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Southland Jews Debate Criticism of Israeli Policies

A petition by leading rabbis and scholars cites growing intolerance of dissidence in U.S. Jewish community. Others say the times demand unity.

November 23, 2002|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

A group of prominent Jewish intellectuals in Southern California is urging the American Jewish community to "reopen the channels of free debate," asserting that the prolonged Mideast crisis has created growing intolerance here for criticism of the Israeli government or compassion for the Palestinian people.

"In the name of unity in the time of crisis, the great Jewish tradition of vibrant and open debate has given way to a single voice," read a statement signed by 37 mostly liberal scholars, rabbis and other prominent figures published this week in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. The statement urged Jews to "recover the principles of tolerance, responsibility, and empathy that animate the Jewish political tradition."

Several community leaders who did not join the statement challenged the assertion that liberal views are being quashed. According to John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, his organization has featured speakers across the political spectrum, including former Israeli Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu on the right and, just six weeks ago, Ehud Barak on the left.

Others sympathetic to the statement's content questioned its timing. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom congregation in Encino, for instance, said he declined an invitation to sign the statement because he believed Israel should not be criticized during this time of great duress. He called for a "moratorium" on criticism until the crisis eases.

Others went further, calling the statement harmful to Israel. "Their intentions may be noble, but the result is that they're giving strength and support to forces whose true intent is the destruction of the state of Israel," said Rabbi David Eliezrie, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County.

But David N. Myers, professor and vice chair of the UCLA history department, who initiated the statement, said he believes that it is precisely in times of crisis that a variety of viewpoints should be aired to help the Jewish people make informed decisions.

Myers said he was spurred to act after seeing himself and others branded as disloyal in the past several months for criticizing some Israeli government policies. He also expressed concern that some synagogues, including his own, had allowed organizations to disseminate material he called "unfortunate historical revisionism" such as a pamphlet that referred to the so-called Israeli occupation.

Others who signed the statement said they had witnessed or experienced threats, heckling at community forums and steps by donors to withdraw funds from organizations as a result of disagreements over events in Israel. In one incident that attracted considerable attention within the Jewish community, a member of Stand With Us, a group that supports current Israeli policies, attacked the head of the UCLA Hillel program, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, likening him to Jewish figures who were accused of helping the Nazis. The critic later apologized.

Myers and others took pains to emphasize their deep love of Israel. The statement itself emphasizes strong support for the Jewish state, condemns violence against Israeli citizens and expresses deep concern about anti-Semitic incidents, especially on college campuses.

But it rejects the notion that anti-Semitism had become a serious danger to American Jews. And it expresses empathy for the pain of Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike, declaring both peoples to be "created in the image of God" and calling the end of the Israeli occupation an "overriding moral imperative" under the Jewish tradition.

One backer of the statement, Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life at USC, said the pressure to close ranks on Israel had created a chilling effect on discourse on campus and made her job of fostering collegial relations among faith groups more difficult.

Another signer, USC constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, said he had engaged in "countless conversations with people who have taken criticism of what Israel is doing as criticism of Israel itself," even though his criticism of U.S. policies is never seen as an attack on America itself.

Backers of the statement included such noted intellectuals as Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the University of Judaism and several scholars and rabbis from the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, including Dean Lewis M. Barth and Rabbi Reuven Firestone, a noted scholar of Islam and Judaism. Other signers included representatives from Jewish peace groups and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

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