Rumsfeld, Sexual Abuse and Iraq War


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Rumsfeld, Sexual Abuse and Iraq War

I just completed participating in an interfaith press conference in San Francisco in which a variety of us religious leaders called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, not only for his role in covering up the criminal acts being done in the prisons of Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, but also for his unwillingness even now to instruct the U.S. troops to reject any form of torture as defined by international law. I spoke for the Tikkun Community in pointing out that the spiritual traditions based in the Bible insist on treating the accused criminal as a being created in the image of God and deserving respect and a speedy and fair trial (and in capital cases, two witnesses of the offense). For Jews who have a long history as victims of torture, the acts of the U.S. troops in carrying out torture are particularly outrageous.

The religious leaders participating in this press conference also mentioned our awareness that the acts of outrage are not just on one side. The horrendous beheading of an American Jewish civilian in Iraq, like the lynching of four other American civilians a few weeks ago, were acts of barbarity that remind us of the kind of horrendous treatment of innocents that was characteristic of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. I, for one, still rejoice that the people of Iraq no longer have to face that barbarity, even as I protest the new forms of barbarism being introduced by the U.S. Occupation.

Indeed, it is this ability to see the complexity of the reality that distinguishes a Tikkunish perspective from those who wish to tell the story as one of good guys versus bad guys (in the case of the Left, the convenient forgetting of the evils of Saddam, which makes it easy to talk about the U.S. as totally evil; in the case of the Right, the convenient forgetting that the U.S. invasion and continuing Occupation is causing thousands of deaths, and that acts of armed rebellion against a military occupation are not understood in most of the world as "terrorism" but rather as legitimate acts of resistance against an outside invading force). So, we can both celebrate the overthrow of Saddam and still know that the way that that was accomplished was wrong and continues to play out in destructive consequences for world peace and for the safety of people around the world and in the U.S. Similarly, we can condemn acts of barbarity against American civilians in Iraq and simultaneously insist that the best way to save American lives at this point is for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq immediately and allow the U.N. to work with the Iraqi people to create a process for democratic elections conducted in conditions of relative security. Nor do we worry about Iraq breaking up into separate ethnic communities—in fact, given that Iraq was created by the League of Nations by fusing together different ethnic communities, it is not hard to imagine the split into a Kurdish nation, a Sunni nation, and a Shiite nation being a perfectly legitimate outcome, and one that might reduce interethnic fighting and allow each group to achieve some modicum of dignity denied to them both by the U.S. Occupation and by the previous repressive regime of Saddam Hussein.

The best way to support our troops is to bring them home as quickly as we can get them onto airplanes or ships. True, Americans made the current version of the mess, and so have some responsibility to clear it up. But that could be accomplished far more effectively by a massive Middle East-oriented Marshall Plan paid for by the advanced industrial societies under the leadership of the U.S.—simultaneously with U.S. troops leaving and giving to the U.N. the task of working with the factions in Iraq to create a democratic procedure to guide how such a Marshall Plan could be implemented in Iraq.

It is certainly stunning to note that the only thing that has grabbed the attention of the American people was not the torture being done in our name, but the sexual exploitation and abuse. Let American troops kill thousands of Iraqi civilians and nobody notices a thing, and the media barely mentions it. But let some American set up acts of sexual depravity and everyone takes note. There is a great distortion here in the value system—even though there is something very hopeful about Americans expressing outrage at least at this moment, there were so many previous moments when outrage would have been even more appropriate in this invasion and occupation of Iraq. The sexual longings of Americans, denied and then repressed, suddenly emerge in the desire to have "innocents" (in this case, totally powerless prisoners) treated with some modicum of respect. It's almost as if the part of our unconscious that remembers not being fully defended in our own childhoods, but also not feeling a right to be angry at our parents for allowing our vulnerability without giving us adequate protection from their anger and their distortions, now comes forward to defend the perceived innocents in this case (the thousands of ordinary Iraqis who fill up the prisons, most of them having committed no offense and incarcerated and tortured for no plausible reason). Please don't misunderstand—I'm happy and rejoice in Americans still capable of moral outrage (as opposed, for example, to the U.S. Senator at the Armed Services Committee hearings who expressed "outrage at the outrage" and insisted that if the people were in prison we could already think of them as terrorists engaged in horrendous crimes and hence deserving of torture). But though happy at the outrage, I can't help be perplexed and disturbed by the inability of Americans to identify with the victims of torture when it does not have this sexual dimension.

Nor is it possible to ignore that the great crusaders for sexual morality who made President Clinton's lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky into an impeachable offense have been remarkably quiet about the sexual abuse inflicted upon Iraqis by Americans. Where is the outrage from the sexual purity squad who worry about gay marriage but are unbelievably silent about the sexuality that went on under the scrutiny and apparent indifference of the leadership of the U.S. Army? We want to see Rush Limbaugh, the Moral Majority, the Republican party moralists, the Norman Podhoretzes and Elliot Abramses, the Daily Standard crowd and the Moral Majority people all speaking out in unity and demanding that Rumsfeld resign. But I won't hope my breath. Their hypocrisy is already legend. (Yet I still want to register my distaste with the special energy that the sexual component gives to these revelations. There's a good element of saying: anything that is offensive to the people being subject to these outrages deserves our outrage. But I suspect that there is also a homophobic element in this and a fear-of-pleasure element. I suspect that part of the horror was that men were forced to engage in homosexual acts—and the horror was more on the homosexuality than the "forced" element of this picture. Or in sado-masochistic sexual relationships, which in fact are part of the fantasy life of many many Americans but which they all deny publicly, rather than allow themselves to have pleasure in. I think that Tikkun writer Michael Bader's forthcoming book on Male Sexuality will have some important light to throw on this whole issue, but in the meantime I just want to highlight the combination of pride I have that some Americans are outraged at the coerced nature of this sexuality, and also discomfort that I have that some Americans are outraged at the homosexual or pleasure-oriented aspects of this sexuality).

Ditto the media. The remarkable fact is that most Americans know of this sexual abuse but have no clear picture of the level of torture being done in our name, though that torture actually has far greater impact on our future. As we have seen in the 37 years of Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and the frequent use of torture by the IDF (acknowledged as such by the Israeli Supreme Court which attempted to put some limits on the kind of torture allowable), torture creates more anger and more future killers who kill more people than the ones saved by the fantasized act of tortured prisoners spilling "all that they know" (not to mention that in most cases they know nothing of military significance, because they weren't actually the members of a secret army but rather just ordinary citizens, some of whom wanted to express their opposition to the US Occupation the same way we do). The media has once again failed us dramatically in not pressing the President to explain why he doesn't issue an executive order banning torture and rewarding whistle blowers who reveal past or present instances of U.S. torture.

Would anything change if Rumsfeld were forced out of office by the campaign Well, the war would continue, as it might even if Kerry is elected (at least, that is what he seems to be saying when he talks about staying there until there is stability—a virtually unobtainable goal unless we define stability in very weak terms). But if Rumsfeld were forced to resign, that would give a very powerful message to the rest of the military establishment that torture is not o.k. Unfortunately, I doubt if that will happen—because the people around Bush don't want that kind of message to be given. The demand is simply another way of keeping alive our outrage at the torture and sexual abuse that has come to light.

Sharon, Bush, AIPAC

The pro-Sharon lobby AIPAC will be bringing thousands of Jews to Congress next Tuesday, May (we only brought hundreds a few weeks ago—we can't pay for flights or hotel rooms, as AIPAC can, and we haven't had decades of well-financed funding behind us). Their message has been very successful: it identifies being pro-Israel with being supportive of the current right-wing government of Israel.

This is an important moment for us to be challenging that message. And YOU could make a big impact. All that you need to do is call your Congressional representative and tell them that you are someone from their district (to your Congressperson) or from their state (to your Senators) and that you want them to know that you oppose the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, that you believe that Israel, the U.S. and the Jewish people are all being put in danger by the current policies of Occupation, and that you urge them to understand that the way to be most effectively pro-Israel is to also be pro-Palestine, recognizing that neither side will achieve security and stability until the other side also achieves the same for itself. Tell them that AIPAC doesn't speak for you, and that recent polls indicate that a majority of American Jews believe that Israel's best interests would be served by ending the Occupation and the settlements, a path made possible by the recent Geneva Accords. If you don't know your Senators' or Congressional representative's phone number, call the main number at the Capitol 202-224-3121 and ask for them by name. Then ask to speak to the person in that office who advises the Congressperson or Senator about Middle East issues.

If you want to do more, take another call to a major media outlet (you can find phone numbers on our web-site at Let them know that it is the Tikkun Community, not AIPAC, that is the real pro-Israel voice, because we are the voice that knows that Israeli and Palestinian well-being are intrinsically linked.

This is a particularly good moment to challenge AIPAC, because its right-wing orientation has made it harder for it to this year support Sharon, because many AIPAC supporters are so tied to the settlers who just last week delivered an electoral defeat in the Likud Party to Sharon's partial withdrawal plan. Politically, AIPAC is divided in leadership between the ultra-right of Ariel Sharon, and the ultra-ultra-ultra-right extremism of the settlers.

We at the Tikkun Community are not fooled by this debate between the ultra-right and the ultra-ultra-ultra right in Israel. As we've explained before, Ariel Sharon's Gaza Withdrawal plan would have left the 1 million Gazans little better off than they are today (because they would still be surrounded by Israeli military, Israeli military would still come in to "pursue" Arab terrorists, and the people of Gaza would still lack fundamental self-determination but would be de facto still under the control of Israel) but "in exchange" the Israelis got a letter authorizing Israel to expand its de facto borders by incorporating into Israel significant sections of the West Bank and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. This is a path to disaster just as surely as is the settler plan to not even bother trying to trick Western societies into believing that Israel is withdrawing from the settlements.

The world (and Israeli leaders and leaders of the Jewish people) needs to learn a very important truth from the failed occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon: you decrease (not increase) your stability and homeland security when you have to occupy a people that doesn't want to be occupied. But the U.S. hasn't learned, and is instead following the path of no return.

The settlers' success in defeating the Gaza Withdrawal plan shows just how far politics have moved in Israel to the fearful dimension. Our task, however, is not to try to threaten Israel into withdrawal, but to find ways to appeal to the highest level of hopefulness and visions for peace that still reside in the hearts of many Israelis—and do the same for the Palestinian people (remembering, as we always do in Tikkun, that both sides are continuing to co-create this mess, and that a transformation in Palestinian society toward a principled non-violence and active, public repudiation by the masses of the acts of the terrrorists would create a sea-change in Israeli politics as well).

Yet it is also true that many Israelis now feel ready to stand up to the settlers, perceiving them as a real threat now that they have managed to defeat Sharon's plan. The problem is that this feeling is largely expressed in support for Sharon's plan—because the moderates remain moderate about their moderation, unwilling to fight for it.

The one hopeful sign remains the Geneva Accord. In my new book The Geneva Accord and Other Strategies for Middle East Peace (published officially this coming September, but available even now from North Atlantic Books—get your local bookstore to put it on a front table), I answer all the arguments against it from the Left and the Right. But then I have some of my own problems with it, which I also discuss, and suggest ways to overcome. Hopefully there will be growing awareness of what you heard first in Tikkun—that the Geneva Accord provides a real potential path to a lasting peaceful settlement. But only if it can be accompanied by a discourse of compassion and open-heartedness, what I presented in my 2003 book Healing Israel/Palestine. Without that element of generosity of spirit, no deal will ever really hold or pass the test that it will face when armed reactionaries on each side do whatever they can to guarantee the failure of peace.

I hope that you'll help us in the coming months by actively contacting your Congressional representatives in support of the Geneva Accord, but also try to get your local city council to pass a resolution in support of that approach. That makes far more sense than the attempts by various leftie groups to build support for sanctions against Israel. As Yossi Beilin argued in his interview with me in Tikkun two issues ago, such sanctions would push the Israeli peace camp into support for Sharon, because they cannot be seen as identified with or supportive of any attempt by outsiders to punish Israel. The trauma of the Jewish people is too recent to imagine that they feel strong enough to allow themselves to be coerced. But what would work are positive measures and visions, such as that embodied in the Geneva Accord, and it is for that reason that I'm still for supporting that approach. I'm hoping that the peace rally in Israel this coming Saturday night spreads a message of support for the Geneva Accord.

Which isn't always easy. I've been shocked at the way that left groups continue to squabble among themselves, and even groups opposed to the Occupation often fail to support each other. When we planned our recent Teach-In to Congress, we first approached Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, two organizations that agree with us in support of the Geneva Accord. We told them that we would not plan our program or invite speakers for months to allow them to go through whatever process they needed in order to decide to cosponsor with us. Neither group did so. It was very disappointing to us. But so too were we disappointed when none of the Protestant denominations and no major figure in the Catholic Church would get on board either. Each had their own institutional reasons, but since they don't cooperate wth each other either, the problem is not in Tikkun but in the lack of an ethos of "we all have to pull together." Yet without that kind of cooperation, the peace forces will remain way too weak. We at Tikkun are willing to work with anyone who wants to approach these issues with a stance of support for both sides (our progressive middle path) and with a spirit of open-heartedness and generosity that avoids trying to put all the blame on one side and instead recognizes that both sides have been hurtful and morally irresponsible and both sides need to do real repentance.


The apparent Democratic Party nominee gave 100% unqualified support to the Bush-Sharon Axis of Occupation, fully endorsing the deal that would have given Israel full support in annexing major parts of the West Bank. This is political myopia of the worst sort. Unfortunately, it is consistent with Kerry's failure to articulate a pricipled alternative to Bush's Iraq policy. For the sake of democratic choices, it is important for people to push him to stand for a genuinely Democratic Party alternative to the Republicans, not a "Bush lite" approach. We will be discussing this extensively in the July issue of the magazine and in the event that the Tikkun Community will run at the Democratic National Convention on Sunday and Monday, July 25-26. If you can come, we'd be delighted to have you there, but we particularly want you to push the delegates you may know to come to the Tikkun event.

Meanwhile, we've written a private letter to Kerry explaining our concerns, and if he doesn't respond soon we may make that letter public. While we don't ever endorse candidates, it is no surprise to us that many of our readers are deeply concerned about how to ensure that Kerry is elected. Our point is that it won't happen—unless Kerry starts to stand for something so very alternative to mainstream thinking that he inspires millions of people who have not even bothered to vote recently to become involved again. At this moment, he doesn't seem likely to be doing that kind of thing, but instead to be trying to show how mainstream he is. And this is not only morally misguided, but it is also self-destructive, because people will not switch horses midstream in what they believe to be a war of choice unless Kerry can articulate a very different vision and a strong reason to believe that what we are doing now is deeply mistaken. Minor repairs is not sufficient to stir people to take that risk. As of this writing, Kerry remains a captive of the centrist forces in the Democratic Party who think that being moderate and toned-down is what people want.

So how did we get Kerry? We got him because too many of us bought into the "anybody but Bush" number. But as I've ponted out in Tikkun, that thinking disempowers us and makes us feel that only the media can tell us who will actually be the most successful alternative to Bush.

Yet, unless Nader agrees to one of two schemes to save his candidacy, he too will prove a big disappointment. Here's what he'd need to do: announce that he fully supports the Geneva Accord and demands that the US facilitate a referendum in Israel to see if the people are behind it. Next, he needs to tell his supporters two things: either that they should choose the Democratic Party electors for Kerry to be the ones for Nader as well, thus making a vote for Nader go to the Kerry electors, or that they and he agree hold a conference in any state in which the election is close two weeks before, so that they can tell Nader to drop out of any state where his presence might cause Bush to win that state. Unfortunately, we haven't yet heard from Nader whether he'd agree to this way of being cooperative rather than splitting the progressive vote.

That is why we've requested a meeting with Kerry to discuss this central Tikkun notion: if you want homeland security, you must give up on the theory that security comes through domination of the other, and instead recognize that it comes from a way of treating the other that involves generosity, open-heartedness, kindness and respect. These are the ingredients missing from our Occupation of Iraq and Israel's Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

We think that Kerry supporters may realize that our message is one he needs to hear, and that they themselves will take it upon themselves to help facilitate the meeting we have requested with him or at least to get him the letter (for a copy, contact If you have such a contact, get the info to so we can send the letter. If we don't get a response of some openness to discuss these issues privately, we will then be asking you for your support to sign the letter and contribute to making it a public ad to the candidate (not because we want to embarrass him, but because without taking this route he is almost certainly defeating himself, as all the polls indicate—Bush's approval goes down and down, but Kerry's support does not correspondingly rise, because Kerry has not significantly distinguished himself enough on precisely the issue of war/peace that is the reason for Bush's decline). So those who wish Kerry well are urging us to do everything we can to get our message to him, either privately (which we are doing first) or publicly. We do so not in the spirit of partisan support but rather in the spirit of insisting that people in the US deserve a choice, not an echo, and particularly on the issues of Israel/Palestine and Iraq which are directly linked to the fate of our people and the fate of every US citizen and to homeland security, we deserve a real choice between alternative perspectives.

But here, as elsewhere, we approach the issue not with a sense of evil people conspiring to do more evil, but of decent human beings trapped in sets of assumptions and fears that limit their vision. Our task is not to act as though we are on a higher moral plane, but rather to act as healers to the society, developing strategies to at once reassure people that their highest moral intuitions are safe to go with, and simultaneous to reassure them that we see their goodness even when they disagree with us. And yes, that means rejecting the demeaning of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, seeing them too as human beings deserving of respect, even as we vigorously challenge what they are doing or the legitimacy of their holding high office.

Meanwhile, I'm off to the first Canadian Tikkun Conference!

Warm regards and greeting of peace and inner joy,
Rabbi Michael Lerner


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