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Paths to Peace

Defying unconditional support for Israel, American Jews call for just peace


On Dec. 4, the sixth night of Chanukah, Steven Feuerstein join-ed some 100 Jews in downtown Chicago to light menorahs to show commitment to a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and opposition to a U.S.-led war on Iraq. Peace Chanukah, the communal menorah lighting, was held in 15 American and European cities last month.

Feuerstein, initiator of Peace Chanukah and founder of the Chicago-based group Not in My Name, is one among a growing number of Jews openly critical of Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. While most mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States continue to urge unconditional support for Israel, dissenting American Jews are running public ads in major newspapers, holding vigils in front of Israeli consulates, sponsoring speaking tours of Israelis critical of the occupation, and forming their own organizations. Their reasons for speaking out differ. Their views on who is to blame for the current crisis differ. But on this they agree: Israel must withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and evacuate the Jewish settlements within those territories.

In this conflict, dissent is costly. Their fiercest opponents are fellow Jews who believe that any criticism of Israel, at this time, is betrayal of a nation under attack. But American Jews advocating a middle path that recognizes the sanctity of both Israeli and Palestinian lives disagree. Jewish well-being, they say, is not best preserved by allegiance to the policies of a state but by affirming the Judaic tradition of social justice and compassion for the other.

“I’m concerned for all people,” said Feuerstein, who has been called a traitor for his open opposition to Israeli policies toward Palestinians. Feuerstein, the author of several books on computer programming and senior technology adviser for Quest Software, launched Not in My Name in November 2000. The organization, which is not exclusively Jewish, began as an informal forum for concerned Jews and is now a national network, with more than 400 members worldwide. Its mission is promotion of a “just, lasting and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Feuerstein said much of the group’s work is educational, with an emphasis on the need for a public Jewish voice for peace. The group’s Web site, with its flashing advertisement of a campaign to rebuild Palestinian homes, provides a substantial, current listing of articles in international newspapers about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as numerous links to Jewish peace groups. It also lists statements of opposition to the occupation, including one from the Central Rabbinical Congress of the U.S.A. and Canada, which represents 150 Orthodox communities. Titled “Why Are We Against the Israeli Government and Its Wars?” the statement was first published in The New York Times Feb. 11, 2001.

“The impression has been created that ultra-Orthodox Jewry, in accordance with traditional Torah belief, are the staunchest supporters of maintaining Israeli sovereignty over the ‘territories’ and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

“In fact, nothing could be further from the truth,” the statement from the Rabbinical Congress declared.

In the name of Judaism

Not in My Name’s more recent projects have included organizing a national speaking tour for the Refusers, members of the Israeli Defense Force who, for reasons of conscience, have refused to serve in the Occupied Territories, and sponsoring an ad campaign in support of the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc).

“We are not an enormous organization but we have grown very quickly,” Feuerstein said. “Many Jews have come to me and said, ‘For years I have been concerned about Israeli policies,’ but they haven’t been able to find an organization where they can speak out as Jews. … We criticize Israel because of, not in spite of, our Jewish values. We follow firmly in the Jewish tradition of ‘Tzedek, tzedek tirdof -- justice, justice shall you pursue.’ This means we also consistently and publicly speak out against the terrible suicide bombings targeted against Israeli civilians.”

Not in My Name is one of many Jewish peace groups that have sprung up in the past two years as a response to the increasing brutality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In January 2002, Tikkun magazine held a conference in New York to stimulate interest in establishing a Tikkun Community. The 15-year-old magazine -- which takes its name from the Hebrew word meaning, “to transform, heal and repair” -- is one of the most prominent Jewish voices for peace in the United States.

The Tikkun Community identified “solidarity” as one of its guiding principles. “For us, the principle has spiritual roots in the Jewish commandment to remember that we are all slaves in Egypt; we believe that we are all harmed by oppression directed at any group or individual,” the statement said.

Between 700 and 800 people attended the conference. According to Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the magazine, the community now has 2,500 members in local chapters throughout the country.

In April of this year, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, launched its founding conference in Washington. The organization, which describes itself as “pro-Israel and anti-occupation,” says it is “deeply committed to Israel’s well-being through the achievement of a negotiated settlement” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Brit Tzedek v’Shalom has more than 800 dues-paying members in 30 states and has opened chapters in 20 cities, according to Donna Spiegelman, president of the board of directors.

In mid-October, the organization arranged a 14-city tour in the United States for the Bereaved Families’ Forum, a group representing 200 Israeli Jewish families and 190 Palestinian families who have lost loved ones as a result of the violence in the Middle East. The families advocate solving the crisis politically and ending the cycle of violence through reconciliation and the cultivation of tolerance.

Brit Tzedek v’Shalom says it is guided by mitzvah, the Jewish obligation to pursue peace and justice. Its members call for an end to the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands, an evacuation of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. They also endorse the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of both states and a just resolution of “the Palestinian refugee problem,” one that “acknowledges Israel’s share of responsibility for the plight of Palestinian refugees while also respecting the special relationship between the state of Israel and the Jewish people.”

So far, 3,649 American Jews have signed on to an open letter to the U.S. government proposing a similar two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Initiated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, the open letter was first published in The New York Times last July and has appeared in four U.S. newspapers, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, and The Jordan Times. Organizers hope to place the ad in other major U.S. dailies and European newspapers.

Signees admitted they differ on who bears the blame for the current impasse, but stressed that the only way out required recognizing the rights and responsibilities of both sides.

“The Israeli and Palestinian peoples have equal rights to a fair share of the land and resources of historical Palestine,” the statement said.

The letter emphasized U.S. responsibility for the crisis by virtue of its massive economic and military support for the Israeli government, which amounts to “$500 per Israeli citizen per year,” and it urged the United States to make aid conditional on Israeli acceptance of an internationally agreed upon two-state settlement.

According to Hilda Silverman, a veteran Jewish peace activist, American Jewish proposals for peace in the Middle East cover a broad spectrum.

“There is a split within the Jewish left between people whose primary message is love of Israel but opposition to the occupation and those who say, ‘This is a hideous crisis. We need to do something right now to stop it,’ ” she said.

Silverman said the latter group is more likely to endorse stopping all aid to Israel until the occupation ends or supporting divestment campaigns on college campuses.

Silverman and Lerner noted that the rise in criticism of the Israeli government has evoked increasingly hostile reactions from many mainstream Jewish organizations, creating a deep division between those who automatically line up behind Israel and those who don’t.

“There has been more and more antagonism towards Tikkun,” Lerner said. “The divisions have been more intense in the past six months than they have ever been. There are more accusations of anti-Semitism.”

Accused of self-loathing

Last February, when members of Boston-based Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine reenacted an Israeli military checkpoint at a major pedestrian crosswalk near Harvard University, a large group from the Harvard Hillel Association, a Jewish student organization, came out to demonstrate against them. The street skit showed an Israeli soldier preventing a Palestinian woman with a sick child from getting to a hospital.

“The idea that we were trying to convey is that there are basic daily tasks that Palestinians can’t achieve,” said organizer Nicole Bindler.

“There was a lot of tension because we were a Jewish group protesting and there was this group defending Israel’s policies toward Palestinians,” she said. “It was very difficult to communicate with them because they felt we were betraying ourselves and were filled with self-loathing.”

In October 2000, when the Israeli Defense Force responded to rock-throwing protesters with lethal force, Feuerstein put a sign in his window that read: “Israel please stop killing Palestinians.” He said the Anti-Defamation League identified the sign on its Web site as “an act of anti-Semitic harassment.” Feuerstein contested the charge, and the accusation was deleted from the group’s Web site and news releases after several days of discussion.

Lerner said he doesn’t believe the silence within the Jewish community indicates unanimity but a fear of speaking out.

But Lee Wunsch, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, said present circumstances in Israel have compelled unanimous support within the Jewish community for Sharon’s government.

“The American Jewish community is far from monolithic,” he said. “But for the last two years Israel has been under attack by the very Palestinian Authority that they thought they had signed the Oslo Accords with almost 10 years ago. Last spring, in particular, following the massacre at the hotel on Passover, I think most American Jews felt Israel’s very existence was threatened.”

Ron Fox, a former attorney and active member of the Jewish community in Boston for the past 35 years, said the norm in his locale has been not to criticize Israel. Those who did were shamed or blamed.

Fox attributes the silence to the tendency in most mainstream Jewish institutions to equate Jewish identity too much with “concern about Israel, support for Israel.”

There are two visions of Judaism, Fox said: The “tribal version,” which looks fearfully at the outside world and says: “ ‘We better do whatever we have to do in order to protect ourselves, because they are out to get us.’ And then there is another form of Judaism that has to do with civil rights, that has to do with social justice, has to do with caring and compassion and human dignity and fairness, and it’s the universalism of Judaism. Judaism was to be a beacon unto the nations.”

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a free-lance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

Paths to Peace -- Jews and Israel: At a glance

While many equate Jewish identity with unconditional support for Israel, a growing number of U.S. Jews have been voicing opposition to Israeli policy toward Palestinians. While they may disagree with the causes of the current crisis, these Jews advocate a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.

Members of such groups as Not In My Name, Tikkun and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) have drawn the fiercest criticism from fellow Jews, who accuse them of betraying their own people. But the activists say their stance is based on the Judaic tradition of social justice and compassion. “We criticize Israel because of, not in spite of, our Jewish values,” said Steven Feuerstein, founder of Not In My Name.

Related Web sites

Bereaved Families’ Forum

Brit Tzedek v’Shalom

Gush Shalom

Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine

Not In My Name

Ometz LeSarev

Peace Chanukah

Refuser Solidarity Network


National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003