Maryland Matters

Maryland rabbis urge Van Hollen to change course on Israel rhetoric

More than 70 rabbis said the senator’s 'efforts... have only stoked deeper divisions and further isolated Israel and our Jewish community’ at a time of record antisemitism

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)

In a scathing letter, a group of more than 70 Maryland rabbis from across the denominational spectrum accused Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a leader among critics of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, of spreading falsehoods about Israel and stoking “divisions” and “isolat[ing]” Israel and the Jewish community in his state.

“We have differing opinions about some of the rhetoric and actions taken by the current Israeli government, but today we write with a unified voice to urge you to change your rhetoric and actions that we believe mischaracterize the current war and undermine America’s support for the Jewish state,” the letter, sent Monday, reads.

The letter states that, at a time when American Jews are facing record levels of antisemitism in the U.S., Van Hollen’s “efforts in the Senate have only stoked deeper divisions and further isolated Israel and our Jewish community.”

The rabbis wrote that, “While Israel fights against terror and threats of annihilation, we are aghast by [the senator’s] claims about war crimes and your portrayal of Israel as the aggressor,” slamming Van Hollen for efforts to condition or cut off military aid to Israel, which the letter describes as necessary to protect Israelis and Palestinians from Hamas.

They also took umbrage with what they characterized as Van Hollen’s claims that Israel “should be solely blamed for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.” They argued that Hamas is “indisputably” responsible for the crisis and for years of Palestinian suffering. They also accused Van Hollen of “falsely suggest[ing] Israel is deliberately withholding aid” from innocent civilians.

The Maryland senator said in a statement to JI, “I always welcome feedback from my constituents, and I appreciate these rabbis sharing the views they expressed in this letter,” and that he would “look forward to continuing these conversations.”

He said that he has “repeatedly and unreservedly spoken out about the horrors of the Hamas terrorist attacks,” “fully support[s] the right of Israel to defend itself and eliminate the military threat of Hamas” to ensure that “there must be no more October sevenths” and “have continuously prioritized and pressed for the immediate release of all hostages.”

He added, “I also believe that a just war must be fought justly. That is why I have continued to express my deep concerns about the actions taken by the Netanyahu government in the face of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

The letter criticizes Van Hollen for failing to call out the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s ties to Hamas and Hamas’ yearslong record of stealing international humanitarian aid.

“Anything less than the removal of Hamas from power will only lead to more war, more violence, more civilians killed at the hands of the terrorists,” the letter reads. “We ask you that you take these threats seriously and stand up to hate in Maryland, Israel and around the world.”

The signatories called on Van Hollen to take the threat that Hamas’ continued power poses “seriously and stand up to hate in Maryland, Israel and around the world.”

The letter was organized by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Rabbi Chai Posner of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore, Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Rabbi Dana Saroken of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore and Rabbi Shmuel Silber of Suburban Orthodox Congregation in Baltimore.

The letter is a signal of growing in-state discontent with Van Hollen — who was the favored candidate of Maryland’s pro-Israel community in his 2016 Senate primary — over his increasingly vocal stances on Israel since Oct. 7.

Weinblatt told Jewish Insider that many of the signatories have known Van Hollen “for years if not decades, and respect much of the work he has done for the State of Maryland, and the Jewish community” but see his comments on Israel as “misguided” and serving “no purpose other than to inflame an already tense situation, while also making our jobs as religious leaders in the Jewish community that much harder.”

He said that Van Hollen’s comments and actions have been “almost insulting” given the steps Israel takes to avoid civilian casualties, adding that there’s “an increasing recognition” in Maryland’s Jewish community that Van Hollen’s comments are “outright unhelpful” because “it really only encourages Hamas, which prolongs the war and leads to more suffering.”

Weinblatt said the rabbis “would welcome a change in course, or a conversation about why his rhetoric has taken such a turn.”

This story was updated on Monday, March 11 at 7:10 p.m. to include comments from Sen. Van Hollen.

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