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In show of unity, Jewish institutions rally behind Israel and condemn anti-Zionist rhetoric
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl: ‘I usually urge us to sit with the complexity and with nuances but some moments give you clarity.’
Less than a week after a Shabbat that saw the most deadly massacre of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust, another Shabbat came — and with it, some of the largest crowds at American synagogues since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vigils and pro-Israel protests around the country have garnered thousands of attendees, with no sign of the numbers letting up as the war between Israel and Hamas enters a second week.
“I usually urge us to sit with the complexity and with nuances but some moments give you clarity,” Rabbi Angela Buchdahl told a packed sanctuary at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue last Friday.
The outpouring of grief and mourning with Israel in the week and a half since the Hamas terrorist attacks that killed more than 1,400 Israelis represents a new moment in American Jewish history, community leaders and scholars of Jewish history tell Jewish Insider. The loudest anti-Zionist voices have been pushed further to the margins while American Jews across the religious and political spectrums have joined together in a unified show of solidarity.
“The horror of October 7 was so extensive that it has brought together so many different elements within the Jewish community in a way I’ve not seen in my entire professional life,” said Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a former J Street staffer.
Jewish federations in communities across America have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to support relief efforts in Israel, and the American nonprofits supporting the Israel Defense Forces and the Magen David Adom ambulance corps have been overwhelmed by support from people who want to help Israel in the face of so much devastation. Even the most politically conservative Jewish leaders have joined with more liberal Jews to offer words of praise for President Joe Biden’s handling of the situation.
“I think the Jewish community has been much more wall-to-wall than I’ve ever seen around this, and not just in the sense of the political and behavioral responses, but in the emotional response, which is, in many ways, very inspiring,” said Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. “The Jewish people is in mourning, and the geography is not a huge factor in terms of that mourning.”
As Jewish communities focus on the unprecedented brutality of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the feeling of solidarity surpasses political divides.
“On another day, let’s talk about the occupation and oppression. But right now, while people are being murdered and kidnapped? No,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, a progressive synagogue in Brooklyn. “We have to talk about how any country has the right to defend itself against terrorism. Any country has the right to bring its hostages home. It’s not right to ask Israel to refrain from military action when 200 of its innocent people are currently being held in likely extremely terrifying, possibly torturous conditions.”
For much of this year, liberal congregations like Congregation Beth Elohim have been extraordinarily engaged on Israel — but from a more critical standpoint, in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government and his support for controversial judicial reform measures viewed by many on the left as weakening Israeli democracy. Now, just a month after many rabbis touched on the issue in their High Holy Days sermons, the focus has shifted.
“In the [United] States, the UnXeptable movement, which was the diaspora version of the [anti-judicial reform] protest movement, has completely repurposed itself to become a platform for supporting Israel,” said David Myers, the director of UCLA’s Luskin Center for History and Policy and a past board president of New Israel Fund, a liberal Israeli civil society organization.
Issues “which may have been important,” such as judicial reform, “are now of relative unimportance compared to the grief we are feeling and the need to respond with strong solidarity with Israel,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly and of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Blumenthal left for Israel on Tuesday with a delegation through the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, many of whom were actively involved in anti-judicial reform protests, are now figuring out how to grapple with the war in the context of their classes and their other activism.
“Many students and faculty have taken part in rallies, both [in New York] and when they have found themselves in Israel,” Shuly Rubin Schwartz, chancellor of the preeminent Conservative rabbinical school, told JI. “But you can hold more than one thought in your heart at the same time. They, like I, can understand the flaws of Israel that need to be addressed and love it with all my heart. I’m heartbroken when Israelis are massacred. I don’t see one as contradicting the other, and that’s what a lot of the conversations involve here.”
Many Jews on the political left have grappled over the past week and a half with comments coming from some progressives once seen as allies who are now blaming Israel for the attack, describing Hamas’ terrorism as a valid response to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
“We’re only seen as the perpetrator and never the victim, even when we’re in the moment of being victimized,” said Timoner. “People who are so ready to blame us – it’s stunning.”
Most of the responses attacking Israel have not come from within the mainstream Jewish community, but a small but vocal minority professing to speak for American Jews — primarily espoused by the far-left groups Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow — have asserted that Israel provoked the attack and that Israel is not blameless in the deaths of the 1,400 Israelis.
“It seemed to me that this represented a move further to the left on IfNotNow’s part,” said Myers, who called the anti-Zionist Jewish groups “outliers” in their response to the Hamas attacks.
“I have felt very — I don’t know, for lack of a better word, triggered — by the boldness of standing up in the midst of this colossal tragedy and changing the plotline. And that’s what it feels like. It’s like a changing of the plotline from collective grief and Israel’s necessity and obligation to not just respond, but to defend itself,” said Kurtzer. “There’s a refusal to engage with any measure of humility about what’s different as a result of this mass slaughter.”
Blumenthal said that the anti-Zionist groups are “morally tone-deaf.”
“I don’t believe they represent any real, mainstream voice in the community. They have always been a fringe and now they are most definitely a fringe,” he said.
Beyond the political left, many in the Jewish community are disappointed in what they perceive as a lack of support for Jews by friends, in workplaces and on college campuses. Universities in particular are facing scrutiny for issuing tepid statements in the face of both the attacks in Israel and pro-Palestine rallies that have echoed Hamas talking points. This, too, brings Jewish Americans closer to each other.
“There’s a deep disillusionment of some Jews with friends who haven’t provided any level of comfort to Jews at a time of personal mourning, even leaving political questions and political support aside,” said Geoffrey Levin, a Middle East studies professor at Emory University.
“I really think that this crisis is going to reshape a generation of Jewish politics,” added Levin. “The feelings of this moment, whether they’re positive feelings of feeling hugged by the community, or more negative feelings of just having others around them not understand, it’s going to shape Jewish politics.”
Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum, said he suspects that “after the immediate crisis is over, if the current government remains in power and pursues some of the same policy direction that it was before, we will start to see American Jews go back to their pre-October 7 positions.”
“But a lot of it will depend on how long the fighting continues, whether another front opens up and to what extent Israelis suffer more death than they already have. All of that will determine what happens next, ” he said.
In recent days, Israel has ramped up its attacks in Gaza in the hopes of eliminating Hamas’ leadership. A ground offensive in Gaza appears imminent. Already, the deaths of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza has sparked some on the left to decry Israel’s response as “genocide.”
“If there’s a ground incursion, there will be more civilian deaths. There will be images on every newspaper’s front page or every news site’s website. That will, for many people, tip the balance away from Israel. [But] that doesn’t mean that Israel doesn’t have moral justification to try and uproot and eliminate the threat that Hamas poses, which is existential,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
For now, rabbis continue to provide comfort to an American Jewish community that is deeply traumatized. At least 30 American citizens were killed in last week’s attack. At least 10 more are missing and believed to have been taken hostage by Hamas. Many more American Jews have spent the past week and a half texting and calling Israeli friends and relatives to check in.
“Nobody’s OK. That’s the truth: Nobody’s OK,” said Kurtzer, who is in Jerusalem.
Last Shabbat, the global Jewish community began its annual rereading of the Torah after the usually joyous holiday of Simchat Torah, this year marred by the Hamas attack. Bereshit, “In the beginning,” the Bible begins.
Buchdahl, the rabbi at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, reflected on the weekly parsha in her Friday sermon.
“In the beginning, when God created light, God separated the light from the dark,” Buchdahl said in a sermon that has as of Tuesday been viewed more than 63,000 times on YouTube. “Today Israel is forced into a new Bereshit, a new world for Israel, and make no mistake: It will never be the same there again. The light was separated from the dark. There is no gray area here.” After she finished speaking, hundreds of American Jews stood up to sing “Hatikvah” together, their arms around one another.
Gabby Deutch is Jewish Insider’s Washington correspondent; Haley Cohen is eJewishPhilanthropy’s news reporter.