From missiles raining on southern Israel from Gaza, Israel’s countering with Pillar of Defense and its high-tech Iron Dome system, to the halls of the United Nations, where the Palestinians sought – and won – statehood recognition on Nov. 29, the past several weeks have been crammed with news from the Middle East.
Making sense of such fast moving events isn’t always easy. Local rabbis found their – and congregant’s – questions about the situation changed almost as quickly as did events. Whether the ceasefire was the right move? Was President Obama’s response strong enough? Did the statehood declaration mean anything? These were all fodder for sermons, kiddush table speculation and study sessions.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham, who teaches about the Middle East conflict in the Florence Melton Adult Mini School run by the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, tried to distinguish between his fervid support of Israel and his “more mixed feelings” about the United Nation’s decision.
“I don’t see why the Palestinians shouldn’t have their own land, but it was really only a political strategy move to get back into the eyes and ears of the world,” he said of the Palestinian Authority’s move and its timing, just after the Israel-Hamas ceasefire.
“I don’t understand why people are so upset about it. It didn’t change the equation any.”
As for the how the Obama administration stacked up during the conflict and the statehood bid, he saw it as a test the administration passed. Despite fears during the campaign that a reelected Obama would not be the strongest supporter of Israel, he was very supportive during Gaza. Abraham said that “It was important for American Jews to see that.”
Rabbi Daniel Pernick of Beth Am Temple, a Reform congregation in Pearl River, said the administration stood by Israel as America always has. “It’s hard to imagine anyone being stronger than he was in that period.
“People forget. It’s an inconvenient truth that Ronald Reagan did some things and said some things that were not so positive about Israel.”
For Pernick the real issue is less what is happening with Palestine and more what is going on to the east, in Iran.
“The Iranian’s are building and building,” he said of that country’s nuclear aspirations. “I am sure the administration is concerned and the Israelis are, but this next year will be an interesting year, one way or the other. The Iranians will be able to do enormous damage to Israel and others and may just be crazy enough to do it.”
Rabbi David Berkman of the New City Jewish Center saw the Palestinian Authority’s move to declare statehood as “going nowhere.”
“I don’t think it will have any practical implications,” he said. “It’s counterproductive and a thumb in the eye.”
Berkman, who takes about 60 to 70 congregants from the Conservative congregation to the AIPAC policy conference each year, said the move would not result in a Palestinian state or any real change in the status quo. There are few parallels between the Palestinians’ situation now and 1947, when the United Nations created Israel, he said, because “when we asked for partition, it was felt to be in terms of everyone’s interest.” He noted that the request was supported by Great Britain, which occupied the region at the time.
Berkman said that the Obama administration showed a positive sign by coming out forcefully for Israel. The administration has not always been perceived as supportive, he said.
“I felt encouraged by Obama and the United State’s stance on the vote in the United Nations in general, and during Pillar of Defense,” he said of Israel’s tactical response to the recent barrage of Hamas missiles from Gaza. “As far as this administration is concerned, let’s see how it will be with Obama in a second term. But I thought it was encouraging on an initial basis.”
Rabbi Brian Leiken, who took over the pulpit at the Reform congregation, Temple Beth Sholom, in New City this summer, concurred that what the United Nations had done was “a misstep in every way,” but that nonetheless it had to be viewed through the prism of the region’s history and the world body’s role in it. Before he began rabbinical school, Leiken was a legislative assistant for the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“Unfortunately, due to the process and politics that define the U.N., many of the decisions have had a negative effect,” he said. “This decision in particular does not present us with an agreed upon two-sided path, but usurps the ability of the two groups who should be communicating to do so.” As disappointing as it was to see the vote go overwhelmingly in favor of Palestinian statehood, he said, it was satisfying to see America stand staunchly beside its democratic ally in the region. The real decision about how America will stand with Israel will be made by the American Jewish community.
“That’s why ultimately it’s not who is in the office that is most important, but how we are presenting ourselves as a Jewish community to whoever is in office that matters,” he said.