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Reform Rabbis Urge Greater U.S. Involvement in Conflict

December 18, 2002
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Reform rabbis are calling on the Bush administration to intervene more aggressively in mediating an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Board of Trustees issued the call to action last week in a platform on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is more detailed than any previous statement to date.

Before the board met, the rabbis also tried, but failed, to reach agreement on a statement about the looming conflict with Iraq, said the CCAR’s president, Rabbi Martin Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

“There was too much diversity of opinion” to reach any agreement, he said.

Despite speculation that the rabbinical group would issue a position paper reflecting a shift to the center from its traditionally liberal stand, the platform largely reaffirmed the Reform movement’s left-of-center positions on Israel and the Palestinians.

“I don’t think there’s been any kind of major shift,” said the CCAR’s executive vice president, Rabbi Paul Menitoff.

The CCAR board, which comprises some four dozen rabbis from across North America, voted overwhelmingly for the platform, which urges the creation, through negotiations, of a Palestinian state that is “committed to peaceful coexistence with the State of Israel.”

Calling a return to pre-1967 borders “unrealistic,” the rabbis said any Israeli-Palestinian peace pact “may require territorial adjustments akin to those offered at Camp David,” before the current Palestinian uprising erupted two years ago.

The platform also restates other longtime Reform positions, such as the protection of Arab and Palestinian civil rights, as well as Israeli Jewish rights, and urges a halt to Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza.

Yet on some other key planks, the document reflects new thinking in the community generally about the 1993 Oslo peace accords and responds specifically to new facts on the ground, said Rabbi Donald Rossoff, of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, N.J., who wrote a draft for the final statement approved by the board.

For example, while the platform calls for a Palestinian state, the rabbis explicitly “reject a demand for a right of physical return to the State of Israel,” which would allow a Palestinian demographic majority in Israel.

And though the platform urges no new Jewish settlements, and says most would likely need to be dismantled in any peace pact with the Palestinians, it also says that Israel may have to hold onto some settlements as well.

The rabbis also agree with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in seeking to marginalize Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Arafat is “clearly unable or unprepared” to reach a peace agreement with Israel, the document states, so Israel should seek out a “younger generation of Palestinian leaders” who would participate in “constructive” talks.

At the same time, the rabbis are urging the White House to more “vigorously” nudge those peace talks along with a “imaginative, bold and sustained efforts.”

The Jewish community has largely been split on the need for more U.S. involvement.

Those who envision a two-state solution as a way to resolve the conflict tend to welcome stepped up involvement, while those wary that any solution is possible worry that more U.S. involvement will lead to greater pressure on Israel.

Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, N.Y., who brought the portion on Bush to the board’s table, said U.S. involvement “is going to be critical in order for the two sides to reach peace.”

“The Bush administration has at times initiated steps, but really hasn’t followed through on them,” he said.

Yet the platform does not address just what Bush should do, nor does it mention the “road map” that the administration and international community is developing to bring about a Palestinian state.

Menitoff predicted there would be debate among Reform rabbis about the extent and nature of U.S. action when the group’s rank and file meet at the CCAR’s annual convention to vote on the platform in March.

Rabbinical groups from the other major movements, meanwhile, found plenty of material in the document to debate already.

Rabbi Moshe Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said his group opposes the document’s use of the term “occupation” with regard to the territories, and its wording on terrorism.

In one passage, the document states that while Palestinian economic hardship is largely a byproduct of Palestinian terror, it also results from “the long-lasting occupation.”

The CCAR platform “doesn’t sufficiently stress the responsibility the Palestinians have for the current terror,” he said.

Yet at another point, the platform does issue harsh wording on terrorism. At one point the Reform rabbis criticized Arafat for the “unwarranted and immoral Palestinian resort to violence and terror,” and at another, blasts Muslim clerics and educators for preaching hatred toward the Jewish state.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, also took issue with the Reform rabbis, accusing them of less than full support for Israel.

“Jewish leadership has to show complete and unequivocal support for Israel,” he said, “no matter the government” in power.

In response, Rossoff said the CCAR platform is “unequivocally supportive of those individuals and groups in Israel who are not only looking for security but for justice for all.”

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