Dec 31, 2008

J: Local Jews defend, criticize Israel

J: Local Jews defend, criticize Israel

by dan pine, staff writer

Friday January 2, 2009

Lying awake in a Bedouin tent somewhere in the Negev, Daniel Feder could hear the faint rumble of bombs echoing across the desert night. Not far away, Israel was waging war against Hamas.

"We were out of the range of any rocket fire," the rabbi of Burlingame's Peninsula Temple Sholom said Dec. 30 by phone from Israel, during a weeklong congregational mission. "But we have a clearer sense not only of the restraint Israel has shown since 2006, but the importance of Israel responding with strength. If Israel loses its deterrence, Israel and its citizens will be more vulnerable."

Feder's view is one along a broad spectrum of local reaction to Israel's sudden assault on Hamas. Like other Bay Area Jews contacted by j., he supports Israel in its struggle with an implacable foe. But he also feels the sting of civilian casualties resulting from the campaign.

"Whenever human life is lost or threatened, everybody has tremendous empathy," Feder added. "But I have great concern for the Israelis citizens of Sderot as well. They bleed, too."

Mervyn Danker, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Northern California chapter, echoed the sentiment.

"The collateral damage is regrettable, to say the least," Danker said. "Of the casualties, 80 percent were Hamas terrorists. When Israel kills innocent civilians, it's by accident. When Hamas fires rockets, they kill innocents by design."

Danker blamed Hamas for sparking the Israeli action, citing the Gaza-based terror group's multiple cease-fire violations. "You can turn the cheek only so many times," he said. "The Palestinian Authority tried to persuade [Hamas] to renew the truce. They refused, and the outcome was a salvo of literally hundreds of rockets being fired into Israel. No sovereign state can allow that."

Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El in Aptos recently returned from a trip to Israel sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights. She visited residents of Sderot victimized by relentless rocket fire from Gaza, and West Bank Palestinians chafing under Israeli occupation. She is heartsick over the latest violence.

"Escalating violence is never a solution to an ongoing conflict," Marcus said. "The work that needed to be done during the cease-fire wasn't being done to reach consensus. This should have been avoided earlier on. Here we are trapped in the same old spiral of violence."

Marcus says her congregants have been talking about Gaza all week, and that she has heard a variety of views. "It's so emotional because all of us have friends and family there. When I hear people say 'my nephew has been called up to the [Israel Defense Forces],' I feel this connection and a great sense of sadness. Even though things have escalated, we still have to support the people there working for peace."

Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley's Netivot Shalom channeled his feelings about the Gaza war into letters to the editor at major national newspapers. He wanted to make sure that among the media condemnations of Israel, a pro-Israel voice was heard.

"Sympathy for Israel when it is forced to act lasts only so long," Creditor told j. "[Israel's] retaliatory acts are awful, but they are necessary. Other tactics have not worked. There's no question that war is an awful alternative, but this strategy seems to be affecting Hamas more directly."

Like Marcus, Creditor has heard from congregants about Gaza, but he said there wasn't much disagreement about Israel's justification for war. "Many people feel the way I do," he said. "Violence is ugly. Peace, dialogue and diplomacy are the preference. But we've come to a crossroads with Hamas, which doesn't even recognize the legitimacy of the other party."

To the claim that Israel caused excessive civilian casualties, Creditor cites New York Times and CNN reports that before the Israeli action, thousands of cell phone calls were made to Gaza warning civilians to avoid military sites.

Feder, in Israel, took note of the same, saying, "I'm extremely proud of Israel and the moral bearing that its military has. Neither its military nor its people are perfect, but Israel holds itself to an extraordinarily high standard."

That's not enough to satisfy Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. He is troubled by Israel's military strategy in Gaza and worried it will backfire.

"My major worry is for the people of Israel," he said. "I have relatives in Israel. My son is in Israel right now. This is a scary time and I understand people's fear. My problem is I don't believe [the Gaza strikes] are going to affectively address that fear. I'm also deeply afraid that this might represent the tipping point and that it may cut off the possibility of a two-state solution."

While calling Hamas' rocket fire into Israel a war crime, Cooper also believes Israel should have negotiated with Hamas despite its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist. "At Kehilla, we were advocating direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO as early as 1985 when the same arguments were being made."

Cooper was quick to add: "The one thing we're all united on is a prayer for peace and security for the Israeli people. Our disagreements are strategic."

The AJC's Danker gives the moral high ground to Israel, noting that Hamas uses "civilians as a defensive shield. Over about a year, [Israel] had done a survey of exactly where these [Hamas] infrastructures were located. The bombing was close to pinpoint in almost every instance, which is quite remarkable. The idea is never to harm the civilians."

Even with late calls for a general cease-fire, voices within the Israeli government suggest the Gaza operation is likely to continue. That means the anguish over Israel's strategy and its results will also continue.

To address that anguish, at Temple Beth El's morning minyan Dec. 30, Marcus asked those gathered for a moment of silence to "hold all the people who died in our hearts." She went on to note the linguistic connection between the Hebrew word "dam," meaning "blood," and the Hebrew word "d'mama," which means "silence."

"In the face of bloodshed," she said, "there's a way in which only silence is the appropriate response."