Split Sentiments: American Jewish Reaction
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JIM LEHRER: American Jewish reaction to Middle East events. On Capitol Hill today, thousands of American Jews rallied in support of Israel. There have been similar demonstrations elsewhere, but Jewish opinion is split, as Spencer Michels reports from San Francisco.
SPENCER MICHELS: While most members of the nation’s fastest-growing Jewish community, in the San Francisco Bay Area, express support for Israel, some hold sharply divergent views on the violence in the Mid-East. At temple Sherith Israel, Rabbi Martin Weiner calls the differences “tremendous.”
RABBI MARTIN WEINER, Temple Sherith Israel: There are folks on one side who would say the Israelis are all wrong, and they totally support the Palestinians. There are some folks on the other side who would say that the Palestinians will never make peace; not a drop, not an inch of land should ever be given up.
SPENCER MICHELS: Weiner, who heads the National Group of Reformed Rabbis, says in San Francisco and elsewhere, most Jews, like him, are in the middle: Desirous of peace, horrified by the suicide bombings, and reluctantly supportive of Israeli military action. Today, of the six million Jews in America, about a million live in California– 300,000 in the Bay area– with new immigrants and high-tech workers arriving constantly. Now, with Palestinian suicide bombers attacking Jews in Israel, and Israeli defense forces attacking Palestinian towns, American Jews like Rabbi Weiner are speaking out, and in some cases, reassessing their positions.
RABBI MARTIN WEINER: I was meeting with Palestinian leaders here in the San Francisco community when it wasn’t fashionable, when people almost called us traitors for doing so. I was always opposed to the settlements. I supported a Palestinian state.
SPENCER MICHELS: In the past, Weiner would have opposed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who encouraged the Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian land. Now Weiner is a supporter.
RABBI MARTIN WEINER: The turning point for me was frankly the summer of 2000, when Prime Minister Barak offered the Palestinians a Palestinian state. It was an incredibly generous offer, and then they rejected it — and not only rejected it, but began this campaign of terror, bloodshed, that has lasted now 19 months.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some Jewish groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace, vocally oppose Israel’s military policies. While a distinct minority in the larger Jewish community, the peace groups have prominently joined Palestinian activists in anti-Israeli demonstrations. Mitchell Plitnick, a leader of the group, wants the U.S. Government to pressure Israel to withdraw from former Palestinian territory.
MITCHELL PLITNICK, Jewish Voice for Peace: By ending the occupation, we start moving towards peace. And I think that just by ending the occupation, right away… right away we will see a sharp decline in the loss of Israeli lives, as well as Palestinian.
SPENCER MICHELS: He resents what he considers efforts by the organized Jewish community to present a united front.
MITCHELL PLITNICK: As a child, I was raised orthodox. Now I am not, but I have always been very Jewish, and I think that this has taught me to always question. And I very much resist being told that just because Israel does it means that I have to agree with it. Rather, my goal is to promote peace in the region.
SPENCER MICHELS: Adam Gutride, another member of Jewish Voice for Peace, is a San Francisco attorney who has marched side by side with angry Palestinians.
ADAM GUTRIDE, Jewish Voice for Peace: And I share that anger. As a Jew, I am extremely distressed at what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people.
SPENCER MICHELS: At the American Jewish Committee, executive director Ernest Weiner deplores what leftist Jewish groups are doing.
ERNEST WEINER, American Jewish Committee: It’s easy for those people to sit on the sidelines in a smug and self-righteous way and denounce particular acts or particular people in Israel. It’s also easy for someone to view them as simply misguided, but many of them are not. Many of them are absolute ideologues, mostly from the left, who have decided that Israel, in this condition of a strong democracy, is not the Israel that they want.
SPENCER MICHELS: Such sentiments disturb those like Marcia Freedman. American-born, she’s a former member of the Israeli Knesset, and a leader of Women in Black, a Jewish feminist peace group.
MARCIA FREEDMAN, Women in Black: It’s important to understand that this Israeli government is the most extreme government that Israel has ever had. It’s the most right-wing government that Israel has ever had. Its declared policy is to dismantle no settlements whatsoever and to hold on to as much territory in the West Bank and in Gaza as possible. That is not going to lead us to a peaceful negotiation settlement with the Palestinians.
SPENCER MICHELS: Ernest Weiner says Israel must take military action or be destroyed, which, he says, the leftists don’t understand.
ERNEST WEINER: My simple judgment on these people is that many of them have no sense of the crushing determination of many in the Arab world that Israel must be destroyed. You have offensive tactics being used by the military of Israel in order to root out and extricate, if they can do it, those terrorist networks where these people have said point-blank they will not make peace with Israel; they’re looking forward to its destruction.
SPENCER MICHELS: A handful of students at the University of California at Berkeley support that point of view to the extent that they have announced publicly they intend to join the Israeli defense forces, or IDF. Oren Lazar is a senior, with relatives in Israel; Chris Silver, a freshman. Both are from Los Angeles.
OREN LAZAR: I’m planning, after graduation, to go join the IDF and spend some time in Israel, supporting my family and trying to defend the citizens of Israel against the terrorism that they are now facing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Are you an American citizen?
OREN LAZAR: I’m an American citizen, yes.
SPENCER MICHELS: So you’re going to go to Israel and fight for Israel.
OREN LAZAR: Absolutely. But I feel that fighting for Israel is also protecting American interests abroad. We’re really fighting a very similar war against very similar enemies.
CHRIS SILVER: I want to become a citizen of Israel. I want to move there. I feel it’s the… the only place where a Jew can really be a Jew. And if I have to join the army, then I’ll join the army.
SPENCER MICHELS: The presence of activist Jews of various stripes, plus a large number of Palestinians and supporters, has brought tension to the campus, and several arrests. The specter of Palestinian groups demonstrating in the Bay area, and of Jewish peace groups joining them in blocking streets and agitating, brought a reaction from the organized Jewish community. In just a day, they put together this counter-demonstration at the Israeli consulate.
Jewish historians say San Francisco once had a strong anti-Zionist movement within the Jewish community. But these days, support for Israel is exceptionally strong. Jews filled up one side of the main street in San Francisco’s financial district, while police directed Palestinians and their supporters to the other side. The Jewish Community Relations Council, which represents 80 Jewish groups, sent out e-mail messages to thousands of Jews affiliated with various organizations.
YIZACK SANTIS, Jewish Community Relations Council: Because the other side, you know, they’re having this rally. They are claiming that they’re for peace, but they support terrorism. They say nothing against the Passover massacre, other massacres against Israelis. And this voice, our voice, needs to be heard. This is the grassroots of the Jewish community.
SPENCER MICHELS: Marcia Freedman says her concern is that such support for Sharon from mainline Jewish groups does nothing to curb the cycle of violence.
MARCIA FREEDMAN: The major organizations, the federations, they have always seen their role vis-à-vis Israel as supporting the government in power. When it was the Rabin government, they supported the Rabin government. When it was the Netanyahu government, they supported the Netanyahu government. We cannot blindly support Israel by supporting its government. We Jews don’t need to be monolithic in our support for Israel and our love for Israel.
SPENCER MICHELS: Jews have always prided themselves on their differences and their proclivity to disagree. Now, while they argue over the Middle East, all factions publicly espouse peace, and all claim to support Israel, if not its government.