S.F. rabbi now doubts Palestinians ever wanted peace

Rabbi Martin Weiner, who supported the Mideast peace process long before it was fashionable among mainstream Jews, admitted in a speech he delivered Saturday in Jerusalem that he now doubts the Palestinians ever craved peace.

"I think many of those who supported the Oslo peace accords have now come to the conclusion there may not be a partner for peace among the Palestinians, and Arafat's possible goal all along was not to make peace but to destroy Israel," said Weiner, longtime senior rabbi at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel.

"From being one who supported peace talks 10 or 15 years ago, back when some people were calling us traitors, I now have serious concerns about the intentions of the Palestinians," said Weiner, who is also president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis. "I saw the reality of it in Jerusalem."

Weiner shared those views during the CCAR's Jerusalem convention. Comprised of 250 rabbis and family members, the group was easily the largest conference to visit Israel's capital in more than a year.

The 63-year-old Weiner — who will retire in June 2003 after serving his congregation since 1972 — is the latest in a long line of outspoken Sherith Israel rabbis. In addition to national concerns such as gun control and domestic violence, Weiner has been a vocal critic of Israel's settlement policies and social conditions.

In 1991, he was the first mainstream Bay Area rabbi to support the first President Bush's 120-day tabling of legislation to award Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees to aid in the resettling of ex-Soviet and Ethiopian refugees. The delay was a result of the Bush administration's objection to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's settlement policies.

While Weiner continues to criticize some Israeli positions, a March 7 interview with him in the Jerusalem Post appeared under the headline "U.S. Reform rabbis growing more hawkish."

Weiner says the story oversimplified his views and that he was not attempting to speak for all Reform rabbis. He added, however, that many Reform rabbis are feeling similar "anguish," and he thinks his speech resonated with them.

"My speech indicated my personal anguish, a deep sense of distrust. I have some serious doubts about Palestinians' longing for peace," he said. "On the other hand, I feel, according to Jewish tradition, I cannot give up hope. We must continue to be pursuers of peace."

Ernest Weiner, the longtime regional director of the American Jewish Committee and one of the Bay Area Jewish community's more conservative voices, praised the rabbi for his statement, which he called "a courageous and realistic set of responses."

"When someone like Rabbi Weiner has to go through literally an intellectual reappraisal, he has to be moved by what he sees and what he knows are irreversible facts. And that is what he is responding to now," said Weiner, who is not related to the rabbi.

"Although he's certainly acknowledged as someone who's on the liberal end of the political spectrum, he's always been willing to listen to someone's thoughts and opinions and give them a fair hearing. It should be obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear [that] the Palestinian Authority and the overwhelming majority of the Arab world are looking forward with glee not only to the Jewish blood being spilled now but to the ultimate disappearance of Israel."

Weiner's speech at the CCAR convention mirrored thoughts expressed in his Yom Kippur sermon. Many Sherith Israel congregants were surprised by that speech, some not pleasantly.

"There were a lot of people who were upset by it. That doesn't include me," said Don Ungar, a Sherith Israel congregant for 20 years. "One can agree or disagree with him, but, as a spiritual leader, he has the obligation to speak his mind."

Added Dr. James Davis, also a 20-year congregant, "I was surprised. This is really a 180-degree shift for our rabbi."

Weiner's talk, however, did not upset Davis, who said, "The purpose of the sermon was to provoke thought. And he was very effective in doing that."

Discussing his disillusionment with the peace process, Weiner said seeds of doubt were planted in his mind following Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's rejection of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in July 2000. His views coalesced during "these bloody months [full of] these bloody killings, which are so unnecessary. It seems so futile and so terrible."

In fact, five of the CCAR convention members watched in horror at a Jerusalem cafe last week as an Israeli waiter, with commando training, body-slammed a would-be suicide bomber into the ground, saving the lives of dozens.

Weiner does not believe Israel's actions are completely above reproach, however. His speech decried "the desperate plight of exploited women and migrant workers," as well as the living conditions of Bedouins and Palestinians, who are forced to endure "severe limitations on travel and access to health care."

Weiner also praised the work of Israeli activist Rabbis Arik Ascherman, formerly of the Bay Area, David Forman and Ron Kronish.

"It pains me to see any human being suffering, whether it's Bedouins living in a shanty town or the humiliations that checkpoints bring on," Weiner said after his return from Israel. "But all that has to be balanced with the current situation in which the Palestinian leadership seems to be intent on destroying the state of Israel. And I believe that the state of Israel has every right to survive as a Jewish state."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.