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NEWS & VIEWS

Talk in Synagogue of Israel and Gaza Goes From Debate to Wrath to Rage

A printed version of this article appeared in the New York Times on September 23, 2014, on page A16 of the New York edition.

Rabbi Ron Aigen of Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal, a Reconstructionist synagogue. “It used to be that Israel was always the uniting factor in the Jewish world,” he said. (Credit: Christinne Muschi for The New York Times)

After Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum read names of children killed in Gaza, she was vilified online but retained the backing of her synagogue’s board. (Credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

With the war in Gaza still raging, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum offered an unusual prayer for peace last month during a Friday night service at the large predominantly gay synagogue she leads in New York. Cautioning her flock not to “harden our hearts” against any who had suffered, she wove throughout the prayer the names of young Israeli soldiers — as well as Palestinian children — who were killed in Gaza.

The reaction was swift: A member of the board posted his resignation letter on Facebook, accusing Rabbi Kleinbaum of spreading propaganda for the militant Palestinian group Hamas, and three more congregants soon left.

From the other direction, Rabbi Ron Aigen heard criticism at his synagogue in Montreal this month after he gave a sermon asserting that in the recent battle, Israel had endeavored to live up to the highest standards of Jewish teaching on ethical and just war. He said that he received a letter from a member who had not heard the sermon, but announced that she was quitting because there was no room to express criticism of Israel in the synagogue, which is Reconstructionist and one of the most liberal in Montreal.

Forty-seven years after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Middle East war — celebrated by Jews worldwide — Israel’s occupation of Arab lands won in battle and its standoff with the Palestinians have become so divisive that many rabbis say it is impossible to have a civil conversation about Israel in their synagogues. Debate among Jews about Israel is nothing new, but some say the friction is now fire. Rabbis said in interviews that it may be too hot to touch, and many are anguishing over what to say about Israel in their sermons during the High Holy Days, which begin Wednesday evening.

Particularly in the large cohort of rabbis who consider themselves liberals and believers in a “two-state solution,” some said they are now hesitant to speak much about Israel at all. If they defend Israel, they risk alienating younger Jews who, rabbis say they have observed, are more detached from the Jewish state and organized Judaism. If they say anything critical of Israel, they risk angering the older, more conservative members who often are the larger donors and active volunteers.

The recent bloody outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip may have done little to change the military or political status quo there, but rabbis in the North American diaspora say the summertime war brought into focus how the ground under them has shifted.

“It used to be that Israel was always the uniting factor in the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Aigen, who has served Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal for 39 years. “But it’s become contentious and sadly, I think it is driving people away from the organized Jewish community. Even trying to be centrist and balanced and present two sides of the issue, it is fraught with danger.”

Israel is still, without a doubt, the spiritual center and the fondest cause of global Jewry. Many rabbis said that Hamas’s summer assaults on Israel, by rocket fire and underground tunnels, the anti-Semitism that erupted around the world and the rise of the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State in neighboring Syria left them feeling more aware of Israel’s vulnerability and more protective of it than ever.

“There’s just been a tremendous outpouring of support, a sense of real connection and identification with our brothers and sisters in Israel,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the Conservative movement, summing up what she heard during a recent “webinar” for rabbis preparing for the High Holy Days.
But many rabbis said in interviews conducted in recent weeks that, though they love and support Israel, they feel conflicted about its direction. These are rabbis in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements — not the Orthodox, who make up about 10 percent of American Jews and tend to lean right on Israel. Some are rabbis who believe that the expansion of settlements in the West Bank is undermining the possibility for Palestinians to have a state of their own. They believe Israel must defend itself, but they questioned the Israeli bomb strikes in Gaza that killed so many women and children. Now, they said, they are more reluctant than ever to be open with their congregants about their views.

“There is the sense that the ability to criticize Israel has been diminished because of the war, because of the atrocities that Hamas perpetrates among its own people, and because Israel needs our support since the international community is so overwhelmingly anti-Israel,” said Rabbi Jonathan A. Stein, a recently retired senior rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan.
“The easy sermon for a rabbi to give this year will be on the rise of anti-Semitism across the world. That is a softball,” said Rabbi Stein, who is also the immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents the Reform movement. “The more difficult sermon to give will be one that has any kind of critical posture.”

His sentiments were echoed by others who did not want to be identified because they felt they would risk their jobs. In a recent effort to quantify the phenomenon, one-third of 552 rabbis who responded to a questionnaire put out last year by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said they were reluctant to express their true views on Israel. (Most who responded were not Orthodox.)

The “doves” were far more likely to say they were fearful of speaking their minds than the “hawks.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights, a liberal group with 1,800 member rabbis, said: “Rabbis are just really scared because they get slammed by their right-wing congregants, who are often the ones with the purse strings. They are not necessarily the numerical majority, but they are the loudest.”

One Midwestern rabbi in the Conservative movement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is raising money from Jewish donors, said he was rejected for a position at a temple after he told the board that “there’s not just one Jewish point of view” on Israel. Another rabbi’s board put a note in her file saying she cannot speak about Israel.
After she read the names of children killed in Gaza, Rabbi Kleinbaum found herself vilified on social media. But she retained the backing of her board at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the largest gay synagogue in the country, and some new members joined, she said. Her message, she said in an interview, is not so controversial. “If we as Jews don’t feel the pain for the loss of life of children,” she said, “we’re losing a piece of our soul.”

There is more space to be critical of Israel in Israel than in North America, said Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who wrote an article for the current issue of Reform Judaism magazine on rabbis who feel “muzzled.” He said in an interview, “There are a range of opinions in Israel, and there should be a range of opinions here.”

Rabbi Yoffie suggested that synagogues draw a “red line” excluding those who support boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Few rabbis who publicly support the “B.D.S.” movement lead congregations. Rabbi Brant Rosen, one of the few, announced to his congregants in a mournful letter this month that in the coming months he will step down from leadership at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill., after 17 years because “my activism has become a lightning rod for division.”

Rabbi Rosen said in an interview: “For many Jews, Israel is their Judaism, or at least a big part of it. So when someone challenges the centrality of Israel in a public way, it’s very painful and very difficult, especially when that person is their rabbi.”
Last year, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles tried and failed to organize an event exploring how to have a dialogue about Israel, in part because of logistics and in part because it was just too contentious, said Jonathan Freund, vice president of the board.

“It was kind of ironic,” Mr. Freund said, “because we couldn’t in the end figure out how to talk about how to talk about it.”