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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Rabbis Collaborate on Letter to Push Humanitarian Aid to Palestinians

Jewish Exponent

March 15, 2006
By Joshua Runyan

As hundreds of activists with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee descended on Capitol Hill last week to push for a ban on U.S. outlays to the Palestinian Authority, a group of some 400 rabbis was touting its own response to Hamas' ascendancy in a letter to the White House.

In the March 3 dispatch, written by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom ("Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace"), the religious leaders - who hailed from the Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements - warned President George W. Bush of the danger in isolating the new emerging Palestinian regime.

At a time when a myriad of bipartisan voices in Washington are calling for punitive damages in the wake of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in January, cutting off the P.A. would only further radicalize its population, argued the rabbis, of whom 34 represent congregations and organizations in the Philadelphia area.

Despite the threat posed to Israel by Hamas - which is recognized by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, and according to AIPAC is responsible for some 500 civilian Israeli deaths since 1989 - "in this challenging hour, we urge you to maintain a cautious approach to the new Palestinian government," read the letter.

Doing so, it continued, would "preserve the future possibility of bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table."

Practically speaking, the Brit Tzedek letter was designed to counter the hard-line voices coming from AIPAC members, said Steve Masters, a national board member of Brit Tzedek. Of particular concern was the House of Representatives version of the AIPAC-backed Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which would halt any U.S. subsidies to the P.A. until the president certified that it was not run by a terrorist group.

Because that legislation, sponsored by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), would not allow the administration to waive its provisions for the sake of national security, explained Masters, rank-and-file Palestinians would suffer from the denial of even routine humanitarian aid.

"A victory for Hamas doesn’t really move the cause of peace forward," he stated. "But the issue is when people just rush to judgment, you're not going to get the best response."

Masters concluded that the Senate version of the bill, which was sponsored by Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.) and would allow a presidential waiver, was far preferable to AIPAC's legislation of choice.

Those advocating a tougher stance pointed to a recent report by Palestinian Media Watch documenting a Web site operated by Hamas that encouraged children to become suicide bombers.

"This kind of behavior is exactly why all funding to the Palestinian Authority must be cut off," stated Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who co-sponsored the Ros-Lehtinen bill, in a statement. "Hamas does not deserve one penny of the U.S. taxpayers’ money until it truly becomes a partner in peace by" renouncing violence and recognizing Israel's right to exist.

National president of the Zionist Organization of America Morton Klein condemned the Web site - - and called for the cessation of U.S. aid to the P.A.
Eric Cantor

"If they wish this sort of death on their children, it is easy to see that they would gladly see all Israelis murdered," he said in a statement.

'Rejection of Corruption'

But while the Hamas charter still calls for the destruction of Israel, average Palestinians want peace, argued Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, one of the signatories of the Brit Tzedek letter. The only reason Hamas wrested control of the Palestinian parliament from the more moderate ruling Fatah Party was because of widespread corruption in the P.A.

"The election was an absolute rejection of the corruption," said Straus, who pointed out that the P.A. is on the verge of financial collapse. "Israel should not negotiate with Hamas," but humanitarian aid should continue.

Another of the letter’s signers, Society Hill Synagogue's Rabbi Avi Winokur, noted the possibility that aiding nongovernmental organizations in Palestinian-controlled areas might even undermine the social-network built and maintained by Hamas over the years.

But in the final analysis, the rabbi - who identified himself as pessimistic with the regard to the possibility of any cessation of Palestinian hostilities against Israel in the short term - asserted that American Jews needed to tread carefully when it came to the question of hampering foreign humanitarian projects.

"I don’t think it is ever in the Jewish community’s interest - or Israel’s interest - to be seen as wanting to deny humanitarian assistance to folks in the Arab world," said Winokur. "There is something right about aiding people in distress."

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