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Conservative Rabbis Approve Fence but Want to Minimize Harm to Arabs

February 13, 2004
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Conservative rabbis from around the world have taken a stand in support of Israel’s West Bank security barrier — while urging that it be built in a humane and ethical way.

A resolution in support of the fence passed with an overwhelming majority Thursday at the close of the Conservative movement’s annual Rabbinical Assembly, held this year in Jerusalem.

The fence had been the most controversial item at the conference — not usually known for taking up political hot potatoes — and a revised version of the resolution passed after a debate over language.

The rabbis say that in their home congregations they must deal with the controversy almost daily, as the fence dominates conversations around Shabbat dinner tables, in sermons and in synagogue hallways.

The version of the resolution that ultimately passed stresses Israel’s right to self-defense while cautioning that Israel should do all it can to “avoid unnecessary hardships to innocent Palestinians” and maintain “the Jewish and democratic character of the state.”

Israel has been excoriated internationally for constructing the fence by critics who say it strangles Palestinian freedom of movement and cements Israel’s grip on the West Bank, harming future prospects for peace.

Some 200 of the 350 rabbis who attended the assembly went to see a section of the fence south of Jerusalem on Tuesday on an organized tour led by the Israel Defense Forces spokesman’s office.

Many more wanted to go, but there wasn’t enough room on the buses to accommodate everyone, conference organizers said.

In some areas, the fence is being built roughly along the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank but in other places swings out to include swathes of West Bank land.

Most of the barrier is a network of hi-tech wire fences ringed with barbed wire and lined with security roads. In a few areas, it consists of cement walls as high as 28 feet. The fence is designed to keep out suicide bombers and other terrorists trying to enter Israel from the West Bank.

“We wanted to emphasize that Israel has the right and obligation to protect its citizens with a fence,” said Rabbi Tsvi Weinstein, chairman of Rabbis for Human Rights. But, he added, “the route should not adversely affect innocent Palestinians.”

Rabbi Reuven Hammer, outgoing president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said his colleagues were trying to take a stand not as a political statement but as “an ethical value.”

“It’s a question of saving Jewish lives,” he said.

Among the small handful of dissenters voting against the resolution was Rabbi Mauricio Balter, originally from Uruguay, who leads a congregation in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Bialik.

“I’m against the security fence because I’m concerned it will turn into a permanent answer, which I think will only extend the problem,” Balter said. “Perhaps the fence will stop a suicide bomber here or there, but it will also create a new generation of suicide bombers, a larger group than we know now.”

Leonard Cahan, a rabbi from Creve Coeur, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, said he accepts the fence but has reservations.

“I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there are no alternatives to the fence, but it has to be done sensitively and carefully to the extent that is possible,” Cahan said.

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