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New Generation of Rabbis Sees and Speaks Israel

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.

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