Losing My Religion

“I should have known better” begins an old Beatles tune, and I really should have known better than to involve myself in the losing battle with organized religion. But I didn’t and now I’m out a few bucks and I think that I’ve been chastened enough to have learned a lesson.

The learning experience came in the way of an item from the rabbi of the temple to which we  (my wife Jan and I) belong. It blindsided me, but I needed to have known better because there’s a segment of leadership within Judaism that remains either strongly Zionist, or supports Israel in less stringent ways. An aspect of that support often has a military piece. Some religious leaders will not endorse the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement vis-a-vis Israel, but have strongly endorsed the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Most people in the US who identify as Jews support the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Here’s how I view Judaism. I believe that the worship of a deity is sort of like worshiping the tooth fairy. I do see, however, that strong moral-ethical principles can have their origins in organized religion, even though those beliefs don’t need a white-bearded guy in the sky to validate them.

The primary ethical tenet of Judaism is represented, from my view, in Hillel’s admonition not to do to the other that which one abhors. In other words, if you would not like to be enslaved yourself, or tormented because of your, or your group’s identity, then don’t foist aberrant beliefs and actions on others (What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn). Readers can easily conclude where this argument is going in terms of a Palestinian state.

The principles that follow on the heels of the admonition above are simple to express. Honor learning; take the side of the little person; support the rights of minorities; and stay as far away from war and the preparations for war as possible. Also, a profound respect for the natural environment fits nicely into this philosophy. Finally, the need to agitate against the forces of evil makes a rounded out version of my views about Judaism.

Readers can easily discern the difference between the majority of Jews in the US and the majority of Jews in Israel, with the lopsided rejection of Trump and his hate-filled agenda by most Jews in the US, and the majority of Jews in Israel who support him.

It is more than a perverse manipulation of organized religion and turning religious principles on their heads in having a President of the US preside over a hate-filled agenda and support for those “very fine people” who commit murder in Charlottesville, Virginia and elsewhere.

But the latter is not what galled me about the entry in the weekly newsletter that I receive from the temple to which I belong, incidentally a membership that was motivated by the massacre committed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The atmosphere at the temple is extremely welcoming and a guess is that many of the members support the establishment of a Palestinian state. That said, however, I was not prepared for the bald-face support of militarism that the temple’s rabbi included in her most recent communication.

I need to preface this by my experience with the same subject. A few years ago, my wife and I noticed a mass of US flags waving in the distance in Washington Park in Albany, New York. We walked the few hundred yards to where the flags flew and saw a group of leather-clad bikers beside the replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that is transported around the country as part of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall. As a war resister and veteran of the Vietnam era, I have issues with how that war is remembered because of the lack of formal recognition of the millions dead in Southeast Asia and the continuing toll from the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange among US veterans of the war, and the lingering effects of that chemical on generations of those in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Unexploded ordinance from that war continues to kill large numbers of people each year. These issues don’t take into account the additional and long-lasting angst and suffering the war created for so many.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC is an appropriate recognition of those who died in that war.

It was more than the moving wall in Albany that drew my attention. POW and MIA flags flew among the US flags in the park and were yet another reminder of how the history of the war had been portrayed since Reagan’s “noble cause,” when in fact the war was genocidal. Had the US come to terms with the legacy of that war, then reparations would have been granted to the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, but how could that ever have been expected when repatriations for slavery in the US remain a distant and generally unpopular issue because of ingrained racism in this society. Racism operated freely during the Vietnam War. During military training, I recall the people of Vietnam repeatedly referred to as “gooks” and “Charlie.”

The Vietnam Full Disclosure project presents a balanced approach to the history of the Vietnam War. The Pentagon, however, remains a purveyor of disinformation about the Vietnam War and how it is, and has been, portrayed.

Here are the rabbi’s words regarding the moving Vietnam Wall memorial at which she delivered the benediction in a community in nearby upstate New York:

I was moved to tears repeatedly at the Opening Ceremony of The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall. The Keynote Speaker [name removed] spoke exquisitely. The innovation by Rev. [name removed] was made even more meaningful by a fly over during the prayer. I was truly humbled and honored to offer the benediction. May the memory of every patriot whose name is on the memorial be blessed

Thank you to everyone responsible for making this happen.

I was moved to tears by the Vietnam War and the toll it took on so many of us, but most importantly on the dead and injured in Southeast Asia and in the US. In just a few short months, in May 1970, the 50th anniversary marking that war coming home to the campuses of Kent State and Jackson State will take place.

An attempt to build a monument recognizing the war resisters who left the US for Canada during the Vietnam War was shut down. Democracy Now presented short excerpts from some who weighed in on the issue of the monument in “Controversy Over Monument in Canadian Town for U.S. Resisters to Vietnam War,” (October 15, 2004).

The war that won’t go away is still an important part of the lives of millions of people and flyovers and easy patriotic tributes from those with no skin in the game alarm me as much now as they did so many decades ago. Perhaps it’s the entirely secular Jew in me that informs me that the first premise in life is to stop doing to others that which you find aberrant. A thoroughly militarized society that celebrates war won’t allow the reality of the gore and brutality of war to enter into public debate. It is not uncommon to find people associated with organized religion to be part of normalizing militarism and that easy militarism can be found in every major organized religious group. Now, with anti-Semitism on the rise in the US and across the globe, there aren’t many besides Trump and Netanyahu who dare to call Jews disloyal who criticize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, or who find militarism abhorrent.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).