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New Group of Rabbinical Students Supports Israel, but Remains Critical

May 14, 2002
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A few weeks ago, as the North American Jewish community was mobilizing rapidly for the Israel solidarity rally in Washington, Jill Jacobs and several classmates were debating whether to attend.

"On the one hand, we wanted to go because here was this united Jewish communal support for Israel, but on the other hand, we didn’t necessarily all support the policies of the current Israeli government," said Jacobs, a fourth- year rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

A group of students from several seminaries conferred by e-mail and decided to attend the rally — but to bring a banner and flyers expressing their concerns about Israel’s recent military actions in the West Bank.

That quickly snowballed into a new group with representation from all the major streams of Judaism, called Rabbinical Students for a Just Peace.

Composed of 108 students from seven rabbinical seminaries, the group emphasizes its love for Israel, but criticizes Israel’s recent military retaliations against Palestinian terrorism.

They call for American-brokered peace negotiations and urge the Jewish community to refrain from "inflammatory" rhetoric, such as calling Israel’s Jewish critics "traitors" or comparing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to Hitler.

Members hail from JTS; the University of Judaism, which also is Conservative; the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a small liberal Orthodox seminary; the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; the Academy of Jewish Religion, which is nondenominational; and the Aleph Alliance, which is part of the Jewish Renewal movement.

The group has sent a letter to 20 major American Jewish leaders. They hope to develop a curriculum to teach about Israel in a way that is more "nuanced" than "the straight Zionist history," said Jacobs.

The letter emphasizes the members’ love of Israel and their condemnation of terrorism, but notes, "We cannot ignore the suffering that Israel has caused the Palestinian people during the 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

A recent press release expressed "particular horror" at Israel’s Operation Protective Wall last month in the West Bank. JTS student Melissa Weintraub criticized the Israeli army for "systematically destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority."

The group is generating mixed reactions in the seminaries and among Jewish leaders, although — with the seminaries consumed with final exams — word about it has yet to spread far.

Two JTS rabbinical students responded to an e-mail the group circulated, disagreeing with many of the group’s assertions.

"I found the context in which this plea was made rather troubling," one of the students wrote, noting that the group’s "language implicitly denies" that "the party primarily responsible for the Palestinians’ plight is not Israel, but rather the corrupt, oppressive and terrorist Palestinian regime."

Jacobs said the group reflects something of a shift among American rabbis, with the future generation of rabbis more willing to criticize Israel and support the idea of a Palestinian state.

"We don’t have the same kind of fantasyland view of Israel" as previous generations, Jacobs said. Perhaps, she said, it’s because most of today’s students grew up after Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six- Day War, and many have lived in Israel.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, received the group’s letter.

He would like to "engage in a dialogue" with the students, in the hope that "we can help them to better understand the issues," Hoenlein told JTA.

"None of us are indifferent to some of the concerns they raised" about the suffering of Palestinians, "but the question is where the responsibility lies and how you address those concerns," Hoenlein said.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said the group’s perspective is not novel among some American Jews and Israelis.

Still, he added, the letter’s "timing is probably off."

"It’s not wrong to keep reminding us of the need to be sensitive, to be caring, to be honest in our relations with other people, namely with the Palestinians and other Arabs," Meyers said.

"I’m just not sure one needs a whole new organization to do this at this moment," when much of the world is quick to "indict Israel" and appears to be holding Israel to a far higher moral standard than other countries, Meyers said.

The president of HUC, Rabbi David Ellenson, said he doesn’t agree with all the group’s views. Israel has the right to defend itself, he said, "and the wisdom of Prime Minister Sharon’s policy at this point strikes me as self-evident."

However, he emphasized, the students should not be viewed as treasonous.

"It seems to me what they offer is a balance in how the Jewish community ought to react to any events transpiring now," he said.

RRC President Rabbi David Teutsch said the "best news" about the new group is that "it demonstrates the capacity of a younger generation of rabbis for creating coalitions that transcend the movement boundaries in Jewish life."

"That bodes well for the capacity of the Jewish community to pull together in facing the challenges of the moment, as well as the future," he said.

The students’ views are shared by many Reconstructionist Jews, Teutsch said, though many in the movement may "strongly disagree" with their letter.

Teutsch said the letter "represents a respectable point of view," though he took issue with some of the language.

"My choice is generally for more moderate and modest language, just because I think it’s easier for people in a political and moral debate to hear that kind of language," he said. The letter "had the kind of rough edges that a letter written relatively quickly can easily have."

Ellenson, Meyers and Teutsch acknowledged that the new group may reflect something of a generational shift.

Younger American Jews tend to be more individualistic and less focused on peoplehood, Ellenson and Meyers said — and they also have never known a world in which Israel didn’t exist.

Meyers speculated that the difference is mainly between students still in school and rabbis who have experience working in the field.

"There are different perspectives brought from within the ivory tower as students and from within the communal settings, where one works with diverse populations of people and one has the perspective of additional years and life experiences," Meyers said.

Rachel Goldenberg, a fourth-year rabbinical student at HUC who is involved with the new group, said it is important for students to speak up, since they may become future leaders of the American Jewish community.

"One of the reasons why I believe in this group is that we’re pushing for a voice in the mainstream Jewish community," she said. "We’re hoping that this voice for peace and compassion for both sides is not a marginal voice."

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