SINCE August, Jewish antiwar activists agonized over the prospect of war with Iraq and tried to prevent the onslaught of hostilities. Once Saddam Hussein began targeting Jewish civilians, however, many Jewish activists found themselves afflicted by ambivalence, and alienated from both the Jewish community and the antiwar movement. Mainstream Jewish groups, along with most of the Israeli peace movement, have strongly supported the war. An ad in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin reflects the mainstream Jewish American conviction that ``antiwar is anti-Israel.''
Meanwhile, within the antiwar movement, many Jewish activists have felt uncomfortable. Anti-Semitism has spilled out at rallies, popped up in conversations, and even appeared at meetings of faculty antiwar activists. One University of California, Berkeley, student told an antiwar Jewish professor to read Henry Ford's proto-Nazi diatribe on the International Jew. At such distant sites as the City College of New York and Humboldt, Calif., activists have spotted people promoting ``Protocols of the Elders o f Zion,'' an anti-Semitic tract dating from czarist Russia.
At antiwar demonstrations, Jewish activists have listened with horror as speakers condemn the killing of Iraqi civilians but not the intentional terrorist bombing of Israelis. Jewish activists who have supported a two-state solution for 20 years have shuddered when antiwar speakers applaud Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein's war machine. At the Jan. 26 marches in both Washington and San Francisco, several speakers blamed Israeli and American imperialism for the bombing of Israel civilians. In this warped scenario, Israel can do no right and Saddam Hussein can do no wrong.
RECOGNIZING the profound alienation of many Jewish intellectuals and activists, the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun stepped in to organize a much needed forum. In only two weeks' time, Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, put together what was probably the first Jewish teach-in on the Iraq war. Held recently in San Francisco, the event drew some 700 participants.
Speakers addressed the historical origins of the Mideast conflicts, explored the effects of internalized anti-Semitism, and critiqued the antiwar movement. Put 10 Jews together, the saying goes, and you get 11 opinions. Some in the audience argued that one must never discuss Jewish persecution without promoting Palestinian claims in the same breath. Others countered that any antiwar support endangers Israel's existence.
Still, most of the audience seemed committed to Israel's future peace and security through some eventual accommodation with the Palestinians. Hundreds signed a petition protesting the arrest of a leading moderate Palestinian, Sari Nusseibeh, sent to jail without trial for three months on the preposterous charge of spying for Iraq. (Hours before, he had been meeting with an Israeli peace group.) A loud burst of applause greeted the suggestion that Bay Area Jewish and Palestinian groups stand guard at nig ht at each other's houses of worship and shops to protect them from vandalism and bombings.
Many people who attended expressed relief at the chance to meet with other Jewish activists burdened by apprehension and uncertainty. Some participants noted that they had spent their lives concerned with the oppression of others without giving much thought to anti-Semitism. For those who have encountered their first dose of anti-Semitism within the last few months, the occasion turned into an encounter with their Jewish identity.
From the speakers' platform came confessions of agony and ambivalence, even among those who oppose the war. Most speakers called for honest debate and the willingness to withstand ambivalence. Most speakers condemned Saddam Hussein's past atrocities and invasion of Kuwait, criticized Israel's intransigence toward the Palestinians, denounced the antiwar slogan ``bring the troops home'' as an abandonment of Israel's security, expressed outrage at the antiwar movement's cavalier Israel bashing - and, at th e same time, protested the war. In addition, most speakers called for a cease-fire and opposed a ground war. War, they argued, will neither resolve the problems of the Mideast nor guarantee Israel's future security.
Criticism of the antiwar movement ran deep. As Michael Lerner noted, ``The great power of the antiwar movement of the '60s was its ability to tell the truth about reality - to present a more sophisticated and accurate account of the world than the warmakers did. Yet we are in danger of seeing a new antiwar movement that tries to cram the complexity of the current situation into defunct categories. An antiwar movement that does not reject Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi war machine runs the risk of discredi ting itself.''
The Tikkun teach-in did not represent mainstream Jewish American opinion. Yet, consistent with the Talmudic tradition, Jewish antiwar intellectuals and activists sought to explore conflicting loyalties and principles with intellectual integrity. With some anguish, many rediscovered a long and honorable Jewish tradition - that the truth frequently resides not in certainty, but having the courage to face up to ambivalence without being paralyzed.