With Holiday Package, Group Seeks to Encourage Open Debate on Israel

Reconstructionist Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton of Baltimore based her Rosh Hashanah sermon on the story of God saving Ishmael, who tradition says is the ancestor of the Arabs.

And in Palo Alto, Calif., Amy Eilberg, a Conservative rabbi and cantor, found herself moved by a new misheberach prayer for the ill that enjoins Jews to be "open to the suffering of all people who struggle for freedom and justice."

These rabbis are heeding a nationwide call by the new American chapter of the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights. The group is urging liberal Jewish leaders during these High Holidays to question Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and condemn human rights violations by Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Such criticism of Israel has been rare in the United States since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, but some rabbis say they are using the new year to speak out.

"Only by recognizing that all of us — on both sides of this story — have known terrible losses, can there be a chance for all of us to live at long last in peace and safety," says Eilberg.

Eilberg, of Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth, was among 3,000 North American rabbis in the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements who in August received the human rights group’s Days of Awe Rabbinic Resource Packet.

The packet was a collection of liturgy, contemporary writing and study texts intended to stir debate not only about Israel’s immediate security needs, but ultimately about its Jewish soul, says the U.S. chapter’s executive director, Rabbi Brian Walt of Philadelphia.

"The intent is to soften the natural, vengeful and angry reactions to terrorism," Walt says. "I am not a person in solidarity with the Palestinian people. But I want justice."

Timed for the High Holidays but crafted to be used by congregations throughout the year, the packet reflects the rabbinic group’s stance that "every human being is created in the eyes of God, and every human being deserves basic human rights."

Founded in 1988 to protest alleged Israeli human rights abuses in battling the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, this group is unusual on the Israeli civil rights scene in several respects.

The group employs highly visible tactics that it calls "direct actions," such as rebuilding Palestinian homes in eastern Jerusalem demolished by Israel, or replanting West Bank olive trees on Tu B’Shevat that were uprooted by Israeli forces during anti-terror operations.

Its 100 Israeli members, including rabbis and rabbinical students, span the denominational spectrum, which is rare in Israeli religious life.

The new U.S.-based chapter of 200 members includes mostly liberal rabbis, but a tiny number of Orthodox rabbis as well.

The High Holiday packet was the group’s most ambitious U.S. project since it was launched in January. It sent its message to liberal Jews across North America, as well as to more than 200 liberal rabbis worldwide from Argentina to the Virgin Islands.

The High Holiday materials are aimed at provoking debate in the Jewish community about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians at a time when Walt says "some red lines have been crossed" by Israel.

In battling terrorism, Walt says, the army has engaged in collective punishment of all Palestinians by cutting off water and electrical lines, imposing curfews in towns and villages, shooting at ambulances it believes are being used to transport terrorists or bombs and keeping emergency medical vehicles stopped at roadblocks.

While debate about such actions has remained strong in Israel, Walt adds, American Jewish criticism has been muffled in favor of blanket support for the Jewish state.

"It is hard for Jews," given the Palestinian terror "attacks on us, to feel the pain of the Palestinians," Walt says.

The U.S. chapter hopes that the collection of religious texts and commentary on the conflict it is sending to Diaspora rabbis will foment more open Jewish debate.

The package includes revised versions of prayers used in the Ma’ariv evening and Shacharit morning services, Torah commentaries for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, revised versions of High Holiday services such as tashlich — the casting away of sins — and study texts.

One Shacharit essay called "Sharing a Holy Land," by Rabbi Arthur Green, says the only way Jews can show the world how to live in the Holy Land is by "sharing it with others."

For Bolton, her rabbinic credo remains the Rosh Hashanah story of how God saved Abraham’s child Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, from dying of thirst in the desert after their expulsion by Abraham.

According to the midrash, God ignored the pleas of an angel who said Ishmael’s descendants would ultimately harm the Jewish people.

"Ishmael is a young child, a victim of forces he didn’t cause," she says. "That’s not some abstract ethic — we need to recognize the holiness of every human life, and the tragedy of every loss."

For Bolton, that story translates into the current need to defend the religious values underpinning the Jewish state. Current Israeli policies are threatening Israel’s moral character "to such a degree that we may soon reach a point of no return," she says.

But Lippman, of the independent Kolot Chayeinu: Voices of Our Lives, in Brooklyn, says rabbis run certain risks by voicing anything less than total support of Israeli actions.

"The voice from the American Jewish community has been pretty monolithic — you’re quickly labeled anti-Israel if you say anything critical of Israel," she says.

Not every rabbi who received the High Holiday package felt so inspired.

Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, former spiritual leader of Har Zion Temple, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley, Pa., wrote an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent highly critical of the rabbinic group’s move.

Wolpe says it is "totally off base" for the group to be tailoring the High Holiday prayers to "be more sensitive to our enemies," in part because Jewish prayers are already aimed at the suffering of all people.

"I am very uncomfortable with the approach that says, ‘I know how God would act if he only had all the facts,’ " Wolpe says. "To me this is not good theology. It’s not even good Judaism."

Though the packet includes a plea for peace from a Palestinian priest in Bethlehem, Wolpe says he has not heard a wider Palestinian prayer for reconciliation with the Jews.

The ethos of Rabbis for Human Rights and its supporters seems to be, "Let them do whatever they want to us, as long as we’re moral," Wolpe says.

But Eilberg says that while Israel’s security is vital, so, too, is the fight for the Torah’s values and "the Jewish morality that flows from it."

"We must recognize that other people may genuinely hold a different narrative — which does not necessarily mean that ‘they’ are out to destroy ‘us,’ " she says.

"Until we begin to understand that there are peace-loving Palestinians," she says, "peace will not be possible, and in some small way, we will have contributed to obstructing peace."

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