Panel debates controversial Israeli policies

by Mike Zoller - Associate Editor

June 3, 2009
Just as rabbis have differing opinions on how the Torah translates, they don’t always see eye to eye on Israel’s policies or actions.

Monday night, five rabbis and Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, debated controversial issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center. The Jewish Unity Project of the United Jewish Federation’s Community and Public Affairs Council set up the forum.

Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai moderated and participated in one of the three minidebates. He reminded the crowd of some 200 that these discussions weren’t a time to cheer and boo one opinion over another, but to listen to what both sides had to say. By hearing just how complicated these issues were, one could understand why bringing peace to the region is no easy task. No winners or losers were declared following each debate.

Before the first two debaters stepped up to their podiums, Israeli Nitsa Ford spoke, giving an Israeli’s perspective on the current situation.

“The Israeli community looks up to the United States and their Jewish leaders for support and guidance,” she said. “Listening and respecting the opinions of others, beliefs is crucial because we both live in democratic societies.”

She talked about the everyday violence in Israel and how it isn’t easy to live there.

“Life in Israel is not for the faint of heart.”

Leading off the first debate, Fidel and Rabbi Yisroel Altein, of Chabad of Pittsburgh, discussed what should be done with Hebron, a settlement to which both Jews and Arabs lay claim.

“Jews have the right to live in Hebron,” Fidel started off, “but it doesn’t mean they should.”

Fidel argued that the Jews’ presence in Hebron is only hurting the chances for peace, while Altein argued that Jews have every right to stay in Hebron and shouldn’t leave despite the violence.

“The answer is in the Torah,” he said. “The land is ours because God gave it to us as a gift.”

“Will there be peace if we aren’t in Hebron?” he continued. “Do you think that’s all they want? I don’t think so.”

Fidel continued to say that the small number of Jews living in Hebron, around 1,000, amongst the thousands and thousands of Arabs, isn’t helping the situation.

She also noted that Israel is not totally innocent in this situation.

“The violence is not one-sided,” she said. “Jews are accused of graffiti, harassing Arabs and causing problems of their own.

“Israel is not a moral utopia,” she continued. “You can be pro-Israel without always thinking Israel is right. Palestinians stew in their anger and dream of revenge.”

Altein said giving land to the Arabs doesn’t secure peace.

“Peace without security is not peace,” he said. “We’ve tried giving them land for peace, only to see the terrorism increase.”

Stepping into the ring for the second round of debates was Rabbi Ron Symons, director of the Meyer Sivitz Lifelong Learning Initiative at Temple Sinai, and Rabbi Michael Werbow of Congregation Beth Shalom. The two discussed the Israeli army and whether its tactics were abuse of force or self-defense.

“The only thing Hamas knows is force,” Werbow began. “We must act as such. Their bombings and rockets give us no choice but to take action.”

Werbow noted that while civilian casualties were a tragedy, Israel attempts to avoid such deaths but sometimes Hamas makes that impossible.

“Civilian deaths are unfortunate, but they have themselves to blame. They elected Hamas and now must deal with the consequences.”

“Mosques and hospitals are targets because they hold caches and Hamas leaders,” he said. “Israel dropped leaflets to civilians warning them to stay away from dangerous places. They didn’t have to do this. They don’t want to take any innocent lives.”

Symons said that while the might of the IDF is the reason Israel will survive, he did note that at some point the violence could be too much.

“There must be a time when the violence reaches its point,” he said. “I don’t know what that physical point is, but I know it when I see it. There is a limit to what we know is acceptable.”

Gibson and Rabbi Yisroel Miller of Congregation Poale Zedeck participated in the third minisession. Although not set up like the previous debate, the two men acted as members from opposing sides of Israeli government and said what they would like to hear from the other side.

“I would like to hear code words and phrases used less often,” Miller said. “Phrases like ‘I am racist,’ ‘knee-jerk liberal’ and ‘I’m blind to the lessons of Jewish history.’”

Following the three sessions, questions were taken from the audience.

At the end, Gibson stressed to the audience that some of the stances the participants took were not their own. They were arguing them for the sake of providing an argument and to show just how complicated these issues can be.

(Mike Zoller can be reached at mikez@thejewishchornicle.net.)

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