Area rabbis oppose West Bank annexation - a fraught topic

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A group of Massachusetts rabbis recently spoke out on Israel-Palestine relations — an uncommon act that one described as a "rehumanizing" of a complicated situation.

Sixteen rabbis from the Pioneer Valley wrote a guest column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette at the end of June in which they expressed disapproval of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to annex the West Bank, a disputed territory west of the Jordan River to which Israel and Palestine have historical ties.

In the essay, which says it was "written from a place of deep love," the rabbis drew on their connections to Israel through family, faith and travel. They stated that they have "never wavered" in their belief in Israel's right to self-determination, but said that unilateral action that extends Israel's presence in the West Bank without negotiation, or the inclusion of Palestinians, is harmful to Palestinian people and undermines "Israel's moral position."

"Our love of Israel is consistent with our support for human dignity," the column reads.

The Eagle tried to interview six rabbis in Berkshire County to learn how they view the issue. Three could not be reached for comment. One declined to comment. Another declined to comment due to scheduling problems.

Rabbi Levi Volovik of Chabad of Berkshire County in Pittsfield would say only that his role is to help and to educate, not to "give political statements."

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"We're here to help people," he said. "Anyone, no matter what."

Essay's origin

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The idea for the column came from Rabbi Ed Feld, a Jewish author and lecturer in Northampton. He organized the signing and editing of the column, which, he said, was inspired by a similar piece signed by 42 members of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association in mid-June.

Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, who also was involved in drafting and editing the letter, said annexation potentially could "create untold human rights violations for Palestinians in the West Bank."

"It's important to those of us who signed on because we believe that a democratic Israel is a critical safeguard and home for the Jewish people," David said.

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Keiner of Temple Israel in Greenfield also signed the letter. She said it can be difficult for American Jews to speak out on Israel-Palestine relations.

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On one hand, some feel that it's unfair for members of the American Jewish community to be critical of Israel because those members don't live in "the pressure cooker." Cohen-Keiner said she understands "the paranoia" Israelis are living in but, on the other hand, she said she understands "the conditions that Palestinians live under." The fear that Cohen-Keiner referenced extends beyond those living in Israel.

She said another difficulty of speaking out is the fear of "adding fodder to anti-Semitism."

"I can't let the conflict I feel silence me and my moral compass," Cohen-Keiner said.

The best thing to do, she said, is to listen and try to "rehumanize all positions."

Caroline White can be reached at cwhite@berkshireeagle.com or at 563-513-1065.


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