- 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 academyís
chancellor sent out an e-mail saying it was important for students to support
Israelís war against terrorism.
- For at least a handful of students, these announcements
caused inner turmoil.
- The rallyís message was obvious: America is with
Israel, no matter what. But these studentsómost of them involved
in social-justice issuesóhad 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 Israelís
morale and security.
- "I had a good sense that I wouldnít support
the things being said," said Jill Jacobs, a J.T.S. student. "That
meant there wouldnít be a place for me in the American Jewish worldówhich
is kind of a crazy thing to say when youíre 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 Ö. "
- 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 discussionóoften accompanied by religious
textsóabout 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.
- "Itís much easier in Israel to offer a critique,
and people donít 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
- The students made a plan: They would ride their schoolsí
buses to the rally and gather there as an independent bloc, so that they
wouldnít dissolve into the sea of unquestioning support. They would
hold signs saying, "Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace." Or,
- 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 Palestiniansí suffering,
he was jeered and booed.
- "I wasnít 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 ëThe Koran Preaches Murder.í"
- The rabbinical studentsí 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 ëGod Gave the Whole Land to the
Jews. Read It in the Torah,í" 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 CollegeñJewish Institute of Religion, was asked by a man in
his 80ís 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 naÔve 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 didnít 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 requirementóas
it is for all special interestsóthat the group speaks with one voice.
It may be O.K. for opinion to be diverse in Israel, but here, where itís
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, "Donít
interview heróshe doesnít represent the views of this rally."
- "I found myself surrounded by a crowd," Ms.
Weintraub recounted. "They were chanting ëNazi!í, ëSheís
an enemy of the Jewish people!í, ëSheís not a real Jew!í
Or ëAdam Shapiro!í" (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 confrontationówhich
was being taped, after allóand said, "Weíre 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
- These are devout students who pause when theyíre
talking to say a silent prayer before they take a bite of toast. They are
trying to talk about Israel in a way that doesnít separate "religious
imperative from the stateís needs," as Brent Spodek said.
- That religious imperative is that man is made in the
image of God.
- "If you say someoneís not human and isnít
created in the image of God, then youíre 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. Itís not just some
physiological need for caffeineóitís 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 thatís important is that the rabbinical
students are young. They were born after the í67 war, when the Arab
states tried to crush Israel.
- "I was born in 1975," said Ms. Jacobs. "For
us, weíve always known Israel to be a stable, strong nation that
has the strongest army in the region. We havenít 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 donít 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, itís
as if we never left Egypt: ëWeíre the Jewsówe were oppressed
by the Pharaohs, by the Cossacks, the Inquisition and Hitler, and now weíre
being oppressed by Arafat.í To frame it in that way, itís
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 weíre about, our responsibilities and our duties."
- Melissa Weintraub went further.
- "My generation had a Holocaust-saturated education,"
she said. "But thatís not the position weíre occupying
anymore, and itís 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. Itís important now to understand peopleís
fears. But I donít 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 itís
wrong to voice such concerns. The revolution in their statements is the
belief that Israelís existence will not be threatened if Jews in
America criticize the Israeli government, if they try and change the discourse
of Israelís 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
- "Our not being there [in Israel] allows us perspective,"
Mr. Wolf said. "Part of our responsibility as Diaspora Jews is to
- 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 Jerseyóa
strain of orthodoxy that doesnít recognize women as rabbis.
- "Then he said to me, in the sweetest voice: ëYouíre
becoming a rabbi; Iím becoming a rabbi, too,í" Ms. Weintraub
recalls. "ëI really disagree with you, but I hope weíre
going to be able to talk again.í"
- You may reach Philip Weiss via email at: email@example.com.