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Local rabbis reject one-sided criticism of Israel
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Local rabbis reject one-sided criticism of Israel

New group supports two states, opposes unilateral pressure

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Joel Abraham worked on revising drafts of the final document.
Rabbi Joel Abraham worked on revising drafts of the final document.

More than a dozen local rabbis have signed on to a new group supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but critical of Jewish groups they consider too quick to criticize the Jewish state.

Founded by a Reform rabbi based in Israel, Rabbis for Israel has collected signatures from over 200 rabbis from all streams across Europe, North America, and Israel. Of the 22 NJ rabbis on board, 15 come from areas covered by NJ Jewish News.

In its mission statement, Rabbis for Israel supports a peace involving “two independent states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace, security, and prosperity.”

It also acknowledges “that Israel shares some responsibility for the current state of affairs,” presumably the stalled peace process.

At the same time, the petition declares the signatories “are particularly concerned by the manner in which some organizations within the Jewish community, which profess to care for Israel and her well-being, advocate that pressure be applied upon her to make unilateral concessions.”

Although no organizations are named, observers assume the petition is referring to J Street, the two-year-old group that has positioned itself as a left-leaning alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

Rabbi Michael Boyden, a Reform rabbi in Hod HaSharon, said he founded the group in reaction to the coverage of the Gaza flotilla incident and the response it engendered.

“I was appalled not only by the way in which most of the international media covered the story, but also by the fact that some sections of the Jewish community, particularly in North America, seemed to have accepted that version of events and were calling for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip while not demonstrating a realistic understanding of Israel’s security needs,” Boyden wrote in an e-mail exchange with NJJN.

“While much was being written about the harsh lot of the Palestinians of Gaza,” he continued, “the citizens of Sderot had been forgotten and the plight of [kidnapped Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit was simply given a passing nod.”

The mission statement rejects criticism of Israel that does not recognize the Israelis’ right to self-defense and its “real security concerns.”

Much of the statement is directed at Jewish groups it considers one-sided in their criticism of Israel.

“We believe that such advocacy, which results in intransigence and increased demands from the Palestinians, does not advance the cause of peace,” according to the statement. “In discrediting Israel publicly, such organizations not only weaken support for her but also serve the interests of her detractors and enemies.”

Although no organizations are singled out, J Street seems to be on everyone’s mind.

“I will not say I’m opposed to J Street because we have J Street members and leaders at our synagogue, but I find Rabbis for Israel more reflective of my position toward Israel,” said Rabbi Joshua Goldstein of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, one of the signers.

“I have observed over the last few years growing numbers of my colleagues who find it necessary to bash or criticize Israel whenever they want. I think we need to put some limits on that,” said Goldstein. He added, “I don’t believe Israel is without blemishes, but in a world where it is so easy to pile on criticism of Israel, I think it is counterproductive.”

Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains worked on several drafts of the document. “Although, as do many of my colleagues, I agree with many of the ideals of J Street, I do not feel comfortable in how they have presented themselves or that message,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange with NJJN.

“On the other side, I am uncomfortable with the idea that a maximalist Israel must be supported without any dissent. [Rabbis for Israel] says what it believes — in a two-state solution, lays out reasonable expectations of any partners for peace, and asks the critics of the Israeli government to engage in that conversation with the government itself, rather than through and with third parties.”

Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield is a supporter of both Rabbis for Israel and J Street. He does not see any conflict. “Maybe Rabbis for Israel was formed in part as a response to J Street. But I think J Street serves an important purpose in providing an alternate voice for those who support Israel. I think they have made errors recently, overstating Israel’s culpability. But I find both organizations worthy,” he said.

Sagal said he joined Rabbis for Israel in part because of his “strong personal admiration and respect” for Boyden. “My experience has been that when Rabbi Boyden has something to say about supporting the Jewish state, I find it’s worthwhile to listen.”

Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange pointed out that Rabbis for Israel offers a middle ground — one that is often hard to find among Reform rabbis.

“With so much immediate international condemnation of Israel when anything happens, even before the facts are known, the need for public and loud support for Israel that takes a middle road approach is more important than ever,” Cohen said, adding, “We begin from an assumption that we support Israel but are not blindly supportive.”

Rabbis for Israel also urges Muslim and Christian leaders to teach tolerance and Muslim leaders to denounce violent jihad. It urges the international community and media to recognize “that any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will demand that Israel’s very real security concerns be addressed, particularly in the light of the key role played by Iran and Syria in arming and training Israel’s enemies.”

Abraham underscored the increased credibility the document has earned simply by having been drafted in Israel. “This is an organization led by an Israeli rabbi who has invited his colleagues from around the world to join together — rather than each community accusing each other of not understanding what it is like to live in Israel or, conversely, to defend Israel from afar.”

Rabbi Laurence Groffman of Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove applauds the group’s goal of raising the level of discourse over Israel in the media.

“The message that tends to get out is biased,” said Groffman. “The impression you get is that the reason we have a problem in the Middle East is Israel. ‘If only Israel would not do this or would not do that, we’d have no problem.’ It’s not just Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians are the victim. Israel is far more complex than that, and we should look at it as the complex situation that it is.”

Groffman likes the idea that Boyden’s organization is for rabbis of all stripes. “Having a rabbinic organization standing for Israel makes a certain impression,” he said.

Of the 15 in the NJJN catchment areas, however, just two are Conservative and none are Orthodox; the rest are Reform.

Goldstein said that Rabbis for Israel offers “a voice we didn’t hear expressing solidarity for Israel. It’s a model for the rest of the community to emulate.”

So far, Rabbis for Israel is a mission statement with signatories, but Boyden said the group is in the midst of establishing a forum for those with a centrist view, and future plans include disseminating information and developing an advocacy program based on its beliefs.

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