2016-07-27
(RNS) NEW YORK -- In a massive display of support for Israel during these turbulent times, an estimated crowd of 10,000 American Jews gathered in front of the Israeli Consulate in New York last month, two days after 21 Israelis died in a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub. The rally had been organized by a disparate group of rabbis, from Orthodox activist Avi Weiss to Reform and Conservative leaders. But Rabbi Rolando Matalon, spiritual leader of the politically conscious and vibrant 4,000-member Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on Manhattan's Upper West Side, was not among the demonstrators. Despite his love for Israel, he had shunned the "solidarity rally" because, he said, the unity that the organizers have touted simply does not exist within the American Jewish community. For a Jewish leader to assert that American Jews do not fully back Israel during a time of crisis verges on the profane. Indeed, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and a recently vocal critic of Israel, has been receiving death threats over the past two months for his views. Differing opinions are nothing new, but what is striking now is that unease over the continued Israeli presence in the territories -- coupled with what many consider an excessive use of Israeli force against the Palestinians -- is spreading in the Jewish community, according to Matalon. "People are disturbed by Israel's expansion of settlements, by the level of violence by Israel that is sometimes seen as provocation,"
Matalon said. "They wonder whether the limit of `self-defense' has been crossed.' Matalon is quick to point out that Jews still stand with Israel, when disillusionment over the breakdown of the peace process is compounded by anger at Palestinian terrorist attacks. But despite the Jewish community's revulsion over acts like the Tel Aviv bombing, he said, 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 liberal community against the Sharon government is wrong," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement. "But what's correct is that there is revulsion against Arafat, in that he is not prepared to make peace." Still, in a speech earlier this month to Reform leaders, Yoffie called on Israel to freeze all settlements. He even criticized "acts of degradation and cruelty" tied to the occupation, accusing Israel of sometimes demonizing her enemies -- criticisms that no leader of a major Jewish organization has ever publicly made before. After making those remarks, Yoffie quickly retreated, reminding his audience that "the primary burden falls on Arafat's shoulders." And ambivalence 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 they consider the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, lately have come together and gathered steam. On April 8, the first day of Passover, The New York Times ran a full-page ad signed by some 700 people in "The Olive Trees for Peace Campaign," which aims to replant olive trees that peace activists say have been destroyed by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and one of the campaign organizers, said that the campaign has so far raised over $100,000. Some peace groups take more militant stands regarding what they view as Israeli aggression toward Palestinians. Stanford University history professor Joel Beinin, a specialist in the history of the modern Middle East and a member of the Bay Area group Jewish Voice for Peace, said his organization was even calling for the suspension of American military aid to Israel.

Another peace movement, Women in Black, which started in Jerusalem in 1988 and now has another branch in Serbia, has been staging demonstrations in 150 cities around the world, calling for an end to Israeli 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 June 3 solidarity rally in New York, said that groups like Women in Black were closing their eyes to some part of the story. "I think this is a time for the Jewish community to draw together in unity. 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, was even more critical of peace activists. Jews who see Israel's actions as anything other than self-defense, he said, are committing "a grave moral error." Steven Solender, president of United Jewish Communities, an umbrella organization for 189 Jewish Federations in North America, was more accepting of the dissenters. "The Jewish community has diverse points of view, and we need to be respectful," he said. United Jewish Communities is now investing $4 million on the "Israel NOW-and Forever" solidarity campaign, which will include a "Solidarity Shabbat" on Sept. 22, followed by a rally in New York. Orthodox activist Rabbi Avi Weiss insisted that groups like Women in Black represent "a tiny, tiny minority within a minority." "I think they've fallen into a trap," Weiss said. "They are tragically offering a justification to terrorist bombings." As a longtime Jewish activist, Weiss says he has a finger on the pulse of the community. Now more than ever, he says there is unity in the Jewish community. Rabbi Matalon, however, still does not agree.

"I think there is a very careful manipulation on the part of major Jewish organizations to show that there is a blanket support for Israel," Matalon said. "But this is not what we are seeing in the pews."

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