Our Rabbis Have Chutzpah

Brit Tzedek is very pleased to share with you an op-ed by Rabbi John Friedman, chair of Brit Tzedek's 1500-member rabbinic network. It recently appeared on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), the global Jewish news service, and will appear in Jewish papers across the country this week.

We're pleased also to take the opportunity to announce that Rabbi Friedman has been awarded Harvard University's Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellowship for the 2009-2010 academic year. Congratulations to Rabbi Friedman!

Chicago-area Brit Tzedek rabbis had the chance to meet with Rabbi Friedman in June to discuss our on-going advocacy with President Obama--with whom several of our Chicago area members already have solid relationships--as well as participation in home district advocacy meetings, getting the Brit Tzedek message into the local press, and working with rabbinical associations.

Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, Rabbinic Cabinet co-chair, led a six-member Brit Tzedek rabbinic delegation that met with the Israeli Consul General in San Francisco on July 13.  The Consul has already requested a second meeting, expanded on "both sides." Earlier in the summer, Rabbi Saxe-Taller initiated and convened a meeting with area rabbis, the directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Federation, where they discussed widening the public discussion within the Jewish community surrounding Israel and the American-Jewish relationship with Israel.

The Rabbinic Cabinet has a busy schedule in the coming weeks, as well. During the August Congressional recess, several rabbinic delegations will meet with members of Congress in their home districts; the Cabinet will be convening a workshop at the upcoming J Street conference [October 25-28], and the next in our series of conference calls for the rabbinic network will feature Mitchell Plitnick, director of U.S. office of B'Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, who will lead a dialogue on the current humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

Op-Ed: Israel backers must support a settlement freeze

By John Friedman · July 9, 2009

DURHAM, N.C. (JTA) -- The Jewish community in America has always supported Israel. We have raised funds, walked in solidarity, visited whenever possible and prayed for the safety of the Jewish state since its very inception. "Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel" is a comment made sincerely by many.

But surely, if we stand with Israel, if we want what's best for the Jewish state, we must be honest -- we must tell the leadership of our spiritual home the truth. And the truth is, President Obama is right when he says that settlement building must stop.

There are many reasons to argue for a settlement freeze. The economic drain of the settlements on the Israeli economy is enormous. The government has spent more than half a billion dollars on the settlements annually, with each settler getting thousands of dollars more in benefits than other Israelis. Furthermore, the Israeli government has already signed an international agreement committing itself to a freeze -- the 2003 "road map."

Also, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state depends on territorial contiguity, and more construction makes the achievement of a state that much more difficult. Finally, as a rabbi, I might be expected to concern myself with the moral implications of the settlement project.

But the American Jewish community really needs to focus on only one thing in this battle over settlements: Freezing construction will lead to an improvement in Israel's security. This result will not be direct, nor will it be immediate. But calling a halt to Israeli construction on the West Bank will serve as the first, vital step in a process that, simply put, will make Israel a safer place to live.

One need only look at a map to see what Palestinians see every day: Israeli settlements -- and the attendant bypass roads, roadblocks and security fence -- have served to carve the West Bank into ever shrinking pieces. Palestinians look at the cranes and bulldozers and know what we are often loath to admit: Each new stone laid in an Israeli settlement is further reason to distrust the Israeli government's statements that it wants peace.

A settlement freeze is a requirement if the sides want to start a true negotiation process. Not only will it will allow the Palestinian leadership to sit at the table in good faith, it also will free the rest of the Arab world to begin to act on the promise of normalization made in the Arab League Peace Initiative. It will serve as the single clearest statement Israel can make that it is serious in its intention to see the establishment of a durable Palestinian state alongside Israel. And a sincere negotiating process, difficult and painful as it may yet prove, is the one thing that can lead Israel to real peace and true security.

In fighting the freeze, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is risking not only this process but also the alienation of Israel's strongest, staunchest ally. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have made it abundantly clear that unlike the Bush administration, they mean what they say and they say what they mean. They expect the Israeli government to stand by its commitment to freeze all construction in the settlements. Can Israel afford to push the Americans away?

Furthermore, the settlements have proven themselves a burden on Israel's military for years. Every soldier sent to protect settlements or escort settlers on the roads is a soldier unavailable to guard Israel's borders. Each soldier trained to check Palestinian IDs at one of the hundreds of West Bank roadblocks is a soldier unavailable for training in modern warfare. Every dollar spent on patrols around West Bank cities is a dollar unavailable for upgraded equipment. The state of Israel's military preparedness was revealed in the summer of 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, and the Israeli public and Jewish Diaspora grieved together to see the high cost of going to war unprepared.

A settlement freeze would not immediately halt attacks on Israel. It would not immediately free up financial or military resources with which to build a stronger country, nor would it guarantee that Israel and the United States will see eye-to-eye in the future.

But it would be an incalculably important first step, demonstrating clearly to the American administration, the Palestinian people and the world at large that Israel is serious in its peaceful intentions. And this, in turn, will allow peace talks to move forward.

If we are to truly stand with and for Israel, we must stand for peace. If we stand for peace, we as a community must stand for the settlement freeze.

Rabbi John Friedman of Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, N.C., is the chair of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom's Rabbinic Cabinet.


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