“An Untenable and Dangerous Reality”
Dozens of American rabbinical and cantorial students wrote a public letter in 2021 calling on the Jewish American community to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses. The letter begins: “Blood is flowing in the streets of the Holy Land.” Nearly 90 rabbinical students had signed the letter in a matter of days, representing a large percentage from non-Orthodox rabbinical schools in the United States.
The letter describes Israel’s military and police violence against Palestinians and its apartheid, which “so many of us ignore.” It continues, “As American Jews, our institutions tell stories of Israel rooted in hope for what could be, but oblivious to what is. Our tzedakah money funds a story we wish were true, but perpetuates a reality that is untenable and dangerous. Our political advocacy too often puts forth a narrative of victimization, but supports violent suppression of human rights and enables apartheid in the Palestinian territories, and the threat of annexation. It’s far past time that we confront this head on. We can no longer shy away or claim ignorance.”
“Blood is flowing in the streets of the Holy Land.”
The letter was published days after a major outbreak of violence in Israel-Palestine in which 9 Israelis and more than 100 Palestinians died. More than 700 Palestinians were injured in a matter of twenty-four hours, with 500 hospitalized.
The crisis was ostensibly triggered by an anticipated Supreme Court of Israel decision to evict Palestinian families from their ancestral homes in Sheikh Jarrah, an area which is considered part of the Palestinian Territories under international law. Palestinians protested the decision outside the Old City of Jerusalem, and Israeli police cracked down on the protestors and the 90,000 Muslims worshipping at the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Islamic holiday Laylat al-Qadr (or “Night of Destiny”, when prayers are considered most sacred).
The police crackdown included the use of stun grenades, water cannons, skunk water, tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and shock grenades. Live video footage shows Israeli police in riot gear and on horseback. One officer is grabbing a veiled woman protestor by her scarf and dragging her along the ground while she screams. On this Friday night alone, more than 205 Palestinians and 18 Israeli officers were injured, and 90 more Palestinians were injured the next day, according to Palestine Red Crescent.
“Fires are burning on the hills of Jerusalem and buildings are smoldering in Gaza.”
Following weeks of increasing violence, Hamas issued Israel an ultimatum to withdraw Israeli forces from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. When Israel refused to comply, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants waged the heaviest rocket attack in Tel Aviv’s history—even the Iron Dome was unable to prevent all the rockets from landing, resulting in the deaths of 13 civilians in Israel.
Israel responded to the militants’ rocket attacks with airstrikes on Gaza. By May 18, 2021, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) found that Israel had destroyed 94 buildings which comprised of 461 housing and commercial units, including news outlet offices such as the Associated Press’ Gaza bureau and the Al Jazeera Media Network. According to the UNOCHA, the Israeli air strikes alone caused 72,000 Palestinians to be displaced, and another 25,000 staying with host families. Between May 10 and 18, the airstrikes killed approximately 213 Palestinians, including 62 children and 35 women. In Israel, 10 people including one soldier were killed by rocket fire.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the rockets and mortars fired by Palestinian militant groups amounted to war crimes. It similarly reported that Israel’s attacks on Gaza also amounted to war crimes: “Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby.”
Who Is To Blame?
The American rabbinical students’ letter does not mention the violent actions of Hamas. Frankie Sandmel, a Hebrew College rabbinical student, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency his own reasons for not calling out Hamas: “For myself, as an American Jew who has never lived in Gaza or the West Bank, I don’t feel like I have ground to stand on to try to influence how Palestinians respond to oppression. I do have the ability to speak to the American Jewish community that I am hoping to lead, to look at the ways that we vote and the ways that we give tzedakah and the ways that we educate our communities.”
The letter asks: “How much say do we, American Jews, have? We are here, not there. What can we do?” In addition to voting and giving tzedakah in ways that will influence peace in Israel-Palestine, the letter recommends that Jewish Americans teach about Israel in all its “messy truth…”, offering a narrative in which “a persecuted people searching for safety, going to a land full of meaning for the Jewish people, full of meaning for so many other peoples, and also full of human beings who didn’t ask for new neighbors.”
The rabbinical students implore that the Jewish American community “tap into the empathy that you need to feel and experience the reality on the ground” so that we may “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our G-d (Micah 6:8).”
Read the complete letter and list of signatories here.