(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
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
"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
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
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
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."