N.J. Jewish community split on embassy move

N.J. Jewish community split on embassy move

When the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14, the reaction across the country, and around the world, was mixed. The same could be said about the range of opinions from local Jewish community members. 

“I am pretty happy about it. It makes the legitimacy of Israel feel more official,” said Danielle Nimrodi of West Orange on Monday as she chatted with friends at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange. “I know it is controversial, but I know it is a positive step toward establishing peace. No matter what, there are going to be problems, because when you have two extreme groups, you are always going to have conflict.”

But several others disagreed with President Donald Trump’s bold decision, which he announced during a press conference in December, after which he signed a proclamation formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  

One person emphatically opposed to the move was Michael Och of Maplewood, widower of Golda Och, a founder of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union which now bears her name. As he walked through the JCC parking garage, Och told NJJN, “I am not pro-Trump. I am not pro-[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. They are playing a game. I don’t know whether they know what they are doing. Of course, this move is going to lead to more tension in the Middle East.”

For Beth Goldsammler of West Orange, May 14 was a “historic day.” Sitting at her desk in the office at Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange, Goldsammler wore her pride on her sleeve, and the rest of her outfit, which was blue and white.

“The Jewish people should be very proud that the capital of Israel is being recognized as such,” she told NJJN, adding that she also supported Trump’s decision last week to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. “Israel has done its part in protecting itself from Iran, and the United States is now doing the same thing and helping its ally.”

Controversy of another kind marred Monday’s unveiling ceremony. The opening prayer was given by Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. Though staunchly pro-Israel, in a 2010 interview Jeffress called both Islam and Mormonism “heresy,” and said, “You can’t be saved being a Jew.” Another pro-Israel Texas preacher, Rev. John C. Hagee, who gave the closing prayer, said in 2006 that the Holocaust occurred “because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.” 

But the eye of this week’s storm was focused on Israel’s border fence with Gaza where Hamas staged violent protests and implored Palestinians to illegally cross into Israel. The Israeli military reported that Palestinians threw explosives and sent burning kites over the fence. Soldiers responded with sniper fire and tear gas, leaving at least 58 Palestinians dead and hundreds, if not thousands more, injured. The violence brought widespread condemnation by international humanitarian organizations, although the Trump administration supported Israel’s right to defend itself and blamed Hamas for the deaths. 

“The Palestinians are always looking for something to fight over,” said Michael Geller of West Orange. “This may be another excuse to have people stand at fences in harm’s way.” 

Regarding the embassy, Geller said, “Jerusalem is the capital of the country and the United States, the Congress, voted to do this and it should be done.” He was referring to the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, a law Congress passed to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and permit the embassy move, but which allowed the president to issue a waiver every six months before the law was applied. Until December 2017, each president has signed the waiver whenever the matter came up. 

Over a plate of scrambled eggs at the JCC snack bar, Arthur Whitehorn of Short Hills voiced his ambivalence. “They have been talking about it for 40 years and the whole thing about moving the embassy to Jerusalem doesn’t matter to me,” he told NJJN. “I don’t know why people think it’s good for the Jews. I don’t think in the foreseeable future there is a possibility of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

Said another man at the snack bar who did not want to be identified, “It feels rushed, despite the very long lead-up to this. It will certainly cause some more problems with the Palestinians. If this had been as part of a coherent plan it might have been helpful, but it wasn’t. 

“I’m very concerned that the point was simply to open the embassy — not to bring the two parties to the table,” he continued. “This might keep them apart even longer.”

N.J. Jewish organizations and politicians were generally supportive of the decision to move the embassy, though some added the proviso that Israel must work toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association of Jewish Federations, told NJJN, “As with all major Jewish organizations we definitely support the move. We have asked for it for a long time and we are fine with it.” Jewish Federation of Greater Metro-West NJ declined to comment.

Three hours after the embassy’s official opening, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) issued a statement saying he favored the move, but that it is “critical that the United States continue to reaffirm unequivocally that a peace process that leads to two states living side by side in peace, security, and prosperity is Israel’s best guarantor for enduring stability and peace.” 

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) could not be reached for comment. 

In a statement, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7) said, “Our embassy belongs in Jerusalem,” while urging the administration to “use this time to reaffirm our strong support for a two-state solution and an end to violence in the region.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Dist. 5) wrote that he has “long believed that the United States ought to recognize that Jerusalem is the capital of our vital ally Israel, and that moving our Embassy there is the right thing to do.”

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