Before me on my desk is a powerful document, a letter to American Jewish leaders calling on them to recognize the suffering that Israel has caused the Palestinians during its 35-year occupation of the West Bank. But the body of the letter is not as powerful as its second page, which is filled with the names of 108 rabbinical students. The letter represents a challenge to mainstream Jewish opinion on the Middle East from the very heart of the community, from the young people training to be rabbis. It is more of an act than a statement, and a brave act at that, which has gone unreported outside the Jewish press.
How did this happen?
In early April, leading Jewish organizations announced a rally to be held at the Capitol on Monday, April 15, to express solidarity with Israel. The many yeshivas and seminaries in New York City promptly canceled classes for that day, and told their students they were hiring buses to leave New York for Washington early Monday morning. At the Jewish Theological Seminary of America on Broadway at 122nd Street, an Israeli flag was hung in the airy entryway, and the Conservative academy’s chancellor sent out an e-mail saying it was important for students to support Israel’s war against terrorism.
For at least a handful of students, these announcements caused inner turmoil.
The rally’s message was obvious: America is with Israel, no matter what. But these students-most of them involved in social-justice issues-had more nuanced views. Love of Israel, yes; anger over suicide bombings, yes; but also sympathy for Palestinian suffering, and a belief that the Israeli occupation has damaged Israel’s morale and security.
“I had a good sense that I wouldn’t support the things being said,” said Jill Jacobs, a J.T.S. student. “That meant there wouldn’t be a place for me in the American Jewish world-which is kind of a crazy thing to say when you’re a year away from being a rabbi, and therefore a leader of that world.”
Orthodox rabbinical student Aaron Levy, 26, said he experienced a crisis of belonging.
“I resolved not to go at first,” he said. “My views on this matter have developed over a number of years and through my religious learning. I was feeling marginalized by the Jewish community that created this rally, because of what I think is a misperception that the rally was representing the entire Jewish community. But I also worried about the perception that by not participating, I would not be part of the Jewish people …. “
At first on street corners and in lunch rooms, later in their apartments, these students sought one another out, realized they were not alone, and began a discussion-often accompanied by religious texts-about whether to participate in the rally.
They felt that their religious instruction ran counter to the clear American Jewish communal position, which has tended to regard the Palestinians collectively as terrorists. Many of the students had lived in Israel (American rabbinical students are generally required to do so for at least a year) and knew that Israel tolerates a wider range of views on policy than the American Jewish community.
“It’s much easier in Israel to offer a critique, and people don’t see you as being outside the pale,” said Scott Slarskey, a student at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles who is in New York this year. “We thought to show that Jewish opinion is not monolithic.”
The students made a plan: They would ride their schools’ buses to the rally and gather there as an independent bloc, so that they wouldn’t dissolve into the sea of unquestioning support. They would hold signs saying, “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace.” Or, “Israel-Yes, Occupation-No.”
They would hand out a flyer that began, “We worry about the safety and well being of our friends and family in Israel,” but went on to say, “The occupation is crippling us morally and spiritually,” and that Israel must be held accountable for the widespread detention and killing of Palestinian civilians and “destroying the infrastructure of Palestinian society.”
There were no sticks allowed at the rally, so they would use strings to stretch out a bed sheet announcing a new organization: Rabbinical Students for a Just Peace.
The April 15 rally was huge, an estimated 100,000 people on the Capitol lawn. Many American politicians appeared, including Governor George Pataki and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, and offered unconditional support for the Israeli government. The rally is now famous for a moment of intolerance: When Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is hawkish, said that Americans must acknowledge the Palestinians’ suffering, he was jeered and booed.
“I wasn’t prepared for the level of hate that I saw, and the level of inflammatory rhetoric,” said Jill Jacobs. “I saw a 10-year-old with a sign saying ‘The Koran Preaches Murder.'”
The rabbinical students’ signs drew fury from the other people at the rally. Some tried to talk to them, but not many.
“The right-wing lunatics were drawn to us, like moths to a fire, with signs saying ‘God Gave the Whole Land to the Jews. Read It in the Torah,'” said Brent Spodek, 26. “The scripted screaming ensued. They yelled at us; we sang songs.”
The rabbinical students were called Nazis and told that they were not Jews. They were shoved, screamed at and physically threatened.
Shoshanah Wolf, an organizer of the group from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, was asked by a man in his 80’s with a European accent whether she really believed the other side was capable of honoring a just peace. Yes, she said, she really did. The man said she was naïve and wrong and a traitor, and shouted at her over and over, “You ugly bitch!” Ms. Wolf (who, by the way, is very pretty) felt that it was her duty as a young woman with an elder to hear him out. Also, she sensed that he was a Holocaust survivor.
Aaron Levy and two other students were separated from the bloc and raised their signs where they stood. They were soon surrounded by a swirling mob.
“Our signs were ripped out of our hands and stomped on,” Mr. Levy said. “We were shoved; we didn’t shove back. Finally, the police came over and broke things up.”
Melissa Weintraub, 26, also had a frightening experience. At the edge of the rally, she saw a reporter with a video camera taping someone. He was Ben de la Cruz of washingtonpost.com, and Ms. Weintraub approached him when he was done.
“Would you like another view?” she asked.
The question of who speaks for the American Jewish community is a sensitive political issue. Jews are a very small minority in America. They are also very influential. Indeed, the Democratic Party is dependent on Jewish support, and party leaders have shown almost zero independence of Israeli policy. To wield such political influence, it has seemed a requirement-as it is for all special interests-that the group speaks with one voice. It may be O.K. for opinion to be diverse in Israel, but here, where it’s felt that American support is essential to preserving the Jewish state, diversity strikes some as a betrayal.
So when a young man in the crowd overheard what Ms. Weintraub was saying to Mr. de la Cruz, he rushed up to the reporter and said, “Don’t interview her-she doesn’t represent the views of this rally.”
“I found myself surrounded by a crowd,” Ms. Weintraub recounted. “They were chanting ‘Nazi!’, ‘She’s an enemy of the Jewish people!’, ‘She’s not a real Jew!’ Or ‘Adam Shapiro!'” (a reference to the Brooklyn youth who joined Yasir Arafat under siege in his compound).
Ms. Weintraub, who has lived in Israel for three years, tried to respond, and was overwhelmed.
“Palestinians are human beings who want the same things that you do!” she said. “They want jobs and safety for their families and the freedom to visit their friends!”
“They strap themselves with bombs!” a man responded, and that chant was taken up: They Strap Themselves With Bombs!
Ms. Weintraub said she felt physically threatened. Then one of the men surrounding her recognized the dynamics of the confrontation-which was being taped, after all-and said, “We’re empowering her.” And the group backed away.
For the rabbinical students, that was the revelation of the rally. Rather than being intimidated by displays of right-wing solidarity, they felt galvanized. They came back to New York with a strong sense that they had done the right thing, and that they have a voice in their community. There had been 50 rabbinical students at the Washington rally. Ten days later, they sent off their letter calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and a recognition of Palestinian suffering, to the heads of Jewish organizations, and it was signed by 108 people. That list includes a quarter of the rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary (though none from the Orthodox Yeshiva University).
They have made links with other Jewish students, cantorial and educational students, who share their views. And while they have been covered chiefly in the Jewish press (I read about them in The Jewish Week ), they are hoping to do teach-ins and speeches for general audiences, to show America a different part of the Jewish character.
What is that character? It is youthful and spiritually guided.
These are devout students who pause when they’re talking to say a silent prayer before they take a bite of toast. They are trying to talk about Israel in a way that doesn’t separate “religious imperative from the state’s needs,” as Brent Spodek said.
That religious imperative is that man is made in the image of God.
“If you say someone’s not human and isn’t created in the image of God, then you’re denying your own humanity,” said Jill Jacobs. “Judaism is a very human-centered religion. Human beings really matter. God is not confined to the synagogue and ritual. Every moment is significant. Jews have a blessing when they drink a cup of coffee, and when they go to the bathroom. It’s not just some physiological need for caffeine-it’s an important moment of connection to God.”
Shoshana Wolf pointed out that tzedakah , the Jewish imperative to perform charity, has its roots in the Hebrew word for “justice.”
The other thing that’s important is that the rabbinical students are young. They were born after the ’67 war, when the Arab states tried to crush Israel.
“I was born in 1975,” said Ms. Jacobs. “For us, we’ve always known Israel to be a stable, strong nation that has the strongest army in the region. We haven’t grown up with that fear that Israel is going to go away.”
And of course, they were born long after the Holocaust. When people bring up the Holocaust in the context of current events, the rabbinical students tend to differ.
“I don’t trust the Palestinians. If we could trust them, they would be our friends,” said Mr. Spodek. “But if we only define ourselves by our enemies and our oppressors, it’s as if we never left Egypt: ‘We’re the Jews-we were oppressed by the Pharaohs, by the Cossacks, the Inquisition and Hitler, and now we’re being oppressed by Arafat.’ To frame it in that way, it’s just to keep us in a slave mentality, which we say we got out of every year at Passover. We need to think of ourselves in a positive framework and the idea of what we’re about, our responsibilities and our duties.”
Melissa Weintraub went further.
“My generation had a Holocaust-saturated education,” she said. “But that’s not the position we’re occupying anymore, and it’s important not to project our experiences of real persecution in the past onto a present in which we have the power to create a better situation. It’s important now to understand people’s fears. But I don’t see us as besieged right now; I see that the balance of power is in our favor.”
These students have done a bold power move. They have asserted that there is an important place for their views among American Jews. They have thereby given comfort to many Jews who have felt that it’s wrong to voice such concerns. The revolution in their statements is the belief that Israel’s existence will not be threatened if Jews in America criticize the Israeli government, if they try and change the discourse of Israel’s principal ally. The Democratic Party does not have to be a sidecar of the Sharon government.
The students have not confused history and experience; they have valorized their own experience as young American Jews who have visited Israel.
“Our not being there [in Israel] allows us perspective,” Mr. Wolf said. “Part of our responsibility as Diaspora Jews is to have perspective.”
In doing this, they have acted inside their community as true leaders, brave and visionary. Sometimes that is the position of youth: to show elders that their thinking is encrusted and false to reality. Look at the student movement during the Vietnam War.
The rabbinical students like to think that they are part of a movement. And generally, they are hopeful. When the ruckus in front of the washingtonpost.com reporter ended, Melissa Weintraub walked away, only to be chased by the young man who had angrily initiated the confrontation. He told her that he was a member of an Orthodox yeshiva in New Jersey-a strain of orthodoxy that doesn’t recognize women as rabbis.
“Then he said to me, in the sweetest voice: ‘You’re becoming a rabbi; I’m becoming a rabbi, too,'” Ms. Weintraub recalls. “‘I really disagree with you, but I hope we’re going to be able to talk again.'”