Rabbi Arthur Waskow to Barack Obama : "Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue"

Rabbi Arthur Waskow.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow asked us to publish this open letter to Barack Obama. He has also posted it to the On Faith blog on the Newsweek/Washington Post website.

Rabbi Waskow has been one of the creators and leaders of Jewish renewal since writing the original Freedom Seder in 1969. Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center; author of Down-to-Earth Judaism and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, as well as books on US public policy. Newsweek named Rabbi Arthur Waskow one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis.

Open Letter to Senator Obama:
The Middle East, Islam, Ends, & Means

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Dear friends, I am writing this out of personal experience and my own individual ethical concern, not on behalf of any organization or campaign. It comes with Martin Buber’s teaching ringing in my brain: that he had no idea what it meant to say that “the ends justify the means,” but that for sure the means we actually use will become the ends that we actually achieve.

Or as ancient Torah teaches, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Why “justice” twice? To teach that just ends can only be achieved through just means.

A lesson for all who work to change society.

Shalom, salaam, peace — Arthur

Dear Senator Obama,

I met you at your talk with Philadelphia Jewish leaders in April. It was I who as you entered the room handed you a copy of the original Freedom Seder, which I wrote in 1969, and which bound together the freedom struggles of Blacks and Jews. And during Q & A, it was I who asked you how as President you would deal with the peace-obstructing settlement policy of this and many previous Israeli governments.

I asked that question because one of the advance speakers for your meeting, Congressman Roth of New Jersey, had just asserted that you believe the failure of the peace process has been solely the result of the absence of a Palestinian partner for peace.

“Solely the fault of the Palestinians?” I thought. “Surely he doesn’t believe that!” So I rose to say that hundreds of rabbis and hundreds of thousands of American Jews see Israeli settlement policy as obstacles to peace, and asked what as President you would do about it.

Your answer cited the vigorous debate on these questions in Israel — more vigorous than here; the recognition by most Israelis that for peace to unfold, there will have to be a shift in settlement policy; and your sense that most Israelis know that internal debate would be so wrenching that they want to know there is a partner for that decision before going through the debate.

Though you avoided saying what you would do, I was satisfied with your answer — then.

I was especially ready to be satisfied because I knew that earlier, when you met with Jewish leaders in Cleveland, you had gone even further, saying:

“I sat down with the head of Israeli security forces and his view of the Palestinians was incredibly nuanced because he’s dealing with these people every day. He was willing to say sometimes we make mistakes and if we are just pressing down on these folks constantly without giving them some prospects for hope, that’s not good for our security situation.”

It would be profoundly important to have a President who understands that! Yet more recently, in your speech to AIPAC, there was no such language. And you slid so far into simply repeating official shibboleths like “Jerusalem undivided” that you had to correct yourself the next day.

No one knows better than I that many of the “official” Jewish organizations would go ballistic to hear a presidential candidate bring such ideas to the fore in, say, a major speech about making peace across the whole region that Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah walked.

And no one knows better than I that millions of American Jews , Christians, and Muslims want exactly that kind of honest talk and vigorous diplomacy. They would support any President who insisted on exactly the kind of broad pursuit of peace you have sometimes affirmed, and the changes in not only Palestinian, Syrian, and Iranian but also Israeli and American behavior it requires.

I know some people who carry a strange mixture of cynicism and wish-fulfillment in their heads — who think you can, will, and should say anything to calm folks like the AIPAC membership and thereby get elected, and later will work hard for a real peace. I know people who think that you can, will, and should pretend you never met Palestinians and heard their suffering, never got to understand their understanding of their history as you have so eloquently explained that you have heard and understood the Jewish story — all in order that once you are in office, you can bring your “true” knowledge into policy.

But I don’t think it works that way. Not only would that kind of campaign be an ethical failure and a personal self-betrayal, abandoning the honest, nuanced, politics of change that you claimed to represent — but I think it won’t work politically.

First of all, that kind of campaign will greatly weaken your appeal to the passionate supporters you have had — just like your betrayal of your own understanding that the FISA bill violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of searches without warrants. Already, the drop-off of small contributions to your campaign suggests that these people are dismayed. And they are the core of your strength, as you yourself have repeatedly said.

Secondly, it will weaken your ability if you are elected President to take the steps necessary for peace. For it would weaken and delegitimate the millions of American Jews, Muslims, and Christians who seek precisely a policy of peace for Israel alongside a peaceful Palestine, and peace between Iran and the United States. Who would thank God — literally! — for a President who would seek to meet the crucial needs of all these peoples while refusing to humiliate or subjugate any of them. There will be many people and organizations ready to attack any President who takes such positions. There need to be people and organizations motivated and mobilized to support them.

To strengthen such a faith-based coalition, you will also have to make clear — by where you speak as well as what you say — that of course American Muslims are as much a part of American society as any other religious group. So your unwillingness to speak in any mosque — presumably for fear that might reinforce the wicked rumors that you are really a Muslim — simply strengthens the mind-set that thinks to demonize you on the false grounds that you are a Muslim, and any Muslim must be anti-American.

I remember being moved when in your speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, you said, “If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.” That line had no political pay-off in numbers of voters. It was a principled statement, fearlessly swimming against the tide of public opinion. And — against all “realistic” calculation — it won vigorous applause from those assembled number-centered politicians!

You owe it to Americans of all faiths, to Jews around the world, to the Arab and Muslim billions – – to treat all these people as part of the world community that must work together to heal our planet from war and eco-disaster.

Just as in Philadelphia you expressed compassion for white working-class anger without surrendering to right-wing policies that ignore Black poverty and despair — so you can express compassion for Jewish fears without surrendering to oppressive right-wing Israeli policy. And in the same new approach to change, you can include Muslims in the body politic and express compassion for some Muslims’ anger and fear, without affirming violence and terrorism.

You will need to address these questions honestly if you are not to be caught against your will in years of war and terror that would destroy an Administration you might lead as it did the last one, will damage America at least as deeply as our deafness to others’ narratives has damaged us this past seven years.

Just as the racial chasm has haunted and daunted American democracy two centuries and more, the growing chasm between “the West” and “Islam” will haunt and daunt every effort to make peace and heal our planet, if we and you do not address it in all its depth and difficulty.

So just as you spoke in Philadelphia with nuance and compassion about race, I implore you to speak as clearly with nuance and compassion about these questions.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace —

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

[The Shalom Center voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. To receive the weekly on-line Shalom Report, click

The Rag Blog / Posted July 16, 2008

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2 Responses to Rabbi Arthur Waskow to Barack Obama : "Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue"

  1. Mike says:

    This well-informed and well-reasoned letter gives light to the central question of our time: will we and our elected representatives pursue self-serving goals or will we dedicate ourselves to the solidarity of all mankind?

    We’ve not made a good start but that is why we put so much hope in candidates like Barack Obama. This desire for change has not come from our leaders but is truly from the ground up.

    The FISA vote does raise concerns. Is this a conscionable action or does it have anything do do with the immense financial assets of the telecoms?

    Whenever elected representatives act in a way that raise concerns about Constitutional issues the people have a right to a clear and truthful explanation.

  2. Very much appreciated, and from such a source! The Freedom Seder is an incredibly beautiful and stirring work. I wonder what efforts are being made to circulate this other than to Sen. Obama and to us??

    The same ideas ought to also apply, of course, to Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Confucians and humanists…

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