings, playing steamroller and walking you to school. I always felt that that was our little thing. I loved holding your hand and walking you to class. You are a good girl. I am so proud of you. You made me so happy. I will always be with you.

Noah, you are my miracle son. I loved you very much. I regret that we never got the bond together that we so much wanted. I know I was hard on you, but only because I saw so much potential. You made me very happy and proud. I admired how tough you were when you had your surgery. That was the first time that I realized you would always be a fighter and never give up on anything. I have the same dying wish for you as Maddie. Take school seriously and do well. Stay away from drugs. Try to live the rest of your life as the best man you can be. I remember holding you after you were born. I was so happy. You loved it when I stroked your head. You are now the man of the house. Take care of your mom and your sister. You now have the same burden as your father had, to carry on the MacKinnon legacy. Try hard to keep it alive. Noah, I loved you very much and am proud to have you as a son. You brightened up my life every time we spent together. I will always be with you.

I want you all to know that I loved my family very much. Every time I was away, all I could think about is all of you. I know I wasn’t the best husband or father in the world, but I always want to be remembered as a family man. I don’t care to be remembered as a smart guy, an athletic guy, or a good soldier. I want people to say “that Mike really did love his family.” I want you to know that my last thoughts in my life were of you. All of you need to get on with your life and do the things that make you happy. It’s OK to be sad that I’m gone but be happy for me that I got to spend time with a loving wife, a beautiful daughter, and an exceptional son. I got to see both your births, I got to see your first steps. I got to watch you grow into perfect children. I am very honored to have the three of you as my family. My greatest regret in this life is that I can’t watch you grow up. I will be with you all for ever. I consider myself the luckiest man ever to have lived. I couldn’t have asked for a better soulmate or better children. I don’t think that in any letter I could ever say all that needs to be said, so I will end it here. I am proud, I am happy, I have been filled with so much love. I will always be there in your hearts.

Love always and forever,

Michael – Daddy

Be It Resolved…

rra_logo.jpgI’m writing this post from Phoenix, AZ, where I’ve been attending the annual convention of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. I’m thrilled to report that the RRA overwhelmingly passed the following resolution on Iraq and Iran at our Business Meeting today (submitted by myself and incoming RRA President Rabbi Toba Spitzer.)

I am immensely proud of my association for passing a Jewish institutional statement such as this – one that expresses a viewpoint that has been largely absent from the organized Jewish community until now. I encourage you to read our resolution carefully and pass it on:

Whereas the war in Iraq has been promoted by the Bush administration as a central component of “the war on terror,” but instead Iraq has become a haven and training ground for Islamist terrorists, and the war has contributed to the destabilization of the Middle East; and

Whereas in addition to the deaths of thousands of American service people and untold tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has had the unintended consequences of greatly strengthening Iran’s influence in the region and of further emboldening the forces of extremism in the Middle East; and

Whereas the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq highlights the grave danger of resorting to military force in place of serious diplomatic engagement, and demonstrates the fallacy of the proposition that extremism can be eradicated solely through the force of arms; and

Whereas war should always be a terrible last resort, and not an expedient attempt at solving complex political problems that deserve every diplomatic initiative; and

Whereas misleading rhetoric was used to create a pretense for the U.S. invasion of Iraq when subsequent events proved that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” as was alleged by the Bush administration as its primary argument in favor of war; and

Whereas we are disturbed and concerned by direct as well as indirect suggestions that the U.S. should initiate military action against Iran based on similarly imprecise, disputed and politically-influenced intelligence and military analyses; and

Whereas we recognize that the threatening, inflammatory and extremist threats against the U.S. and against Israel made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be taken seriously; and

Whereas we are also aware that countervailing forces within the Iranian political and military establishments have, at great personal risk, increasingly gone on record in opposition to those threats; and

Whereas a military strike against Iran would only result in another military, political and humanitarian crisis and would further strengthen Ahmadinejad’s regime and radical elements within Iranian society;

Therefore, be it resolved that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, opposes any escalation of troops to Iraq and urges the Bush administration and the Congress to create a plan for a rapid and responsible withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq.

Be it further resolved that we urge the U.S. to engage with the international community, particularly with those nations of the Middle East willing to work together in a political and diplomatic initiative designed to help Iraq move towards stability and away from its current state of violence and chaos.

Be it further resolved that the RRA opposes any unilateral and preemptive U.S. military intervention in Iran, and instead calls on our government—in partnership with European and moderate Arab allies—to pursue diplomatic engagement with Iran with the goal of containing its potential military threat to the region.

Be it further resolved that the RRA calls on the U.S. government to engage in diplomatic efforts to build relationships with and strengthen the forces of moderation within Iran’s political leadership and its civil society.

Be it further resolved that the RRA calls on the Congress to exercise its Constitutional role of oversight and to demand that any charges alleged by the Bush administration in support of any military action be investigated, debated and subject to the most rigorous examination before any additional American troops are ever again asked to place their lives at risk.

Be it further resolved that RRA members should communicate these concerns, as well as the text of, this resolution to their elected representatives in Congress.

Be it further resolved that the RRA encourages its members to address this issue with the communities they serve; and

Be it further resolved that the leadership of the RRA is directed to advocate for this position in denominational, Jewish communal, and interfaith forums.

Naming the Nameless

iraq.jpgHowever one feels about the policies that have made such a mess of the Iraq war, it is politically and morally unacceptable to be so distanced from those in harm’s way and their families.

Tom Brokaw (Washington Post, 11/26/2006)

There’s been hardly any media interest in the unrelieved agony of tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq. It’s an ugly subject, and the idea has taken hold that Americans need to be protected from stories or images of the war that might be disturbing. As a nation we can wage war, but we don’t want the public to be too upset by it.

Bob Herbert (New York Times, 4/25/2005)

America is a nation at war. That is a simple and obvious statement, but I believe most of us would be hard pressed to articulate how this fact affects us in any fundamental way. Unless we have loved ones directly involved in this conflict, the war in Iraq war has precious little personal impact upon our lives. We know that American soldiers and Iraqi civilians are dying on a daily basis, but for the most of us the dead and wounded are merely faceless, nameless individuals in a conflagration taking place far, far away from our homes.

As of this writing, 3072 members of the Coalition Forces have now been killed in the war. (It has been widely reported that more US soldiers have now been killed than the number who perished during the 9/11 attacks). Iraqi civilian deaths are more difficult to ascertain, but most estimate that well more than 50,000 have been killed since the war began in March 2003. But lest we become inured to these kinds of statistics, we would do well to remind ourselves that each of these individuals is a father or a mother, a friend and a loved one. To paraphrase the Talmud, each person killed in Iraq is a whole world unto him or herself.

Starting last December, JRC began the practice of reading the names of five American soldiers and five Iraqi civilians who have been killed in the war in Iraq during our Shabbat services (before our Prayer for Peace.) It’s our way of very simply reminding ourselves that we are nation at war, that war comes with a real human cost – that war is not just an abstract concept, but a very terrible and daily reality for real life individuals.

We also want to honor the truth that the massive loss of Iraqi civilian life has been a particularly tragic consequence of this conflict. Unlike the US war dead, our country does not keep public record of civilian casualties. – and thus it is all the more critical to name the nameless, to honor the memory of innocent Iraqis who are living and dying in the crossfire of war.

Some might reasonably ask, why are we singling out those killed in this particular conflict? Aren’t there people dying in Israel and the territories, in Darfur and Somalia, in any number of horrible conflicts around the world?

There are certainly no lack of human tragedies that would be worthy of mention when we gather for services. The prospect is truly overwhelming to contemplate. But being overwhelmed is no excuse for paralysis or silence. I personally believe that if we’re to honor the memory of the fallen in our midst, we must find the wherewithal to begin somewhere.

I’d like to think that by naming the nameless of this one terrible conflict, we’re naming the nameless of wars everywhere.

(To read in-depth news and lists regarding US soldier deaths and casualities, visit Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. For news and lists of Iraqi civilian deaths, visit Iraq Body Count.)

Sick to My Stomach

hangmans-noose.jpgLike many of you, I couldn’t avoid images of Saddam’s hanging blasting out at me from every corner of the web this past week. The top posts on most blogs invariably advertised the most “uncensored” version of the now infamous cell phone footage of the Hussein execution. Not a proud week to be a blogger…

Apart from the sheer barbarism of this film being shared so happily across the world and into our computers, I can’t help but be sickened by everything that this event represents. It was put very aptly by John Simpson, the World Affairs editor of the BBC, reporting from Iraq:

Altogether, the execution as we now see it is shown to be an ugly, degrading business, which is more reminiscent of a public hanging in the 18th century than a considered act of 21st century official justice. Under Saddam Hussein, prisoners were regularly taunted and mistreated in their last hours. The most disturbing thing about the new video of Saddam’s execution is that is all much too reminiscent of what used to happen here.

Yes, Saddam was evil incarnate in so many ways, and few could reasonably deny that the world is better off without him. But his botched show trial and rushed execution (in the words of Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister, “an Eid gift to the Iraqi people”) was primal, tribal justice pure and simple. Shame on us all for even being involved in this morass of sectarian vengeance.

On Purim, we will joyfully celebrate the downfall of Haman, another horrible tyrant who met a similarly ignoble fate on the gallows. But the beauty of this holiday is that it comes as one brief moment of absurdist catharsis. Purim is the day we allow our deepest darkest revenge fantasies to hold sway – largely so that they cannot hold their grip upon us during the rest of the year.  In Iraq, alas, we have all been sucked into a Purim-style nightmare from which there is no discernable end in sight.

Adar has come early this year. Be very afraid…