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US Jews wrestle with internal rifts exposed by Israel-Gaza fighting

As the IDF and Hamas traded airstrikes and rockets, some questioned support for Jewish state, opening up debate about boundaries of acceptable criticism of Israel

Pro-Israel demonstrators attend a rally denouncing antisemitism and antisemitic attacks, in lower Manhattan, New York on May 23, 2021. (Ed JONES / AFP)
Pro-Israel demonstrators attend a rally denouncing antisemitism and antisemitic attacks, in lower Manhattan, New York on May 23, 2021. (Ed JONES / AFP)

AP — As fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers raged before last week’s cease-fire, US rabbinical student Max Buchdahl wanted to be considerate of those in his community who are emotionally connected to Israel — but he also wanted to support Palestinians.

Buchdahl, 25, joined dozens of rabbinical and cantorial students who signed a letter expressing solidarity with Palestinians and appealing to US Jews, encouraging them to demand change from Israel, which the letter accused of abuses of power.

Pushback came swiftly from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the dean of Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, which trains a new generation of Conservative rabbis, including a small number of the letter’s signatories.

He penned a response saying he admired highlighting the suffering of Palestinians but disapproved of what he saw as a lack of solidarity with Israel and Israeli Jews, as well as silence on their suffering and on the “murderous tyranny” of Hamas — classified by Israel and the US as a terror group.

Both letters were published in the Forward, a media nonprofit targeting a Jewish American audience, part of a larger debate playing out nationwide among many US Jews who are divided over how to respond to the violence and over the disputed boundaries for acceptable criticism of Israeli policies.

“I do see us wrestling with degrees of culpability, degrees of responsibility,” Artson said in an interview with the Associated Press. “The areas of disagreement might be to what degree is Israel alone responsible for the occupation? To what degree is the occupation also the responsibility of Hamas and other regional powers?”

Illustrative: Jewish Voice for Peace members during a July 19, 2014 anti-Israel gathering in Boston. (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

Jonathan D. Sarna, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said American Jews’ perceptions can vary greatly by generation.

Brandeis professor and American Jewish history scholar Jonathan Sarna. (Uriel Heilman)

To many who are old enough to remember the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation and later Arab-Israeli wars, “Israel is fragile, under attack, and its enemies want to destroy it,” Sarna said. “Younger Jews have been more influenced by a kind of David and Goliath narrative: To their mind, Israel has been stronger throughout their life. They are concerned more about what they see as disproportionality.”

In a recently released survey of US Jews by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of respondents said caring about Israel is either an “essential” or “important” part of their Jewish identity. But the poll, conducted well before the latest fighting, also found deep skepticism toward authorities on both sides of the conflict, with just a third saying the Israeli government sincerely seeks peace and just 12% saying that about Palestinian leaders.

A person holds a sign that reads “Abolish Israel” during a pro-Palestinian rally on May 22, 2021 in the Queens borough of New York City. (STEPHANIE KEITH / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

“There is a growing sense of alienation from the rigid, defensive script on Israel that fails to address Palestinian suffering and offer a path to peace,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, co-founder of IKAR, a Jewish community in Los Angeles. The national racial reckoning has fueled an urgency among many US Jews to help realize “a more just and equitable reality for Israelis and Palestinians,” she added.

Rabbi Sharon Brous. (Courtesy of Brous via JTA)

“It breaks my heart that some in our Jewish community seem to believe that it is impossible, or at least unacceptable, to hold compassion, empathy and concern for the well-being of Palestinians along with compassion for our Israeli family,” Brous said.

The conversations sparked by the conflict have unfolded against the backdrop of reports of rising antisemitic incidents since the fighting. Preliminary data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League shows an increase in violent attacks, vandalism and harassment in the US and around the world, as well as online, the group said before the cease-fire took effect.

Jay Ruderman. (Courtesy, Ruderman Family Foundation)

“With antisemitism on the rise … there is an urgency for US Jewry to find a common ground with each other across different denominations and age groups,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropical organization that works in both Israel and the United States.

“It also provides an opportunity for the American Jewish community and Israel to come together in a time when both groups need each other more than ever,” Ruderman added.

Brous said faith leaders should decry hate and affirm to their flocks that criticism of Israeli policies must not spill into antisemitism. At the same time, “criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic,” she said.

Elliot Steinmetz, the men’s basketball coach at the Jewish Orthodox Yeshiva University in New York City, found himself enraged by the reports of antisemitic attacks and mounting criticism of Israel on social media.

On May 12 he posted on social media accusing some people of masking antisemitism behind political arguments. He challenged critics to be honest “instead of hiding behind Arab children,” saying “that’s what the terrorists do.”

Posted by Elliot Steinmetz on Wednesday, May 12, 2021

“What prompted that was seeing some of our politicians — and it ultimately became celebrities and athletes as well — who like to chime in on issues they’re not educated on,” Steinmetz said in an interview.

“All of a sudden there’s attacks against Jewish people, and there’s nobody standing up,” he added. “Nobody.”

Coach Elliot Steinmetz instructs the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team during its historic 2019-20 season. (YU Athletics)

Steinmetz’s defense of Israel is a sentiment shared by former Yeshiva player Simcha Halpert, who moved to Tel Aviv in September to play professional basketball and has woken up several times in the middle of the night to rush to a bomb shelter. He defended Israel and accused Hamas of endangering innocents on both sides. Israel accuses Palestinian militants of causing civilian casualties by launching attacks from residential areas; many of Israel’s critics, meanwhile, accuse it of disproportionate use of force.

Halpert is also concerned about things back home — his father recently told his brothers in Los Angeles to avoid wearing in some areas the skullcap that identifies them as Jewish.

“It’s just a little crazy that we have to be worried,” Halpert said.

Buchdahl, the student who co-signed the letter published by the Forward, stressed that even as he supports solidarity with Palestinians, of course he opposes Hamas rockets being fired at Israeli civilians.

A soldier from the Israeli military’s Home Front Command walks outside a house in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon that had been struck by a Hamas rocket on May 20, 2021. (Edi Israel/FLASH90)

“I want people to see critiques of Israel as critiques of a nation-state,” Buchdahl said. “I want you to understand that I am critiquing policy. I am not critiquing your identity.”

Likewise, Artson, who penned the response, said he grieves innocent Palestinian casualties just as he does rockets that are “intended to create a massacre.”

“My heart has been ripped apart on multiple incompatible jagged edges,” Artson said.

A Palestinian woman walks past a destroyed building in the al-Rimal commercial district in Gaza City on May 22, 2021, following a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

An educator, he ultimately views the episode of the opposing letters as a learning opportunity.

“Two of the people who signed that letter came to my home, celebrated the holiday [of Shavuot] with me,” Artson said. “They hugged coming in, they hugged going out. And we even talked about the letter.”

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