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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Rabbis’ Letter Stirs Some Testiness

Chicago Jewish Star

April 7-27, 2006
By Gila Wertheimer

400 call on Bush to continue aid to Palestinians
Legislators Seeking Restrictions Are Opposed

A March 3 letter urging President George Bush to continue humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, signed by nearly 400 American rabbis, has provoked a backlash against some of those rabbis.

In Chicago, however, where 15 rabbis put their names to the letter, the reaction has been relatively muted.

Rabbi Laurence Edwards of Congregation Or Chadash (Reform) in Chicago, told the Jewish Star in an email that he had received no reactions, “other than a letter from an unknown person pretending to be [a] member of my congregation planning to resign in protest.&rdquo

“I have only gotten positive responses to my signing the letter,” Rabbi David Fox Sandmel of K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation (Reform) wrote in an email.

The congregation’s Rabbi Emeritus, Arnold Jacob Wolf, also signed the letter.

Chicago area rabbis who signed the letter were mostly Reform, but also included Reconstructionist Humanistic and Traditional rabbis.

An ad featuring the letter, with the names of all those who signed it, was published March 10 in a New York Jewish newspaper.

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Highland Park said that he did not know if his congregants were aware he had signed the letter, but most have “a similar perspective to my own on issues regarding Israel and the Palestinians.”

Signing rabbis in some cities were the brunt of exceedingly negative reactions.

In Miami, a temple president and vice president received complaints that their Rabbi, Rebecca Lillian, formerly of Temple Menorah in Chicago, had signed the letter.

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger of Fort Worth, Texas, was also the subject of complaint, including by a Christian supporter of Israel, who urged others to write to temple leaders.

Aliza Becker, deputy director of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, the Chicago group whose Rabbinic Cabinet organized the letter, told the Jewish Star last week that she had not heard negative reaction here.

The letter opened with a statement saying that “we are deeply troubled by the recent victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections.”

It referred to Hamas’ “horrific acts of terror and violence that target innocent civilians” but urged “a cautious approach to the new Palestinian government” and “constructive engagement” with it.

“Despite Hamas’ victory, recent polls indicate that the majority of Palestinian remains committed to a peace agreement with Israel,” the letter stated.

Yet as their humanitarian needs increase, so does their support for extremism, the letter stated.

Therefore, “Continued funding for indirect assistance to the Palestinian people via NGO’s, with the appropriate conditions to ensure that it does not reach the hands of terrorists, is essential.”

Rabbi Edwards noted that he hoped the letter would “Offer some balance to the extremists who are pressuring Congress to cut off all contact with Palestinian officials.”

He was referring to legislation introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) that would prohibit direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, now led by Hamas, restrict indirect humanitarian assistance and limit diplomatic contacts.

Two angry responses to the Brit Tzedek v’Shalom letter, circulating on the Internet and written by American-born Israeli author Naomi Ragen, call the letter a “back-stabbing abandonment of the Jews of Israel” and refer to the signing rabbis as “clueless.”

“Do the Jews of Israel a favor,” Ragen writes. “Take away [the rabbis’] public platform, before they take away our lives, and the lives of every Israeli battling a relentless enemy.”

Rabbi Chalom answers critics with a question: “What is your alternative?”

Without other constructive proposals, “I will continue to encourage dialogue,” he notes.

He concludes with a quote from Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, “’You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.’ Rejecting all Palestinian voices because some are Hamas would be to withdraw from the task of amplifying peaceful voices so they can drown out those of hatred.”

Several other Chicago-area rabbis who signed the letter and were contacted by the Jewish Star by email, did not respond to a request for comment.

Local signers of the published letter are Rabbis Scott Aaron, Herbert Bronstein, Adam Chalom, Laurence Edwards, Bruce Elder, Capers C. Funnye, Jr., Maralee Gordon, Stephen Hart, Peter Knobel, Andrea London, Alicia Magal, Amy Memis-Foler, Brant Rosen, David Sandmel, and Arnold Jacob Wolf.

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