Received on May 16
The New York Observer

  108 Rabbis-to-Be Sign in Sympathy With Palestinians
 by Philip Weiss

 
 Before me on my desk is a powerful document, a
letter to American Jewish leaders calling on them to
recognize the suffering that Israel has caused the
Palestinians during its 35-year occupation of the West
Bank. But the body of the letter is not as powerful as
its second page, which is filled with the names of 108
rabbinical students. The letter represents a challenge
to mainstream Jewish opinion on the Middle East from
the very heart of the community, from the young people
training to be rabbis. It is more of an act than a
statement, and a brave act at that, which has gone
unreported outside the Jewish press.

 How did this happen?

 In early April, leading Jewish organizations
announced a rally to be held at the Capitol on Monday,
April 15, to express solidarity with Israel. The many
yeshivas and seminaries in New York City promptly
canceled classes for that day, and told their students
they were hiring buses to leave New York for
Washington early Monday morning. At the Jewish
Theological Seminary of America on Broadway at 122nd
Street, an Israeli flag was hung in the airy entryway,
and the Conservative academy¹s chancellor sent out an
e-mail saying it was important for students to support
Israel¹s war against terrorism.
 
 For at least a handful of students, these announcements caused inner turmoil.

 The rally¹s message was obvious: America is with
Israel, no matter what. But these students‹most of
them involved in social-justice issues‹had more
nuanced views. Love of Israel, yes; anger over suicide
bombings, yes; but also sympathy for Palestinian
suffering, and a belief that the Israeli occupation
has damaged Israel¹s morale and security.
 
 "I had a good sense that I wouldn¹t support the
things being said," said Jill Jacobs, a J.T.S.
student. "That meant there wouldn¹t be a place for me
in the American Jewish world‹which is kind of a crazy
thing to say when you¹re a year away from being a
rabbi, and therefore a leader of that world."
 
 Orthodox rabbinical student Aaron Levy, 26, said he
experienced a crisis of belonging.
 
 "I resolved not to go at first," he said. "My views
on this matter have developed over a number of years
and through my religious learning. I was feeling
marginalized by the Jewish community that created this
rally, because of what I think is a misperception that
the rally was representing the entire Jewish
community. But I also worried about the perception
that by not participating, I would not be part of the
Jewish people . "
 
 At first on street corners and in lunch rooms, later
in their apartments, these students sought one another
out, realized they were not alone, and began a
discussion‹often accompanied by religious texts‹about
whether to participate in the rally.
 
 They felt that their religious instruction ran
counter to the clear American Jewish communal
position, which has tended to regard the Palestinians
collectively as terrorists. Many of the students had
lived in Israel (American rabbinical students are
generally required to do so for at least a year) and
knew that Israel tolerates a wider range of views on
policy than the American Jewish community.

 "It¹s much easier in Israel to offer a critique, and
people don¹t see you as being outside the pale," said
Scott Slarskey, a student at the University of Judaism
in Los Angeles who is in New York this year. "We
thought to show that Jewish opinion is not
monolithic."

 The students made a plan: They would ride their
schools¹ buses to the rally and gather there as an
independent bloc, so that they wouldn¹t dissolve into
the sea of unquestioning support. They would hold
signs saying, "Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace."
Or, "Israel‹Yes, Occupation‹No."
 
 They would hand out a flyer that began, "We worry
about the safety and well being of our friends and
family in Israel," but went on to say, "The occupation
is crippling us morally and spiritually," and that
Israel must be held accountable for the widespread
detention and killing of Palestinian civilians and
"destroying the infrastructure of Palestinian
society."
 
 There were no sticks allowed at the rally, so they
would use strings to stretch out a bed sheet
announcing a new organization: Rabbinical Students for
a Just Peace.
 
 The April 15 rally was huge, an estimated 100,000
people on the Capitol lawn. Many American politicians
appeared, including Governor George Pataki and House
Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, and offered
unconditional support for the Israeli government. The
rally is now famous for a moment of intolerance: When
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is
hawkish, said that Americans must acknowledge the
Palestinians¹ suffering, he was jeered and booed.
 
 "I wasn¹t prepared for the level of hate that I saw,
and the level of inflammatory rhetoric," said Jill
Jacobs. "I saw a 10-year-old with a sign saying ŒThe
Koran Preaches Murder.¹"
 
 The rabbinical students¹ signs drew fury from the
other people at the rally. Some tried to talk to them,
but not many.
 
 "The right-wing lunatics were drawn to us, like
moths to a fire, with signs saying "God Gave the Whole
Land to the Jews. Read It in the Torah,¹" said Brent
Spodek, 26. "The scripted screaming ensued. They
yelled at us; we sang songs."
 
The rabbinical students were called Nazis and told
that they were not Jews. They were shoved, screamed at
and physically threatened.
 
 Shoshanah Wolf, an organizer of the group from the
Hebrew Union College­Jewish Institute of Religion, was
asked by a man in his 80¹s with a European accent
whether she really believed the other side was capable
of honoring a just peace. Yes, she said, she really
did. The man said she was naïve and wrong and a
traitor, and shouted at her over and over, "You ugly
bitch!" Ms. Wolf (who, by the way, is very pretty)
felt that it was her duty as a young woman with an
elder to hear him out. Also, she sensed that he was a
Holocaust survivor.
 
 Aaron Levy and two other students were separated
from the bloc and raised their signs where they stood.
They were soon surrounded by a swirling mob.
 
 "Our signs were ripped out of our hands and stomped
on," Mr. Levy said. "We were shoved; we didn¹t shove
back. Finally, the police came over and broke things
up."
 
 Melissa Weintraub, 26, also had a frightening
experience. At the edge of the rally, she saw a
reporter with a video camera taping someone. He was
Ben de la Cruz of washingtonpost.com, and Ms.
Weintraub approached him when he was done.

 "Would you like another view?" she asked.
 
The question of who speaks for the American Jewish
community is a sensitive political issue. Jews are a
very small minority in America. They are also very
influential. Indeed, the Democratic Party is dependent
on Jewish support, and party leaders have shown almost
zero independence of Israeli policy. To wield such
political influence, it has seemed a requirement‹as it
is for all special interests‹that the group speaks
with one voice. It may be O.K. for opinion to be
diverse in Israel, but here, where it¹s felt that
American support is essential to preserving the Jewish
state, diversity strikes some as a betrayal.
 
 So when a young man in the crowd overheard what Ms.
Weintraub was saying to Mr. de la Cruz, he rushed up
to the reporter and said, "Don¹t interview her‹she
doesn¹t represent the views of this rally."
 
 "I found myself surrounded by a crowd," Ms.
Weintraub recounted. "They were chanting "Nazi!¹,
She¹s an enemy of the Jewish people!¹, She¹s not a
real Jew!¹ Or "Adam Shapiro!¹" (a reference to the
Brooklyn youth who joined Yasir Arafat under siege in
his compound).
 
 Ms. Weintraub, who has lived in Israel for three
years, tried to respond, and was overwhelmed.
 
 "Palestinians are human beings who want the same
things that you do!" she said. "They want jobs and
safety for their families and the freedom to visit
their friends!"
 
 "They strap themselves with bombs!" a man responded,
and that chant was taken up: They Strap Themselves
With Bombs!
 
 Ms. Weintraub said she felt physically threatened.
Then one of the men surrounding her recognized the
dynamics of the confrontation‹which was being taped,
after all‹and said, "We¹re empowering her." And the
group backed away.
 
 For the rabbinical students, that was the revelation
of the rally. Rather than being intimidated by
displays of right-wing solidarity, they felt
galvanized. They came back to New York with a strong
sense that they had done the right thing, and that
they have a voice in their community. There had been
50 rabbinical students at the Washington rally. Ten
days later, they sent off their letter calling for the
establishment of a Palestinian state, and a
recognition of Palestinian suffering, to the heads of
Jewish organizations, and it was signed by 108 people.
That list includes a quarter of the rabbinical
students at the Jewish Theological Seminary (though
none from the Orthodox Yeshiva University).
 
 They have made links with other Jewish students,
cantorial and educational students, who share their
views. And while they have been covered chiefly in the
Jewish press (I read about them in The Jewish Week),
they are hoping to do teach-ins and speeches for
general audiences, to show America a different part of
the Jewish character.
 
 What is that character? It is youthful and
spiritually guided.
 
 These are devout students who pause when they¹re
talking to say a silent prayer before they take a bite
of toast. They are trying to talk about Israel in a
way that doesn¹t separate "religious imperative from
the state¹s needs," as Brent Spodek said.
 
 That religious imperative is that man is made in the
image of God.
 
 "If you say someone¹s not human and isn¹t created in
the image of God, then you¹re denying your own
humanity," said Jill Jacobs. "Judaism is a very
human-centered religion. Human beings really matter.
God is not confined to the synagogue and ritual. Every
moment is significant. Jews have a blessing when they
drink a cup of coffee, and when they go to the
bathroom. It¹s not just some physiological need for
caffeine‹it¹s an important moment of connection to
God."
 
 Shoshana Wolf pointed out that tzedakah, the Jewish
imperative to perform charity, has its roots in the
Hebrew word for "justice."
 
 The other thing that¹s important is that the
rabbinical students are young. They were born after
the ¹67 war, when the Arab states tried to crush
Israel.

 "I was born in 1975," said Ms. Jacobs. "For us,
we¹ve always known Israel to be a stable, strong
nation that has the strongest army in the region. We
haven¹t grown up with that fear that Israel is going
to go away."
 
 And of course, they were born long after the
Holocaust. When people bring up the Holocaust in the
context of current events, the rabbinical students
tend to differ.
 
 "I don¹t trust the Palestinians. If we could trust
them, they would be our friends," said Mr. Spodek.
"But if we only define ourselves by our enemies and
our oppressors, it¹s as if we never left Egypt: ŒWe¹re
the Jews‹we were oppressed by the Pharaohs, by the
Cossacks, the Inquisition and Hitler, and now we¹re
being oppressed by Arafat.¹ To frame it in that way,
it¹s just to keep us in a slave mentality, which we
say we got out of every year at Passover. We need to
think of ourselves in a positive framework and the
idea of what we¹re about, our responsibilities and our
duties."

  Melissa Weintraub went further.
 
 "My generation had a Holocaust-saturated education,"
she said. "But that¹s not the position we¹re occupying
anymore, and it¹s important not to project our
experiences of real persecution in the past onto a
present in which we have the power to create a better
situation. It¹s important now to understand people¹s
fears. But I don¹t see us as besieged right now; I see
that the balance of power is in our favor."
 
 These students have done a bold power move. They
have asserted that there is an important place for
their views among American Jews. They have thereby
given comfort to many Jews who have felt that it¹s
wrong to voice such concerns. The revolution in their
statements is the belief that Israel¹s existence will
not be threatened if Jews in America criticize the
Israeli government, if they try and change the
discourse of Israel¹s principal ally. The Democratic
Party does not have to be a sidecar of the Sharon
government.
 
 The students have not confused history and
experience; they have valorized their own experience
as young American Jews who have visited Israel.

 "Our not being there [in Israel] allows us
perspective," Mr. Wolf said. "Part of our
responsibility as Diaspora Jews is to have
perspective."
 
 In doing this, they have acted inside their
community as true leaders, brave and visionary.
Sometimes that is the position of youth: to show
elders that their thinking is encrusted and false to
reality. Look at the student movement during the
Vietnam War.
 
 The rabbinical students like to think that they are
part of a movement. And generally, they are hopeful.
When the ruckus in front of the washingtonpost.com
reporter ended, Melissa Weintraub walked away, only to
be chased by the young man who had angrily initiated
the confrontation. He told her that he was a member of
an Orthodox yeshiva in New Jersey‹a strain of
orthodoxy that doesn¹t recognize women as rabbis.
 
 "Then he said to me, in the sweetest voice: "You¹re
becoming a rabbi; I¹m becoming a rabbi, too,¹" Ms.
Weintraub recalls. "I really disagree with you, but I
hope we¹re going to be able to talk again.¹"