Forward Thinking

New Generation of Rabbis Sees and Speaks Israel

By Mira Sucharov

  • Print
  • Share Share

Breaking the Silence

Despite the concept of the occupation being an oddly contested one in some American political circles of late, there is much to decry about Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank. And while some security-minded observers focus on the need for an IDF military presence to widen Israel’s narrow territorial waistline, and others see the settlement blocs as a likely eventual permanent addition to Israel anyway, many would agree that there is one place where the crimes of the occupation are particularly egregious. Many would cite Hebron, the city which, in these pages, Letty Cottin Pogrebin called a straight-out example of apartheid, as being the eye of the militarized-settler-colonial tiger.

I, too, had been looking forward, in a way that righteously indignant liberal Zionists are wont to do, to a trip to Hebron with the anti-occupation Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence a few summers ago, until our plans were stymied. The military didn’t grant us the required travel permit.

So it was with some anticipation that I arranged to speak to three American rabbinical students who attended the Breaking the Silence tour to Hebron last week under the auspices of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Each one drew an alarming picture of the hardships Palestinians in Hebron face living among Israeli settlers and under IDF rule. “Stark. Shocking. Ghost town. Cages around the (Palestinians’) windows,” were the words they used. Their tour wasn’t whitewashed. Their first stop was the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the notorious murderer of 29 Muslim worshippers 20 years ago.

Yet all three surprised me with the politically nuanced conclusions they drew.

Philip Gibbs is a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary who is working as an Israel fellow with T’ruah this year. He believes it’s important to be “aware of the different human rights issues in Israel.” Bringing Jewish texts to shed light on the topic, as T’ruah director Rabbi Jill Jacobs regularly does, appeals to him.

I asked them what sort of call to action they feel compels them after a trip like this. Each one stressed the importance of talking, of educating, of acknowledging multiple narratives. But beyond seeking to share these multiple narratives, no one came away with a clear political answer. No one was definitive about ending the Hebron occupation and relocating the settlers.

Perhaps their reticence to issue clear proclamations was due to the chill factor we hear so much about lately when it comes to the politics of the pulpit around the subject of Israel. A study conducted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs last year showed that rabbis are hesitant to express views on Israel. And more doves than hawks are fearful of the professional repercussions. These students, of course, are hoping to have the option of landing a pulpit position, and are well aware of the JCPA study. But they downplayed the so-called chill factor. In their seminary training, they are getting tools, they said, to navigate these issues.

So assuming they weren’t holding back (I offered anonymity to one, who declined it, and neither of the other two requested it), what I take away from my limited sample of the next generation of liberal rabbis is that far from being a starkly simple example of the wrongs of occupation, Hebron, because of its ancient Jewish religious significance is precisely — to them — a place of moral complexity.

It would be a mistake to visit Hebron without first reading the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, said Matthew Green, a student at Hebrew Union College. Rachel Gross-Prinz, also at HUC, stressed that “Avraham and Sarah’s connection to this land is part of what compels” her to come to Israel in the first place. “We’re in denial,” she added, “if we say that our connection to [Israel] is also disconnected from” places like the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Perhaps whatever chill factor exists, Rachel reasons, actually stems from holding positions of nuance. “People want clear answers on things. And Hebron is an example of where we might not have a clear answer.”

Anti-occupation activists may see these rabbinical students as moral cowards. Others may understand them as uniting under a very delicate banner: one of empathy and the search for the truth of human experience. It’s a call I often issue personally, in my writing, speaking and teaching. The question arises, though, whether becoming more attuned to the symbols and traditions of one’s own people is somehow myopic and ungenerous. Justice and collective meaning have a way of coexisting uncomfortably sometimes.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: rabbis, West Bank, Palestinian, Israel, Hebron, Breaking the Silence

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.