Four Rabbis, Five Opinions on Israel Elections and Bibi

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Area rabbis voice their thoughts on the controversies surrounding the recent Israeli election.

Amid all the voices providing post-game analysis of the Israeli elections, there have been some predictable — and not so predictable — responses from various religious segments of the American Jewish community. 
 
Not so surprisingly, Orthodox rabbis have criticized President Barack Obama over his lack of support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Reconstructionist rabbis have called on the Israeli government to return to its “democratic values.”
 
But amid some streams, the views are not monolithic. In the Conservative movement, for example, Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Wynnewood, took issue with a statement from the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly calling for American Jews to condemn Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his election-day warning to the country about Arab voters “coming out in droves to the polling stations.”
 
“People say a lot of things during campaigns,” said Cooper. “This is not the time to start dividing the Jewish community over Israel. I think it’s irresponsible to rally Jews against the state of Israel by denigrating their prime minister.”
 
But other local Conservative rabbis agreed with the statement. The language Netanyahu “used is absolutely inappropriate,” said Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown. “The fact is, rhetoric such as that, on either side, is divisive and prevents all of us from getting to the real goal, which is creating and maintaining a vibrant Jewish homeland and Jewish democracy in Israel.”
 
As often happens when it comes to the topic of Israel, clergy may hold a wide range of views in support of or critical of Netanyahu, but they often are reluctant to wade publicly into the debate. Numerous rabbis in the area didn’t return phone calls seeking their perspectives. 
 
In the days after defeating the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu has tried to backtrack from his comments regarding the Arab voters and his response in an interview that if re-elected there would “not be a Palestinian state” during his term. He apologized for his comments about Israeli Arabs and said that he still seeks a two-state solution but “for that, circumstances have to change.”
 
President Barack Obama, for his part, has made his anger apparent. In a news conference Tuesday, Obama said he would resume consultations with Israel once Netanyahu has his new government in place. But he framed the problem as how to preserve the expectation of two states given Netanyahu’s opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state.
 
“The issue is not a matter of relations between leaders,” he said, according to a JTA report. “The issue is a very clear, substantive challenge.”
 
Cooper said that while he is “very sorry” Netanyahu made the pre-election statements, he still thinks Netanyahu is committed to a two-state solution and he is greatly concerned by the U.S. administration response. 
 
Cooper said he has heard from congregants who are “incredulous over the fact that I am not coming out publicly to criticize the prime minster, and I have people who come to me and are very happy that I have not jumped on that bandwagon.”
 
The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly also appears to have recalibrated their response in the aftermath of Netanyahu’s apology and the U.S. administration’s response.  
 
“For American Jews, and for those of us in the Conservative Movement, recent statements by the U.S. administration that could be interpreted to signal a potential distancing between the U.S. and Israel have been a cause for grave concern,” according to a second statement.
 
And despite criticizing Netanyahu’s election-day video, Gaber also tried to separate support for Israel from disagreement over particular policies or action. He said some congregants have “applauded” Netan­yahu’s positions on the two-state solution and Iran, while others have disagreed. 
 
“Israel offers us a lot as the Jewish people and as a Jewish community, and we need to continue to support Israel,” said Gaber. “That does not necessarily mean we always support the policies of the elected government.”
 
Outside the Conservative movement, responses have differed along some of the usual political lines. 
 
The Rabbinical Council of America, the main Orthodox rabbinical association in the United States, issued a statement criticizing the Obama administration response.
 
“We call upon it to desist from statements that are perceived as threats to the only democracy in the Middle East.”
 
A local Orthodox rabbi echoed the umbrella group’s response. “What he said with the Arab voters, I was a little shocked, not necessarily with what he said, because I kind of understood what he was saying, but I could see this was going to be taken out of context and used as a weapon against him, which is what the U.S. administration has done,” said Rabbi Yonah Gross of Congregation Beth Ha­medrosh in Wynnewood.
 
For its part, the locally based Reconstructionist movement issued a strong statement praising Israel as a democracy but expressing “great concern” over a host of issues, including Netanyahu’s remarks about Arab voters and a Palestinian state. 
 
“As a new government is formed, the Reconstructionist movement calls upon its members to join together with like-minded Israelis in demanding a return to Israel’s democratic values, to a relationship with the United States that rises above partisan politics, to active pursuit of a two-state solution, and to a path forward characterized by statesmanship and a commitment to equality for all of Israel’s citizens,” according to the statement issued by Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the movement, and other leaders of the movement, which is based in Wyncote.
 
She said that members of the movement have expressed “a lot of appreciation for the statement that we put out and a lot of distress” over what has transpired in Israel. 
 
 

 

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