Despite some tension and deep differences of opinion, participants described a panel discussion at Congregation Beth Israel on Israel and its policies as civil and constructive.
“People were able to express heartfelt emotion in a safe and comfortable environment, and there was a consensus that we’re in this together regardless of our differing opinions,” said panelist Rabbi George Nudell, leader of the Conservative synagogue in Scotch Plains.
About 40 attended the June 9 discussion, at which participants debated — among other issues — the violent confrontation on May 31 on a ship carrying supplies to Gaza in violation of Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled region. Israeli forces killed nine activists in an incident that set off a firestorm of international accusations.
While panelists appeared to share the view that Israel is under unfair fire in the media, some participants said the country doesn’t need the world’s approval but rather needs to do what is in its own best interest. Others countered that it cannot survive without the approval and backing of other countries, and thus needs to communicate its position more effectively.
On the subject of the Gaza blockade the audience was unanimous: All seemed to agree that Israel had the right to intercept the Turkish-backed flotilla, a view panel moderator Conrad Nadell said was backed by lawyer, author, and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. (On June 20 Israel’s Security Cabinet amended the blockade to ease land-based civilian imports to Gaza; the naval blockade remains in place.) There were sharp differences, however, on the broader question of how to deal with Hamas, the Islamist group controlling Gaza.
The event was organized under the auspices of the Israel Support Committee, an organization with members from CBI, Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark, Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, and Temple Emanu-El in Westfield.
The initial suggestion for the discussion came from CBI board of trustees member Daniel Margulies, who said that he thought the community needed more education about Israel.
That landed Margulies a place on the panel, tasked with presenting the right-wing view. The centrist role was assigned to Nudell, and longtime CBI member Phyllis Kuchner took the left-wing position. Moderator Nadell is chair of the support committee.
Kuchner pointed out that the blockade was imposed to pressure Palestinians into overthrowing the Hamas-controlled administration. The policy hasn’t worked, she said; instead, the antagonism aroused against Israel has strengthened Hamas.
Margulies characterized Hamas as a foreign power that won a “fixed” election and then consolidated power by means of a bloody coup. The blockade, he said, was self-defense on Israel’s part, not punishment of the Palestinians.
Nudell said Hamas is in an active state of war against Israel, as stated in its charter, and the only thing Israel can do is add its own spin to the PR story about the region.
Kuchner made the point that there has been slow and steady economic success for Palestinians living on the West Bank, and perhaps that would eventually encourage those in Gaza to throw out Hamas in the hopes of achieving similar progress. Nudell said that as Palestinians in the West Bank have increased their own policing, the Israeli authorities have reduced the number of roadblocks in the territory, long a source of aggravation.
As to what the United States should do, Nadell said among its pressing tasks should be to address the Arabs’ “demonization of Jews” and distortion of history and to reduce American reliance on Arab oil.
After the event, Margulies said the discussion served as a wake-up call. Though there were different points of view, he saw widespread disapproval of the Obama administration’s “naive and misguided” policies toward Israel. “As the world continues to be manipulated by propaganda and lies, we cannot continue to be complacent, especially during this most difficult period in our history,” Margulies said.
CBI member Laura Queller pointed out that Israelis themselves are extremely divided on many issues and debate them fiercely. “However,” she said, “I believe that when we go out into the world, we American Jews need to minimize our differences and voice our support for, and solidarity with, Israel. Because if we don’t do so, who will?”
Nadell said afterward he was pleased at how civil the discussion was and that there was general agreement on a number of issues. “It’s clear to me that Israel is in a propaganda war that it is losing,” he said. “It is crucial that we respond to the media’s biased coverage.”