Feeling estranged from the establishment American Jewish community’s current "love it or leave it" support of Israel, scores of American rabbinical students have banded across denominational lines to raise critical questions about Israeli policy while also supporting the Jewish state.
Rabbinical Students for a Just Peace, more than 100 rabbinical and cantorial students from the Jewish Theological Seminary and University of Judaism (Conservative), Hebrew Union College (Reform), Yeshivat Chovevei (Orthodox), Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the pluralistic Academy of Jewish Religion, this week challenged their adult counterparts to take a more balanced public position on Israel and refrain from hateful rhetoric.
The group was born out of frustration with the massive pro-Israel rally in Washington two weeks ago, which they felt displayed a hawkish tone that seemed to support not just the State of Israel but hard-line policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said organizer Jill Jacobs, a JTS rabbinical student.
"At the Israel solidarity rally, I was deeply troubled to see Jews of all ages holding signs with Holocaust metaphors, obscene language and anti-Muslim slogans," said Scott Slarskey, a rabbinical student at the University of Judaism.
In an April 26 letter to major American Jewish leaders, the students wrote:
"The majority of the American Jewish community has adopted a policy of unconditional support for Israel. Criticism of Israel is misunderstood as anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic or self-hating. Our criticism is one born in deep love … that seeks the realization of the Zionist dream of peaceful coexistence with our neighbors."
The group, saying that while it was horrified by the suicide bombings against Israelis and anti-Semitic rhetoric, "at the same time we cannot ignore the suffering that Israel has caused the Palestinian people during the 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And we believe that the American Jewish community must acknowledge Israel’s mistakes and recognize the humanity and the pain of the Palestinians."
Specifically, the students said they are disturbed by "the inflammatory language with which some members of our community express their opinions. Comparisons between Yasir Arafat and Adolf Hitler are both misguided and dangerous. Competitions to determine who has suffered most only increases all of our pain. We can disagree without vilifying the other side. We can mourn our own losses without negating the suffering of others."
Students expressed particular horror at Israel’s military actions during the past three weeks. JTS student Melissa Weintraub criticized the Israeli army for "systematically destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, including computer files, hospitals and schools. These actions only move us farther from creating a viable Palestinian state alongside which Israel can exist safely and securely."
Jacobs said after the Washington rally, JTS students found that their counterparts at other rabbinical schools had the same concerns, and they decided spontaneously to unite. They plan to organize lectures and become a new critical voice in the chorus of American Jewish opinion.