'We have never felt so anxious in my lifetime as Jews in America'

Top US rabbi says Gaza’s plight, distrust of PM make Israel-support harder for US Jews

Heartfelt comments by Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl of Central Synagogue NYC at a Jewish peoplehood conference trigger criticism amid concerns for inter-communal and bilateral ties

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl speaks during a Hanukkah reception with US President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Dec. 11, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl speaks during a Hanukkah reception with US President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Dec. 11, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

A prominent Reform rabbi from New York said that distrust of Israel’s government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the suffering of civilians in Gaza were making it more difficult for American Jews to support Israel in its war against Hamas, drawing harsh pushback from other American rabbis.

Angela Warnick Buchdahl, the senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, commented on this issue during a conference at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem on Wednesday on Jewish peoplehood. She attended remotely via a live video interview.

Her comments, and her assertion that suffering in Gaza is something “that any human being should be devastated seeing,” prompted sharp-worded disagreement, including from Shmuley Boteach, a well-known Orthodox rabbi, who is an outspoken advocate of Israel. He accused her of committing a “public betrayal of her people.”

By contrast, Rabbi Harold Kravitz, a former president of the Conservative-Masorti Rabbinical Assembly, said Buchdahl’s comments were accurate, and also noted the impact of bias in press coverage of the war, and the harm to Israel’s cause done by the presence of extremists in the Israeli coalition.

Coinciding with friction over the war in the bilateral relations between the United States and Israel, Buchdahl’s remarks and ensuing blowback highlight the polarizing effect that the fighting is having both on the relationship that some American Jews have with Israel, and within their own communities.

During a speakers’ panel at Wednesday’s Heschel Conference in Jerusalem, which focused on Jewish peoplehood and Israel-Diaspora relations in times of war, an interviewer asked Buchdahl: “As the war continues, does your community experience difficulty in supporting Israel?”

Buchdahl replied at length. “I think that it’s been really challenging, as the war continues, to see the continued loss of life in Gaza,” she said, adding that: “Americans are seeing very different news” on Gaza than Israelis.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl (2nd from right) and congregants attend the March for Israel rally, Nov. 14, 2023, on the National Mall in Washington. (Sarah Rosen/Times of Israel)

American Jews, she added, are “seeing the devastation and the loss… of some children and women and innocent lives, as well as, of course, a war that is necessary to defend Israel, but the destruction of entire cities. And it’s been such hunger and desperation that people are stampeding to get food. These are images that any human being should be devastated seeing. And it’s very hard in particular because there is not, I would say, a lot of trust in the current Israeli government.”

She added: “I think that preceded October 7. And I think it’s going to be exacerbated through this war. So when you see the images you’re seeing, there’s not a lot of trust in the current government, and when there’s no clear pathway for what the day after looks like, I think that all of these things make it much, much harder for Jews as the war in America, as the war continues on, to be able to support it. And then, of course, they feel the pressure of the community surrounding us that is calling for ceasefire.”

Buchdahl was among several dozen American rabbis who visited Israel in November on a solidarity trip following the October 7 onslaught by Hamas, in which its terrorists murdered some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted another 253. Her synagogue, whose building was completed in 1872, is one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in continuous use in New York City, and a hub for Jewish education and advocacy attended by some of the local Jewish community’s most influential figures.

Her unease over the war is shared by many liberal American Jews, including by J Street, the dovish lobby group founded in 2007 to challenge the more conservative pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. “The civilian death toll and humanitarian crisis in Gaza that the Netanyahu government’s military operation have caused are unacceptable and out of line with American interests and values,” they wrote in December.

Supporters gather on the National Mall at the March for Israel on November 14, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Progressive rabbis in the US voiced their unease with Israel’s actions fairly early in the course of the war with Hamas. In January, Jay Michaelson, a pundit who defines himself as a non-denominational rabbi and a teacher of meditation in a Theravadan Buddhist lineage, wrote in The Forward that “even the most ardent supporter of Israel must agree that terrible, even unspeakable tragedies have unfolded in Gaza.”

But such criticism has been rare coming from more mainstream rabbis such as Buchdahl, who has made appearances in the Israeli media and has addressed rallies in Israel for the release of the hostages.

File: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach waves a New York Times bearing an advertisement by his organization calling Gigi Hadid and others antisemitic, at the Coast to Coast rally near the World Trade Center on May 23, 2021, in New York City. (Courtesy: Alexi Rosenfeld)

Boteach, the author of 31 books, who some consider America’s first celebrity rabbi, said many American Jews disagree with Buchdahl’s sentiments.

“Rabbi Angela Buchdahl,” Boteach told The Times of Israel, “seems to be suffering from moral confusion about Israel and Hamas, so allow me to enlighten her.” Hamas terrorists, whom Boteach called “Nazis with Go-Pros,” are responsible for the death of Palestinian children, he said. Israel, he added, “has done everything to minimize the suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters living under the Hamas death cult.”

Boteach advised Buchdahl to “do some serious soul-searching, easily afforded to her in the comfort of her Manhattan apartment, about her public betrayal of her people, as my two sons in the IDF, as well as hundreds of thousands of other young Jewish men and women, bear the brunt of this conflict to ensure that Jewish life, after two millennia, finally has protection and value. Sometimes rabbis should think before they talk.”

Abraham Cooper, another Orthodox rabbi and the director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center advocacy group, also disputed Buchdahl’s observations.

The “continuing sense of solidarity among Israelis to eliminate Hamas,” he said, “continues to bring American Jews together in support for Israel,” along with the sense of trauma over the October 7 onslaught, he told The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, center, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, speaks in front of civic and faith leaders outside City Hall, May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Images of Palestinians suffering in Gaza, which Cooper said the media increasingly blames on Israel, “dominates media coverage [and] impacts Jews because ours is a culture of life. But the bottom line is that for the vast majority of American Jews, our pre-October 7 bubbles were burst and the grim solidarity with Israel’s existential struggle to survive continues.”

Rabbi Kravitz, a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional association of Conservative-Masorti rabbis, said that, “While Rabbi Buchdahl accurately describes how many American Jews are feeling, it is important to note the other reactions of American Jews to the continuing conflict.”

Kravitz told The Times of Israel that he would add to Buchdahl’s remarks that “Great harm is done to Israel’s cause by the inclusion in Israel’s present governing coalition of extremists, whose hate-filled positions reflect poorly on Israel and on the Jewish people.”

At the same time, he said, “Many of our people are shocked by the bias we see in coverage by the press and the rhetoric of politicians about what is happening in Gaza. Much of the world discounts both the atrocities that occurred on October 7 and the fact that some 130 people are still being held hostage.”

The growth of antisemitism in the US following the outbreak of war means that “we have never felt quite so anxious and vulnerable in my lifetime as Jews in America,” Buchdahl also said at the conference. American Jews were shocked by how “people we thought of as allies or moral leaders were silent in the face of what was so clearly a horrific terrorist attack” on October 7, she added.

According to unverified Hamas health ministry figures, some 32,000 people have been killed as a result of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, which the United Nations says faces “imminent famine.” The data don’t distinguish between civilians and gunmen from Hamas and other Gaza terror groups, of whom Israel says it has killed at least 13,000.

Children carry bags of flour after humanitarian aid was distributed in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)

The war, which has spilled into a presidential election year in the US, is straining that country’s bilateral relations with Israel. US President Joe Biden, who pledged support for Israel’s war on Hamas and sent hundreds of tons of military equipment to Israel, is reportedly blocking an Israeli invasion into the Hamas stronghold of Rafah and pressuring Israel to alleviate the suffering of civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish, said in a highly unusual speech that “the Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7” and that “a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, talks with reporters to discuss efforts to pass the final set of spending bills to avoid a partial government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, DC, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Netanyahu called Schumer’s comments “wholly inappropriate” and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said it was “grotesque and hypocritical for Americans who hyperventilate about foreign interference in our own democracy to call for the removal of a democratically elected leader of Israel.”

Asked about Schumer’s speech, Biden said it was “a good speech.”

Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump said in an interview aired on Monday that, “any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion, they hate everything about Israel and they should be ashamed of themselves.” This drew condemnations from multiple nonpartisan Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee, which called Trump’s remarks “appalling, divisive and dangerous.”

Gur Alroey, right, and Yossi Beilin attend a conference on Jewish peoplehood in Jerusalem on March 20, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The situation in Gaza is also complicating the interactions of American and Israeli Jews, Gur Alroey, the incoming Rector of the University of Haifa, said at the conference.

Recently, Alroey hosted at the university Samuel Norich, the president of the Jewish-American newspaper The Forward. Norich speaks to the university’s students annually. But on his last visit, “there was a total disconnect between Sam on the one hand, and the students and me on the other.” Norich raised with his Israeli hosts “the deaths, the famine” in Gaza, Elroey said, “but we were not open to it. We are still grieving the October 7 pogrom. For the first time in over a decade of hosting him, we didn’t have a dialogue.”

Other speakers at the conference included former justice minister Yossi Beilin and Yifat Selah, a head of the Emunah Orthodox feminist group.

Yizhar Hess welcomes participants of a conference on Jewish peoplehood in Jerusalem on March 20, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Yizhar Hess, the vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, recommended viewing the disconnects and friction in the broader context of the dynamic and overall positive history of relations between Israel, the US and its Jews.

American Jews “dictated terms” to Israelis in the early years of Israel’s existence and Israeli Jews are trying to do the same now when the balance of power has changed in their favor, he suggested.

But, noting the mobilization by the US and its Jews for Israel throughout the current war and in previous conflicts, he said: “None of this would’ve happened without a robust thread that connects American Jewry, the largest in the Diaspora, to the nation-state of the Jewish People.”

Most Popular
read more: