Tom Stern, an attorney in Durham, clearly remembers his first political act. Raised in a Jewish family in New Jersey, he was only 11 years old when Israel fought its six-day war in 1967. But when the hostilities broke out and he heard that the Jewish homeland was battling its Arab neighbors, he felt an obligation to help in some way. “I went down to my bank account and took half of it out–it was like 20 bucks–and I sent it to Israel to support the war,” he says.
Today, the impulse to support Israel’s security is still a strong one among American Jews. But for Stern, as for many others in the Triangle Jewish community, the choices about how to do that are no longer so clear. Stern, who once lived on an Israeli kibbutz, says it was a “long, slow awakening” that led him to become an organizer and speaker for Jews for a Just Peace-North Carolina (JFAJP-NC). The group, which formed in early 2002, has organized events across the state pushing for an end to the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian areas. Steve Schewel, president of the company that owns The Independent, is a member of the group.
“I had to work through my fear of not standing behind Israel unconditionally,” Stern says, explaining part of his political evolution. “And after I worked through that I came to believe that actually I do more good for Israel if I’m vocal about what I think the problems are.”
In some ways, discussing those problems is both more important and more difficult than ever, some local Jewish leaders say. The Triangle’s Jewish community has long been divided about how to deal with conflict in the Middle East, but especially since the second Palestinian uprising started two years ago, and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, debates within the community have taken on a new urgency and emotion.
“Of course there is fairly wide consensus of support for the land, people and state of Israel, but there’s not across-the-board support of what the government is doing with the Palestinians,” says Rabbi John Friedman of the Judea Reform Congregation in Durham. “We have a wide spectrum of opinions, from Sharon supporters to people who are deeply against the occupation. But this year the community has become polarized between these two perspectives.”
The good news, some local activists say, is that the debate is helping to dispel the notion that there is unanimity among Jews about Israeli policies. “The Jewish community has appeared monolithic around this question,” says Matt Smith, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student active in JFAJP-NC. “Part of being a Jew, most of us feel, is the process of engaging with a problem. You dialogue, you create opportunities to attack difficult problems and talk them through. That’s our practice, that’s what we do. But so far we haven’t been doing that when in comes to Israel.”
Smith and the peace group hope to foster new dialogue by hosting Itai Swirski, a lieutenant in the Israeli reserves, at several appearances in the Triangle this week. Swirski, a 28-year-old labor lawyer in Tel Aviv, is a founding leader of Ometz L’Sarev (Courage to Refuse), a group of more than 400 soldiers and officers–“refuseniks”–who have refused to further serve in the West Bank and Gaza and are calling for a complete pull-out from the occupied territories.
Swirski’s group has made common cause with the Israeli anti-occupation movement, which has recently gained momentum, even though–and perhaps because–fears about terrorism are rising with every suicide bombing. That momentum has been reflected in the United States, where groups like JFAJP-NC are proliferating. Most are locally focused, but a new, Washington, D.C.-based group, Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, is doing similar work on a national level.
Of course, most mainstream American Jewish groups continue to argue that Israel’s military operations, even if regrettable, are necessary to counter Palestinian attacks. Jonah Segal, executive director of the Raleigh-Cary Jewish Federation, says that he agrees with the peace group’s assertion that a broad-ranging debate is crucial. When it comes to divisive issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “the fact that we discuss them, argue about them and grapple with them is very healthy.”
But Segal sees the conflict from a very different perspective than do the members of JFAJP-NC. For example, he blanches when asked about Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas. “I urge you to be careful with your terminology–there is disputed territory,” he says. “Who’s occupying whose territory is in fact a historical question, and there’s not a clear answer to that. To some Jews living here in Raleigh, it is occupied territory: It’s Jewish land being occupied by Arabs. But that’s not what is usually meant by that term.”
Addressing differences like these, about the very terms of the debate, will require many agreements to disagree. But the voice of Jews opposed to the occupation, long missing from policy debates, is starting to assert itself. “Some people are worried about airing our differences about Israeli government policies at a time when there’s so much turmoil and violence in the Middle East,” Stern says. At the same time, he believes there’s new space for the idea that Jews can be both pro-Israel and anti-occupation. “We support Israel. We want it to exist, we want it to be safe. But we feel like we can get there by ending the occupation and having a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel. Then the Palestinians can put their energies, hopes and aspirations into building something, instead of resisting occupation.”