American Jews take stock of internal divisions, antisemitism

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FILE - Pro-Israel supporters chant slogans during a rally in support of Israel outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. A larger debate is playing out nationwide among many U.S. Jews who are divided over how to respond to the violence and over the disputed boundaries for acceptable criticism of Israeli policies. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, file)

As fighting between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers raged before last week's cease-fire, U.S. rabbinical student Max Buchdahl wanted to be considerate of those in his community who are emotionally connected to Israel — but he also wanted to support Palestinians.

Buchdahl, 25, joined dozens of rabbinical and cantorial students who signed a letter expressing solidarity with Palestinians and appealing to U.S. Jews to demand change from Israel, which it accused of abuses.

Pushback came swiftly from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the dean of Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, which trains a new generation of Conservative rabbis including a small number of the letter’s signatories.

He penned a response saying he admired highlighting the suffering of Palestinians but disapproved of what he saw as a lack of solidarity with Israel and Israeli Jews, and silence on their suffering and on the “murderous tyranny” of Hamas.

Both letters were published in the Forward, a media nonprofit targeting a Jewish American audience, part of a larger debate playing out nationwide among many U.S. Jews who are divided over how to respond to the violence and over the disputed boundaries for acceptable criticism of Israeli policies.

“I do see us wrestling with degrees of culpability, degrees of responsibility,” Artson said in an interview. “The areas of disagreement might be to what degree is Israel alone responsible for the occupation? To what degree is the occupation also the responsibility of Hamas” and other regional powers?

Jonathan D. Sarna, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said American Jews' perceptions can vary greatly by generation.

To many who are old enough to remember the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation and later Arab-Israeli wars, “Israel is fragile, under attack, and its enemies want to destroy it,” Sarna said. “Younger Jews have been more influenced by a kind of David and Goliath narrative: To their mind, Israel has been stronger throughout their life. ... They are concerned more about what they see as disproportionality.”