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At Conservatives’ Upcoming Summit, Fence Resolution Sure to Spark Debate

February 4, 2004
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Conservative rabbis are preparing to debate a resolution supporting Israel’s West Bank security fence during an upcoming Jerusalem summit.

The debate, set for the Rabbinical Assembly’s 104th annual convention Feb. 9-12, will come after some of the rabbis from across North America — 300 are expected to attend — tour the fence Feb. 10.

The fence resolution already is generating some buzz, say members of the rabbinical group, which claims 1,600 members in 20 counties, including Israel’s Masorti rabbis.

“There are feelings that the fence is helpful, and that parts are a wall and are not helpful,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the R.A.’s executive vice-president.

Last week’s suicide bus bombing in the heart of Jerusalem is certain to fuel the debate.

But the fence resolution, and others dealing with the Iraq war, the segregation by gender of Western Wall prayer areas and a new plank outlining the movement’s stance on Zionism in the 21st century come as many Conservative rabbis are urging the centrist movement to be more politically adventurous.

“Part of our mission as Conservative Jews is to see Judaism and halacha,” or Jewish law, “as something which affects life,” said Rabbi Richard Hammerman of Congregation B’nai Israel in Toms River, N.J.

“If we take that mission seriously, it means we have a social agenda. And you can’t have a real social agenda in this century without” taking an active role lobbying the government, he said.

For four decades, the Reform movement in particular has staked highly visible positions on domestic issues from affirmative action to voter rights — including such hot-button topics as abortion rights and homosexuality — via the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington.

In recent years, the Orthodox Union also has grown more politically vocal with its Institute for Public Affairs in the capital. The union has spoken out on issues such as school vouchers, President Bush’s faith-based initiative and same-sex marriage.

The Conservative movement has been far less vocal, partly because its members run the political gamut due to the movement’s centrist nature.

In addition, the movement does not have a public affairs arm in the nation’s capital, at times relying on the Reform movement to help with advocacy, some say.

“There is an ongoing discussion about how active we should be,” Meyers said.

Much of that debate revolves around the larger issue of what voice is appropriate for a movement that long has viewed itself as “in the middle” of the more liberal and traditional denominations, Meyers said.

“There is a desire to have a more unified approach, a strong approach, to express the movement’s values,” Meyers said.

Some suggest that while Conservative rabbis should craft a more aggressive domestic agenda, they should not weigh in on Israeli issues such as the fence.

“We’re not there,” said Rabbi Richard Spiegel of Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks, Calif., which is outside Los Angeles. “My sons are not the ones who are on the borders there in the army, they’re in college here. It’s very different.”

The fence resolution supports Israel’s right to build the fence “as a legitimate tool of self-defense” and “in a manner that will aid the renewal of negotiations for peace and maintain the Jewish and democratic nature of the State.”

While Spiegel is loathe to criticize Israel, supporting such a plank “is like you’re for apple pie and motherhood.”

Hammerman is less enthusiastic.

He wishes the fence “wasn’t a necessity, but the Palestinians brought it on themselves,” he said.

Still, he said, “I don’t think we want to be dividing villages and families” with the barrier.

The assembly will be meeting in Israel for the first time since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. As a show of Zionist solidarity the entire convention will be conducted in Hebrew, with English translations available.

Among those scheduled to speak are Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid of the secularist Shinui Party.

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