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U.S.-Israel Tensions Now Hitting Pulpits

U.S.-Israel Tensions Now Hitting Pulpits

N.Y. area rabbis, some feeling ‘forced,’ wading into rocky political waters; anxiety seen in pews.

As the strain in U.S.-Israel relations continues, some area rabbis who generally don’t mix religion and politics on the pulpit are setting aside those constraints.

“People were asking me and my hand was sort of forced,” said Rabbi Perry Rank, spiritual leader of the Midway Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Syosset, L.I. “My sense is that Mr. [Barack] Obama has unnerved the American Jewish community and people are looking for a perspective on the issue.

“I told them that when the American government is concerned about apartments in east Jerusalem, it has lost sight of the larger picture and challenge in the Middle East.”

Rabbi Aaron Raskin of Congregation B’nai Avraham, an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn Heights, said that while he doesn’t “talk politics” in his synagogue, he plans to tell his congregation that he is “very disappointed in [President Obama’s] policy towards Israel. … He treated the president of Iran nicer than he treated the prime minister of Israel.”

Referring to Obama’s public demand that Israel halt all settlement construction in Israel, Rabbi Raskin added: “God gave the land to Israel and it has no right to give away even one inch. We’ve not seen that giving away land has benefited Israel.”

Rabbi Andrew Bachman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Park Slope, also in Brooklyn, said he has spoken of late about the issue from the pulpit and argued that Obama has followed “the correct approach.”

“I don’t believe the president is overreacting,” he said. “The Israeli government is desperately in need of some tough love.”

The rabbis are weighing in on the U.S.-Israeli split as some American Jewish leaders have begun making their voices heard. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel wrote in a full-page ad in several newspapers last week that Jerusalem must remain a Jewish capital and that it is too soon to discuss its final status. The Obama administration has demanded that Israel end all Jewish housing construction beyond Jerusalem’s 1967 borders to facilitate a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is above politics,” Wiesel wrote in the open letter. “It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city; it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. … The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.”

He added that “pressure will not produce a solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and suggested that “the most complex and sensitive problem” of Jerusalem be addressed only after the two communities “find ways to live together in an atmosphere of security.”

Wiesel’s message came just a day after Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a former ambassador to Austria under the Reagan administration, publicly rebuked Obama for his policy on Israel. In an open letter to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, he questioned why Washington’s Middle East rhetoric seems “to blame Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks. After all, it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who refuse to negotiate.”

And in yet another criticism of Obama, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who has endorsed Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, wrote that Obama had “changed the relationship between the U.S. and Israel from that of closest of allies to one in which there is an absence of trust on both sides.”

Koch contrasted Obama’s treatment of Israel with the respect he has shown for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom Koch said “shows the utmost contempt for the U.S.” and even threatened to join the Taliban if the U.S. didn’t stop making demands on him. And to counter Iran, he said, Obama wants to create a new alliance with Arab states.

“If throwing Israel under the bus is needed to accomplish this alliance, so be it,” he wrote.

A poll of American Jews released last week found that 61 percent support keeping “Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction,” according to the American Jewish Committee.

The poll was taken between the time Vice President Joseph Biden was — in the words of the Obama administration — “insulted” by Israel for announcing new housing construction beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem while Biden was visiting early last month, and the frosty reception Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received during his March 23 visit to the White House.

In addition, the poll found that 73 of American Jews would characterize American-Israeli relations as somewhat or very positive, while 55 percent approved of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations.


But another poll released last week by McLaughlin and Associates, a Republican polling firm, found that only 42 percent of American Jews would vote to re-elect Obama, who received 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. This poll, which was conducted at the beginning of April, found that 50 percent of American Jews favored Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations and that 52 percent were against his plan to recognize a Palestinian state within two years.

“There is anxiety in the Jewish community and uncertainty regarding the direction of U.S. policy towards Israeli,” acknowledged one Jewish leader who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “We all understand the importance of sustaining the special relationship between the two countries. We have to be careful not to contribute to the breach but to assure that U.S. policy continues to enhance the relationship with Israel on all levels. …

“The day-to-day relationship is better than it is portrayed in terms of military, economic and research cooperation, as well as many other areas. But the fact that people are willing to believe every rumor means that they are willing to accept it, which is evidence that trust in the administration has diminished.”

In a statement Tuesday to mark Israel’s 62nd birthday, Obama said: “To this day, we continue to share a strong, unbreakable bond between our two nations, anchored by the United States’ enduring commitment to Israel’s security. Israel remains our important partner and key strategic ally in the Middle East, and I am confident that our special relationship will only be strengthened in the months and years to come.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish Action Alliance, a right-wing organization, announced a rally Sunday at 1 p.m. outside the Israeli Consulate on Second Avenue to “protest President Barack Obama’s scapegoating of Israel and his increasingly hostile anti-Israel proposals and actions.”

The group’s leader, Beth Gilinsky, said in a statement that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “show more anger about a Jewish family building a home in Jerusalem than Iran building a nuclear bomb.”

The rally is endorsed by a host of right-wing groups and individuals. No mainstream groups are participating.

Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said his group’s efforts are focused on the Salute to Israel Parade May 23, which begins at 11 a.m. and marches up Fifth Avenue from 57th Street to 74nd Street.

“In these times it would be very encouraging for the State of Israel to see tens of thousands of supporters line the parade route in a show of solidarity,” he said.

In interviews with a dozen rabbis this week, most Reform rabbis voiced support for Obama’s policy towards Israel while virtually all Conservative and Orthodox rabbis criticized it. One rabbi even suggested that Obama fly to Israel to heal the division.

“I said it would be a good thing for the president to go to Jerusalem and deliver the kind of speech affirming the value of Israel that he delivered in Cairo [in 2009] to the Muslim world,” said Rabbi Howard Stecker, spiritual leader of Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Great Neck, L.I.

An Orthodox rabbi in Baltimore, Mitchell Wohlberg, said that for the first time in his life he received a standing ovation from more than 800 congregants last Shabbat for a sermon in which he accused the Obama administration of committing a “blood libel” for saying, in the rabbi’s interpretation, that Israel is responsible for American soldiers’ deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a press conference on April 13 at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit, the president, in response to a question said “It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”

Rabbi Steven Kane, spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Briarcliff Manor, Westchester, said he hears talk about the U.S.-Israeli relationship being “discussed at Kiddush even more now.” He said he believes it is wrong to say Obama is “trying to sell out Israel and completely shifting our foreign policy … given the complexities of the American-Israeli relationship.”

But Rabbi Kane said he believes the Obama administration has “clearly made major errors” in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian situation and that it should be “more even handed.”

“What they demand of the Palestinians should be more forceful,” he said.

At the Reform Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, its rabbi, Ammiel Hirsch, said he has detected a “deep concern about Israel’s security and well being.”

“There is some anger as well because although Israel caused the tensions and its prime minister apologized and called it a mistake, the American administration exacerbated the tension,” he said. “Part of the anger is because the American administration is pursuing a policy that clearly involves ratcheting up the pressure on Israel. … Israel is being asked to give more without the Palestinian side being called to the table itself.”

On the other hand, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, said it is “unfair to suggest categorically that the Obama administration is anti-Israel.”

“We need to expand the conversation to be able to be critical and to allow there to be criticism of Israeli policy without undermining the rock solid support that American Jews feel for Israel,” he argued.

Indeed, Rabbi Bachman, the Park Slope Reform rabbi, argued that it is Netanyahu who has overreacted by “calling Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod self-hating Jews.” Emanuel is Obama’s chief of staff; Axelrod is his senior adviser.

“In addition, he appointed a foreign minister [Avigdor Lieberman] who would likely be indicted in the United States for ethical [breaches] and who has committed a variety of diplomatic faux pas,” he added. “I believe [Obama] is a strongly pro-Israel president and that his regard for the Jewish people and the State of Israel are extremely strong.”

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Queens, said he has presented a more balanced approach in his sermons.

He described former President George W. Bush as “extraordinarily supportive and not threatening in any way. He gave Israel a great deal of latitude. But Obama is more cerebral and evenhanded and tries to see all sides of an issue. But I have a lot of disagreements with him, such as his calling of apartment buildings in Jerusalem settlement-building. And I’m greatly disturbed by him saying Israel is endangering American military personnel.”

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