Area's Jewish community focuses on Gaza pullout

Withdrawal plan evokes mixed reaction in U.S.

August 13, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SUN STAFF

With the Israeli government preparing to evacuate Jewish settlers from Gaza next week, Ellen Kushner has been visiting the Western Wall.

The Baltimore woman goes online to a live camera trained on the holy site in Jerusalem, where Jews have read psalms over the controversial policy of disengagement. One day this week, she joined in herself.

"I think it will be a disaster for Israel," said Kushner, a member of the Orthodox B'nai Jacob Shaarei Zion synagogue who raised her children in the Jewish state. "If it were going to bring peace, that would be one thing. But if you listen to the Arabs, the Gaza withdrawal shows that terrorism works."

But Rabbi Rex Perlmeter of the Reform Baltimore Hebrew Congregation says he backs what he calls the "experiment."

"I see it as a fulfillment of what I interpret as a higher value of Judaism, which is the value of shalom - peace," he said.

As time runs out on the Monday deadline for settlers to leave their homes, many in Baltimore's large Jewish community are focusing their attention on Israel. Rabbis are opining from the pulpit. Community members are following bulletins on television and the Internet, calling friends and e-mailing opinions.

"Many people in Baltimore, and throughout the United States, have relatives, know people, have been to Israel on many, many different occasions," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "And for all those reasons, we're paying very close attention."

On Monday, Israeli soldiers will begin to forcibly remove those among about 8,500 settlers in Gaza and 500 in the northern West Bank who have not left their communities. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the pullout will reduce friction with the Palestinians and bolster Israeli security.

In Baltimore, where some 100,000 residents form the ninth-largest Jewish community in the United States, opinion on the withdrawal is divided. Polls show that majorities of Jews in both Israel and the United States support the move. But significant minorities, including many among the Orthodox who make up a substantial portion of the Baltimore community, oppose it. Many of them say it could encourage more violence.

Rabbi Elan Adler met with settlers in the Gush Katif area of Gaza this year.

"It's a really tough call, because I think any Jew really wants to respect the government, and any Jew wants to respect the prime minister, which I do, and yet at the same time, it's so hard to understand why this is being done," said Adler, of the Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore. "It rewards the terrorists. ... It's saying if you terrorize enough, we will unilaterally give back land."

"I don't see that it's going to bring Israel security," added local attorney Jay Bernstein, co-host of the Sunday-morning Jewish--affairs radio program Shalom USA and a member of the Lubavitch Center. "I'm very concerned that the result will be a terror state in Gaza."

But longtime local peace activist Ronda Cooperstein, who describes herself as a non-observant Jew, called the withdrawal "absolutely necessary."

"The way it is now, there's no way the Palestinians can develop a society when they're living under occupation," said Cooperstein, a member of the local chapter of the progressive Tikkun movement. When the settlers leave, she said, the Palestinians "can develop an infrastructure, economic relations with others, where if they build something up, it's not going to be destroyed.

"When people have something to lose, they hopefully develop other ways of dealing with problems that come up rather than violence."

Perlmeter, of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, has supported the pullout from the pulpit.

"I have Orthodox colleagues in this country and over there who are preaching against it because God gave the land and we can't give it up," he said.

"I interpret God giving the land of Israel specifically and requiring that we hold onto every centimeter of land as a metaphor for our feeling of connection to the land. Am I willing to support Israel in risking the possibility of surrendering some land in the hope of peace? Absolutely. If they have the courage to take that step, they have my full support for it."

Sixty-two percent of American Jews agree, according to a survey conducted in April by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem sociologist Steven Cohen for the liberal American Zionist organization Ameinu. Twenty-three percent oppose the withdrawal.

Opinions have divided roughly along denominational lines, according to Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna.

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