Jewish community splits in its opinions on Intifada, Israel

By Matthew Artz Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday March 28, 2002

Lincoln Shlensky considers himself a Zionist with a strong connection to the state of Israel. But when he attends meetings of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), a mainstream pro-Israel organization, he can’t help but feel a little defensive.  

As a founding member of A Jewish Voice For Peace, the Bay Area’s leading Jewish organization critical of Israeli polices, an executive board member of University chapter of Hillel, and a member of the JCRC, Shlensky is a rarity among local Jews — a bridge in a community that has become increasingly divided since the Intifada erupted in September 2000. 

“There is certainly more tension among Jews since the Intifada broke out,” said Shlensky. “The polarization that has occurred in Israel is happening among local Jews as well.” 

From the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 through the failed peace negotiations at Camp David in 2000, most disagreements on Israeli policies were muted due to the general consensus among local Jews that the peace process was working and eventually there would be a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  

When those talks broke down amidst an outbreak of violence, a wedge was driven between those in the local Jewish community who felt the need to speak out against an Israeli position they saw as extreme and unjust, and others who blamed the Palestinian leadership for the negotiation’s failure and considered it imperative to support Israel now that the Jewish state seemed threatened. 

David Cooper, spiritual leader for the Kahila Community Synagogue, said much of the current differences in opinion emanate from the same sadness and frustration felt among nearly all local Jews about the peace process’ breakdown.  

“Some people have become more concerned with the sense of security of the Israelis, and some are more concerned with the sense of Palestinian frustration,” said Cooper 

For Laurie Polster, member of A Jewish Voice for Peace, the Intifada was a call to action. “When the Intifada broke out a lot more progressive Jews started becoming active, and I knew that I had to be out there.” 

Randy Barnes, watched in frustration at the demise of the Camp David negotiations, and the increase in pro-Palestinian activism on the UC Berkeley campus. He decided to take his own stand by becoming involved with the Israel Action Committee, the campus organization for promoting Israeli positions. 

The increasing split of opinions is not just a community-wide phenomenon. In some synagogues there has been increased polarization among the congregants. Jim Sinkinson, chairman of the Israel Committee at Congregation Beth-El, a Berkeley Reform Synagogue, has moderated two discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — one immediately following the beginning of the Intifada, and the other in autumn of 2001.  

“The opinions have become more polarized,” said Sinkinson, who concluded that although the views expressed on each side are quite diverse, a majority of those in attendance supported current Israeli policy as a means of self-defense, while a minority criticized Israel for oppressing another people. 

Even if the frustration among local Jews is derived from a common source, there are numerous disagreements between those on both sides of the debate, and among allies as to why the peace process failed and how Israel should deal with the new situation.  

Polster considers the peace offer submitted by former President Bill Clinton at Camp David and agreed to by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to be “hardly just and equitable.” 

Citing provisions that would have provided Israel with a security corridor and water rights, Polster said: “There was absolutely no way the Palestinians could have created a viable state, and if there is to be peace that has to happen.”  

Polster opposes the policies of the current Israeli government, and is supporting A Jewish Voice for Peace’s campaign to end U.S. military aid to Israel, an outcome she considers to be in Israel’s best interests.  

“I’m trying to cleanse the cancer so that Israel will evolve, shed its militarism and become a humane member of world society.” 

Randy Barnes sees the issues differently. He credits Barak with having the courage to cross cultural red lines in Israeli society during the Camp David negotiations, and criticizes Palestinian Authority Chairman Yassir Arafat for not only failing to reciprocate, but for using violence in an attempt to improve his negotiating position.  

The refugee issue, contested so hotly during the Camp David negotiations, is a red light to Barnes.  

“One cannot reasonably expect Israel to allow the children and grandchildren of refugees to return when they are inherently hostile, and directly threaten the stability of the nation itself.” 

With regard to the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Barnes’ co-chairman at the Israel Action Committee, Oren Lazar, defends the right of Israelis to protect themselves from the threat of armed attackers. He says the occupation will remain an unfortunate necessity until a permanent two- state solution can be struck with a Palestinian side that respects Israel’s right to exist. 

The debate within the Jewish community not only centers around how Israel should handle the second Intifada, but on how the community should handle its plurality of opinions.  

Some have advocated a public forum, which would feature speakers explaining their opinions on the conflict.  

This almost came to fruition last August, when local synagogues, in conjunction with the JCRC, considered holding such a program at the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center.  

However, disagreements on how to have a balanced presentation, and a lack of sufficient time by some key participants, prevented the event from taking place. 

At a later meeting, it was decided not to pursue a community-wide forum at the present time, and instead it was decided that each synagogue should address the issues of the Intifada independently. 

Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Netivot Shalom prefers this tact. “It is safer to do this internally. “The multiplicity of opinions stems from the deep-seated love of Israel. When you love something as much as they do, you get emotional. I’d rather talk about these things around the kitchen table.” 

Cooper sees merit in a community forum. “The purpose would be not to defeat the other side but to be an advocate of your position and also hear the other positions and let them know that they were heard.”  

Cooper worries that currently people on the left wrongly assume that that those on the right have no concern for Palestinian rights, and those on the right wrongly assume that those on the left have no concern for the safety of Israelis. 

“People on both sides need to realize that those on the other side take a principled position,” said Cooper. 

Shlensky thinks local Jews could learn a lot from the vigorous debate that takes place in Israel. “There is a hesitance among Jews here to reveal the full range of their views,” said Shlensky who believes mainstream Jewish groups are concerned that a public display of diversity would be misconstrued as weakness. “Jews in the Bay Area should be represented as a people who have basic commonsense, who realize this is untenable, and that ultimately the two sides will work it out.”