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Reform Jews Voice Angst As Israel Battles Terrorism

December 11, 2001
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Myrna Cohen has gone from being a supporter of the Oslo peace process to someone who doesn’t see "how you can negotiate with people who don’t value life."

Cohen, a member of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, Calif., was one of almost 6,000 Reform Jews gathered at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ biennial here last week.

"I’m more right wing than I was," Cohen said, adding a few minutes later, "I feel more right and righteous."

Meeting in Boston in the days following two deadly terrorist attacks in Israel plus a smaller suicide bombing just down the street from their movement’s seminary in Jerusalem, many Reform Jews were wary of the Palestinians and uncertain about the prospects for peace.

Politics aside, most expressed concern for Israelis and sadness that the situation seems so bleak right now.

"It’s very painful," said Jerry Mann of Temple Beth El in Fresno, Calif.

Reform Jews tend to be among the most left wing of American Jews when it comes to Israel.

But now, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and more than a year of Palestinian uprising — including some of the most deadly terrorist attacks Israel has ever experienced — Reform Jews, like other Jews, are taking a harder line than they once did.

That shift has been evident in the rhetoric of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the UAHC’s president. Yoffie has long been an advocate for peace and has been vocal in calling for a freeze on Israeli settlements, even earlier this year, when other U.S. Jewish leaders were hesitant to publicly criticize the Israeli government.

But as part of his Shabbat morning sermon — which is considered the centerpiece of the biennial, Yoffie called Islamic radicalism "the Nazism of our day."

"Are the Palestinians suffering?" he asked. "Yes, of course. And it pains us deeply. But before we can respond to their suffering, we must prevent suffering and bereavement in our own homes."

Yoffie reiterated his movement’s support for peace, negotiations and a two-state solution with Jews and Palestinians "sharing the Land of Israel." He did not mention Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But he also called on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to recognize that "you can have terrorism or a state, but you cannot have both. And if you choose a state, the only way to get there is to stop the violence and begin to negotiate."

In an interview, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said, "The number of Reform Jews who no longer believe Arafat is a trustworthy peace partner has grown."

However, he noted, that is "different from saying Reform Jews support settlements."

"Most Reform Jews think the settlements are impediments to peace but don’t see them as the cause" of the ongoing violence against Israel, he said.

The views of participants at the biennial seemed to reflect those of Ellenson and Yoffie, although many described their views as constantly changing, with the situation too overwhelming and confusing for them to advocate any particular position.

Reform Jews are "very disturbed by what’s going on and don’t see a way out," said Arthur Obermayer, of Temple Shalom of Newton, in suburban Boston.

"I don’t think most people in the Reform movement support Sharon’s approach, but it’s the only game in town," Obermayer said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The biennial sponsored sessions on peace in Israel, including one that featured a Palestinian journalist, the president of the New Israel Fund, a group that funds progressive causes in Israel, and the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, a group that has generated controversy in recent months for helping Palestinians re-plant olive trees destroyed by the Israeli army.

However, according to one participant, many audience members "were extremely mistrustful" of the Palestinian speaker.

And an activist for Rabbis for Human Rights said he was having more trouble generating support than he had at previous Reform gatherings.

Plenaries that addressed Israel featured dovish leaders like Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and Yuli Tamir, the minister of absorption under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Many participants said they still hope for an eventual two-state solution, one in which Israel evacuates most of its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

"I certainly don’t want to give up on negotiations and the idea of a peace process, but Israel has to do what it has to do," said Madeline Dreifus of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J.

"When they ask for seven days of no terrorism, I don’t think that’s asking too much," Dreifus said, referring to Sharon’s timetable before any negotiations can happen.

While the bad news from Israel was discussed frequently at plenaries and in the halls, the overall mood at the conference was high.

People were elated that in the aftermath of Sept. 11 attacks, which has made many Americans reluctant to travel, the biennial attracted 5,800 people, its largest crowd ever.

Israel hardly crowded out other concerns. When asked what issues they wanted to explore at the biennial, participants spoke of prayer, education, and synagogue management more than they mentioned Israel.

An Israel solidarity rally Dec. 5 that was jointly sponsored by the UAHC and local Jewish groups drew a relatively small number of biennial participants, although it took place at Copley Square, just a few blocks from the convention center where the biennial was held.

In contrast, ma’ariv services that occurred simultaneously in the hotel — the first time the Reform biennial had hosted weekday evening prayers — drew several hundred people, far more than organizers had anticipated.

It was an interesting moment for a movement traditionally known more for its rallies and social action than its focus on spirituality and prayer.

For years, critics from other movements and some Israeli leaders have accused the Reform movement of not emphasizing Israel enough in its programs and doing enough to show solidarity with Israel.

Last summer, when the UAHC became the only major national group to cancel its teen trips to Israel, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert vowed to have no further contact with the Reform movement, a vow he soon broke to speak to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion students in Jerusalem.

Next summer, the UAHC plans to resume teen trips, but will focus on kibbutz programs rather than travel programs and expects only a few hundred participants, compared to the approximately 1,500 it had sent in previous years.

Some have speculated that its intense fight for religious pluralism in Israel in the 1990s undermined rank-and-file support for Israel, conveying the impression to Reform Jews that they were unwelcome in Israel.

Nonetheless, most people interviewed at the biennial voiced strong support for Israel, particularly at this time of crisis.

But several, like Mitchell Feinberg of Temple Beth Ahaba in Muskogee, Okla., said they were hurt that Reform conversions are not officially recognized in the Jewish state.

Feinberg, whose mother had a Reform conversion before he was born, said he has been "pretty pro-Israel all my life" and was pleased "to hear a strong endorsement of Israel" at the biennial.

But he worries that the country he defends does not recognize him as Jewish.

"It’s very insulting — you spend your life as a Jew in the South defending your religion only to have the State of Israel turn around and say you’re not Jewish enough."

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