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Reform Movement Sets Teach-in to Stimulate Debate About Israel

September 4, 2002
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The Reform movement is organizing a nationwide teach-in to debate the Israeli-Arab conflict and mobilize support for Israel and the moribund peace process.

Called "In Search of Peace and Security: A National Teach-in on Israel," the push will also launch a Reform campaign to deepen ties between American and Israeli Reform Jews.

So far nearly 300 Reform synagogues across the United States and Canada have committed to conducting teach-ins either on the suggested date, Sept. 29, or shortly thereafter.

Organizers said the teach-in, which coincides with the two-year anniversary of the Palestinian uprising, is meant to reopen debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a debate they say has been stifled since the current intifada erupted.

"At a time when Israelis are getting blown up in the streets, it does tend to suppress criticism here, which I think is understandable," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform congregational umbrella group.

"But in the long term, we need those vibrant discussions. It’s important to connect people if they feel that they can’t enter the discussion. The question is, how do we emerge from this morass we’re in, and how do we do it in a way that’s consistent with Jewish values?"

One path to Mideast peace the Reform movement has long promoted, and continues to advocate with the teach-in, is a two-state solution.

Critics of the teach-in, meanwhile, say such a public debate promotes a Palestinian state in the face of Palestinian terrorism, and is an unnecessary addition to public discussion about the conflict.

But Reform leaders insist the teach-in is meant at the very least to educate American Jews, many of whom feel confused about the complexities behind the conflict, and at the most, to get Jews more engaged and active in helping Israel and the peace process.

One of the forces propelling the teach-in, Reform officials said, is a kind of American Jewish tribalism that has set in.

Those concerns surfaced after the April 15 Israel Solidarity Rally in Washington, when Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, was booed for mentioning Palestinian suffering and the need for compromise.

Too often, debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict descends to "the lowest common denominator" level, while in Israel itself discussion is far more open, said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington.

"We are not doing as good a job as we need to in creating an atmosphere where discussion can be as expansive as possible," he said.

Esther Lederman, project director of UAHC’s "Seeking Peace, Pursuing Justice" project, which is organizing the teach-in, said the goal is to provoke "open conversation" about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a setting that inspires respect and civility — the synagogue.

To nudge the debate forward, organizers are sending synagogues a package of background material, including opinion pieces from hawks such as Benjamin Netanyahu and settler leader Yisrael Harel to more liberal voices such as analyst Joseph Alpher and Hirsh Goodman, the founding editor of the Jerusalem Report.

The package also includes reading lists, Web resources, selections of Jewish religious and Zionist texts, the PBS Frontline documentary "Shattered Dreams of Peace: The Road From Oslo," and a list of elected officials to contact on getting the peace process back on track.

Part of the package focuses on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Using statistics gathered by Americans for Peace Now — whose methodology often is criticized as partisan — the packets show a 53 percent growth in settlement housing since the Oslo process began in 1993.

But Lederman and others insist they are not framing the debate from the left or hoping to shape a specific response. The teach-in material reflects a broad range of opinion, and reflects their mission to provoke debate.

But teach-in organizers want more than talk. First, they said the teach-in aims to educate an American Jewish community dazed by shocking television images and shouting heads.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union — Association of Reform Zionists of America, said there is a "deep intellectual, and even greater emotional need" among Reform’s 900 congregations and 1.5 million members "to receive information and deal with and study events in Israel."

At Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, N.J., one of the participating synagogues, congregants "are all over the place, because there’s valid moral points to be made on all sides," Rabbi Don Rossoff said.

"You’ve got a situation where everybody was wrong. The left was wrong in terms of misjudging Palestinian aspirations, which at this point are not to pursue peace but to pursue a national liberation movement," he said. "But the right was not correct in believing there can be a military solution to the conflict.

"People are obviously outraged at the continued terrorism, but they’re uncomfortable with some of Israel’s responses — though there’s no moral equivalency between" them, he added.

Rabbi Fred Greene of Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Conn., which is also holding a teach-in, said his congregants "don’t know where they stand anymore."

Organizers hope that those who attend the teach-ins will also organize interfaith activities on the conflict, write letters to elected officials, use the material in synagogue schools and support Israel by investing there or hosting fairs selling Israeli products.

Rabbi Martin Weiner, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic group, and spiritual leader of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, which will join the teach-in, hailed the effort.

"It’s vital at this time that the American Jewish community explore all the challenges facing Israel and, based on our knowledge of Israel’s history and the reality of the current situation, hopefully come up with opportunities for a secure and peaceful future" for Israel, he said.

After he voiced doubts about Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s worth as a peace partner, Weiner said, his synagogue held its own talks about the Mideast situation.

At the Reform movement’s highest levels, that debate has been shifting for some time. The movement strongly backed the Oslo peace process, but by 2001 Yoffie acknowledged he had badly "misjudged" Arafat.

Yoffie also criticized anti-Israel images in the Palestinian and Arab media that he described as "neo-Nazi."

Like other Jewish leaders, Yoffie rebuffed calls to denounce Israel’s conduct during the battle in the Jenin refugee camp last spring, or Israel’s bombing of a Hamas leader in Gaza in July that also resulted in civilian deaths.

Yet far from signaling any radical policy shift for the Reform movement, the teach-in reaffirms the movement’s long- standing support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which itself reflects a mainstream position nationally, Yoffie said.

But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, blasted the tenor and timing of the teach- in.

Klein was especially critical because teach-in material includes the UAHC plank that "the key to peace will be two states, Jewish and Palestinian, side by side."

"Promoting this is promoting the most dangerous policy possible, and Eric Yoffie is doing that," Klein said. "At a time when Israeli Jews are being murdered on an almost daily basis, the focus should be solely on how to end the regime that promotes and finances the murder."

Others also questioned the need for the teach-in.

"I think people are able to sort out the issues, they’re able talk about questions such as what’s happening to the Palestinians and what will happen to the Palestinians as a result of actions Israel does or doesn’t take," said Rabbi Joel Myers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, questioned the efficacy of "going on a vast initiative with a great deal of publicity."

Dworken said there is open debate about Israel in his religious Zionist community. The key, though is "how we do it, what language is used, in front of what audience it’s done, and what media is used," he said.

Reform leaders, meanwhile, said the teach-in is only the beginning.

Hirsch of ARZA said the teach-in launches an "aggressive" effort called the Israel Awareness Campaign that will begin after the High Holidays.

The program will feature missions to Israel in the next two years with rabbis and lay leaders, new organizational ties between American and Israeli Reform synagogues, Web projects and personal exchanges between U.S. Reform Jews and Israelis.

"This is all being done out of our deep love for Israel and our deep pain as we’ve watched terrible things happen in Israel over the past two years," Lederman said.

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