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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Lonely Voices: A few dissenting Jews question Israel's actions

Washington Jewish Week

July 27, 2006
By Paula Amann

Wendy Leibowitz recalls the heady opening days of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

"The Israeli soldiers there were welcomed like American GIs in France after World War II; they were liberators," says Leibowitz, who lived in Haifa from that year through 1986.

At the time, the nation's leaders predicted a brief incursion that would root out the Palestine Liberation Organization.

History turned out differently and today, as another campaign by the Jewish state seeks to destroy another guerilla group on roughly the same terrain, the District book editor sees poignant parallels.

"It lasted 18 years, it cost a terrible toll in Israeli lives and Israel's moral standing, so I ask people respectfully, will this action in Lebanon destroy Hezbollah or is it strengthening Hezbollah the longer it goes on?" says Leibowitz, who co-chairs advocacy for the Washington chapter of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Peace and Justice).

Her skeptical view of Israel's military reprisals against the terrorist group seems distinctly a minority position, based on recent straw polls of area Jews and congregational leaders.

Yet, a solidarity rally in the District on Wednesday of last week drew a few backers of Israel and its right to self-defense who also take issue with Israel's tough response to attacks by Hezbollah.

Some 15 members of the Washington chapter of Brit Tzedek unfurled its banner at last week's rally.

The group's official stand calls for "substantive U.S. diplomatic intervention to achieve a cease-fire and the release of Israeli soldiers," says Washington office director Rob Levy. Brit Tzedek members interviewed for this story were voicing their own, if similar, views.

For some of today's dissenters on the Lebanon action, the Jewish state is a personal as much as political matter.

"We have friends, we have relatives in Israel, so we're concerned about Israel, and, at the same time, we want to be sure that Israel's actions help security in the long term," said Washington chapter chair Rebecca Zimmerman, 27, a District resident.

Interviewed as last week's pro-Israel ended, Zimmerman described the sign she was carrying: Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.

For his part, Americans for Peace Now board member David Birenbaum finds himself puzzled by Israeli military strategy.

"There is a problem in that the strategy is not clear" in light of what appears to be substantial civilian casualties, said the District lawyer, 68, adding, "It looks like this is all about punishment."

Birenbaum worries that Israeli attacks, rather than disabling Hezbollah a valid goal, in his view run the risk of creating a "failed state" of Lebanon, which, he said, "can hardly serve the purposes of Israel."

APN is urging the Bush administration to appoint former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as envoys.

When he mulls current Mideast strife, Arlington's David Wittenberg, co-director with Leibowitz of Brit Tzedek's local advocacy, sees Israel's military reaction as out of scale with the precipitating events.

"I would love to see an Israeli apology for harm to innocent Lebanese civilians," said the retired teacher, 63, stressing that he speaks as an individual. "The Israeli response is disproportionate."

Bethesdan Mary Ann Stein, another APN board member, grasps the rationale behind Israeli reprisals, up to a point.

"Israel needs to act to protect its present and its future, so the fact that Iran and Syria have been arming Hezbollah with weapons capable of doing damage to Israel is not something they could continue to ignore," said Stein, 63, who runs a local foundation that gives a quarter of its grants to Israel.

Yet she wonders about the balance between civilian casualties and damage to Hezbollah.

"The irony of a military action is that it tends to create more enemies and harden the hostility toward the U.S. and Israel," Stein said.

For Rabbi Binyamin Biber of Silver Spring, Israel's right to self-defense is self-evident, but he looks for military moves that meet the requirement of both ethics and long-term interests.

Biber, a member of Brit Tzedek's rabbinic cabinet and the rabbi of Machar-Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, voices his personal worry that a rising death toll will hurt the Jewish state on both scores.

"To take actions that cause the loss of civilian life and destroy civil society and undermine the new Lebanese government may actually be much more detrimental to Israel's long-term interests," Biber said. "As the numbers of Lebanese noncombatant casualties mount, it is eroding Israel's moral standing and it's mobilizing the popular antagonism" against the Jewish state.

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