Beliefnet
Before me on my desk is a powerful document, a letter to American Jewish leaders calling on them to recognize the suffering that Israel has caused the Palestinians during its 35-year occupation of the West Bank. But the body of the letter is not as powerful as its second page, which is filled with the names of 108 rabbinical students. The letter represents a challenge to mainstream Jewish opinion on the Middle East from the very heart of the community, from the young people training to be rabbis. It is more of an act than a statement, and a brave act at that, which has gone unreported outside the Jewish press.

How did this happen?

In early April, leading Jewish organizations announced a rally to be held at the Capitol on Monday, April 15, to express solidarity with Israel. The many yeshivas and seminaries in New York City promptly canceled classes for that day, and told their students they were hiring buses to leave New York for Washington early Monday morning. At the Jewish Theological Seminary of America on Broadway at 122nd Street, an Israeli flag was hung in the airy entryway, and the Conservative academy's chancellor sent out an e-mail saying it was important for students to support Israel's war against terrorism.

For at least a handful of students, these announcements caused inner turmoil.

The rally's message was obvious: America is with Israel, no matter what. But these students--most of them involved in social-justice issues--had more nuanced views. Love of Israel, yes; anger over suicide bombings, yes; but also sympathy for Palestinian suffering, and a belief that the Israeli occupation has damaged Israel's morale and security.

"I had a good sense that I wouldn't support the things being said," said Jill Jacobs, a J.T.S. student. "That meant there wouldn't be a place for me in the American Jewish world--which is kind of a crazy thing to say when you're a year away from being a rabbi, and therefore a leader of that world."

Orthodox rabbinical student Aaron Levy, 26, said he experienced a crisis of belonging.

"I resolved not to go at first," he said. "My views on this matter have developed over a number of years and through my religious learning. I was feeling marginalized by the Jewish community that created this rally, because of what I think is a misperception that the rally was representing the entire Jewish community. But I also worried about the perception that by not participating, I would not be part of the Jewish people... "

At first on street corners and in lunch rooms, later in their apartments, these students sought one another out, realized they were not alone, and began a discussion--often accompanied by religious texts--about whether to participate in the rally.

They felt that their religious instruction ran counter to the clear American Jewish communal position, which has tended to regard the Palestinians collectively as terrorists. Many of the students had lived in Israel (American rabbinical students are generally required to do so for at least a year) and knew that Israel tolerates a wider range of views on policy than the American Jewish community.

"It's much easier in Israel to offer a critique, and people don't see you as being outside the pale," said Scott Slarskey, a student at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles who is in New York this year. "We thought to show that Jewish opinion is not monolithic."

The students made a plan: They would ride their schools' buses to the rally and gather there as an independent bloc, so that they wouldn't dissolve into the sea of unquestioning support. They would hold signs saying, "Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace." Or, "Israel--Yes, Occupation--No."

They would hand out a flyer that began, "We worry about the safety and well being of our friends and family in Israel," but went on to say, "The occupation is crippling us morally and spiritually," and that Israel must be held accountable for the widespread detention and killing of Palestinian civilians and "destroying the infrastructure of Palestinian society."

There were no sticks allowed at the rally, so they would use strings to stretch out a bed sheet announcing a new organization: Rabbinical Students for a Just Peace.

The April 15 rally was huge, an estimated 100,000 people on the Capitol lawn. Many American politicians appeared, including Governor George Pataki and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, and offered unconditional support for the Israeli government. The rally is now famous for a moment of intolerance: When Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is hawkish, said that Americans must acknowledge the Palestinians' suffering, he was jeered and booed.

"I wasn't prepared for the level of hate that I saw, and the level of inflammatory rhetoric," said Jill Jacobs. "I saw a 10-year-old with a sign saying 'The Koran Preaches Murder.'"

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