This is an open letter from Jewish seminary students to their fellow students who have been publicly critical of Israel during the latest conflict. On May 13, the Forward published a letter signed by scores of rabbinic and cantorial students criticizing Israel for its response in the recent Gaza conflict. Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University in Los Angeles, wrote a response, also published in the Forward. Below, students at Ziegler and other schools respond as well.
To our classmates,
We read the letter written and signed by dozens of you. While we were disappointed in the tone and content of your statement, we did not want to respond when our friends and relatives in Israel were rushing to saferooms to escape Hamas rockets. We believed then, and still believe now, that the best way to support Israel is not by attacking her in the press, but by ensuring Israel has support in Congress, helping Israel receive the aid she needs to keep her safe.
We were surprised by how one-sided your statement was, and how much was omitted. The sheer volume of colleagues on the letter made us reticent to speak up, but we know that any conversation about Israel deserves nuance and dialogue and that to remain silent is to leave the impression to the Jewish community that you speak for all of us—which you don’t.
Yes, we too mourn the innocent lives lost- both Israeli and Palestinian. But there is no moral equivalence between the two sides. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, a vibrant Western democracy, with all the messiness that entails. In fact, prior to Hamas’ onslaught of missiles, Israel was very close to establishing a new coalition, one that would have included an Islamist-Israeli political party in the majority for the first time in history. There is plenty of ideological variation among the more than 30 political parties that participated in the last Israeli election.
On the other hand, Hamas is a theocratic, Iranian-backed designated terrorist organization that intentionally targets civilians. Instead of focusing on building a strong economy, developing the human capital of Gazans, and investing in infrastructure, Hamas continues to invest in rockets, tunnels and other weapons, with the aim of eviscerating Israel and all her inhabitants.
Yes, more lives were lost in Gaza than in Israel. But the situation between Israelis and Palestinians is more complicated than a death toll, a land dispute, or who incited violence on the Temple Mount first. Power, a word you used to criticize Israel, implies that Israel acted offensively, and with malicious intent.
As a Jewish state, Israel strives to save every life, because it is, “as if [she] has saved the entire world” (Sanhedrin 37a). In fact, Israel employed numerous strategies to minimize innocent, civilian casualties, as it defended its right to exist—- both to Hamas, and its funder, Iran, whom you failed to mention. As Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman succinctly put it, “Power used in self-defense is of moral value, while as an instrument of aggression, a force for evil.”
As rabbinical students who support other liberal causes, we were especially troubled by the equation of Israel and Hamas. Comparing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the “racial reckoning” in American Jewish communities is like comparing apples and oranges.
Each of us participated in the Leffell Israel Fellowship. We traveled to Israel together, along with rabbinic students from five different seminaries across the denominational spectrum. We met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Over the course of a week, we engaged in challenging conversations with countless leaders. We traveled to Jericho to hear from Saeb Erekat, then-Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the PLO; we heard the Chief Foreign Envoy of the Yesha Council, Oded Revivi, debate the former Director of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer; we met with Israeli Arabs, members of Knesset, leading thinkers, and dozens of others.
As classmates and future colleagues, we are heartbroken that we are engaging in conversation about Israel through the press. We invite you to join us, and others in the Leffell Israel Fellowship, in cross-denominational, nuanced conversations. Please, sit with us as we listen, and join us as we process, disagree, and work to be rabbis who recognize that more than anything, these situations deserve introspective learning and dialogue, and above all, the recognition that our voices and our words hold a privileged place in the American Jewish discourse — a privilege we need to use and guard carefully.
Elana Rabishaw - Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles Madeline R. Anderson - Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati Benjamin Dyme - Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion Shanee Banafshe Michaelson - Ziegler College of Rabbinical Studies