(RNS) NEW YORK -- In a massive display of support for Israel during theseturbulent times, an estimated crowd of 10,000 American Jews gathered infront of the Israeli Consulate in New York last month, two days after 21Israelis died in a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub. The rallyhad been organized by a disparate group of rabbis, from Orthodoxactivist Avi Weiss to Reform and Conservative leaders. But Rabbi Rolando Matalon, spiritual leader of the politicallyconscious and vibrant 4,000-member Congregation B'nai Jeshurun onManhattan's Upper West Side, was not among the demonstrators. Despitehis love for Israel, he had shunned the "solidarity rally" because, hesaid, the unity that the organizers have touted simply does not existwithin the American Jewish community. For a Jewish leader to assert that American Jews do not fully backIsrael during a time of crisis verges on the profane. Indeed, RabbiMichael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and a recently vocal critic ofIsrael, has been receiving death threats over the past two months forhis views. Differing opinions are nothing new, but what is striking now is thatunease over the continued Israeli presence in the territories -- coupledwith what many consider an excessive use of Israeli force against thePalestinians -- is spreading in the Jewish community, according toMatalon. "People are disturbed by Israel's expansion of settlements, by thelevel of violence by Israel that is sometimes seen as provocation,"Matalon said. "They wonder whether the limit of `self-defense' has beencrossed.' Matalon is quick to point out that Jews still stand with Israel,when disillusionment over the breakdown of the peace process iscompounded by anger at Palestinian terrorist attacks. But despite theJewish community's revulsion over acts like the Tel Aviv bombing, hesaid, in his congregation people are very ambivalent, very troubled. All of this contradicts the popular picture of Jewish unity.
"The notion that there is revulsion in the mainstream liberalcommunity against the Sharon government is wrong," said Rabbi EricYoffie, head of the Reform movement. "But what's correct is that thereis revulsion against Arafat, in that he is not prepared to make peace." Still, in a speech earlier this month to Reform leaders, Yoffiecalled on Israel to freeze all settlements. He even criticized "acts ofdegradation and cruelty" tied to the occupation, accusing Israel ofsometimes demonizing her enemies -- criticisms that no leader of a majorJewish organization has ever publicly made before. After making those remarks, Yoffie quickly retreated, reminding hisaudience that "the primary burden falls on Arafat's shoulders." Andambivalence toward Israel, Yoffie said later during a phone interview,comes from "the fringes," not from the mainstream. The small activist Jewish groups who have long protested what theyconsider the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and EastJerusalem, lately have come together and gathered steam. On April 8, the first day of Passover, The New York Times ran afull-page ad signed by some 700 people in "The Olive Trees for PeaceCampaign," which aims to replant olive trees that peace activists sayhave been destroyed by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Rabbi ArthurWaskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and one of thecampaign organizers, said that the campaign has so far raised over$100,000. Some peace groups take more militant stands regarding what they viewas Israeli aggression toward Palestinians. Stanford University historyprofessor Joel Beinin, a specialist in the history of the modern MiddleEast and a member of the Bay Area group Jewish Voice for Peace, said hisorganization was even calling for the suspension of American militaryaid to Israel.
Another peace movement, Women in Black, which started in Jerusalemin 1988 and now has another branch in Serbia, has been stagingdemonstrations in 150 cities around the world, calling for an end toIsraeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. According to organizers,an estimated 3,000 people participated in the Jerusalem rally.Reform Rabbi Bruce Bloch of New Jersey, who helped organize the June3 solidarity rally in New York, said that groups like Women in Blackwere closing their eyes to some part of the story. "I think this is a time for the Jewish community to draw together inunity. I don't know why everybody doesn't feel that way," he said. But when asked about the uprooting of the olive trees, he replied"To zero in on that and not see the big picture is a mistake." Conservative Rabbi Harlan Wechsler, another rally organizer, waseven more critical of peace activists. Jews who see Israel's actions asanything other than self-defense, he said, are committing "a grave moralerror." Steven Solender, president of United Jewish Communities, an umbrellaorganization for 189 Jewish Federations in North America, was moreaccepting of the dissenters. "The Jewish community has diverse points ofview, and we need to be respectful," he said. United Jewish Communities is now investing $4 million on the "IsraelNOW-and Forever" solidarity campaign, which will include a "SolidarityShabbat" on Sept. 22, followed by a rally in New York. Orthodox activist Rabbi Avi Weiss insisted that groups like Women inBlack represent "a tiny, tiny minority within a minority." "I think they've fallen into a trap," Weiss said. "They aretragically offering a justification to terrorist bombings." As a longtime Jewish activist, Weiss says he has a finger on thepulse of the community. Now more than ever, he says there is unity inthe Jewish community. Rabbi Matalon, however, still does not agree.
"I think there is a very careful manipulation on the part of majorJewish organizations to show that there is a blanket support forIsrael," Matalon said. "But this is not what we are seeing in the pews."