Defending Israel against its critics isnt easy, teens find

Liberal activist Rabbi Avi Weiss never thought he would live to see another day when Jews are killed because they are Jews — until recent attacks in Israel by Palestinian suicide bombers.

"I am suggesting to you that Jews are being murdered not because they are Israelis but because they are Jews," Weiss told a group of teenagers in Berkeley on March 19, recalling the recent murder of a family in their home on Shabbat by two Palestinians disguised as observant Jews.

In a roundtable discussion at Congregation Beth Israel, the New York modern Orthodox rabbi addressed the "Challenges of Jewish Identity During High School in a Climate of Diversity and Adversity."

"What do you do when you hear criticism of Israel?" asked Weiss, the president of AMCHA — the Coalition for Jewish Concerns. "What do you say when you hear, 'Look at the Israeli soldiers, they're shooting innocent Palestinians.'"

"I'm scared to say anything against it because I need to defend it," said Hannah Lesser, 16, a junior at Berkeley High School. She added that the only place she felt comfortable criticizing the Israeli handling of the Palestinian uprising was "the common ground" of a Jewish conference attended by supporters of the Jewish state.

Several of the teens expressed the difficulty they face when their classmates criticize Israeli military actions against Palestinians in the territories.

"We mourn and we are pained by the loss of all human life. That means there is no difference between the death of an Israeli and the death of a Palestinian," Weiss told the teens. "But I add there is no moral equivalency between cold-blooded murder and self-defense, between a Palestinian trying to kill as many Jews as possible and the actions of the Israeli Army that tries to defend itself by taking out the assassins."

Kenny Hendon, a 14-year-old Tehiyah Day School eighth grader, agreed that the difference between the Israeli and Palestinian killings lies in their intentions.

"For the families of the suicide bombers it's like a victory, but I don't think the great majority of Israeli soldiers want to have to kill these people," Hendon said. "They don't celebrate."

Weiss, senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City and a faculty member at Yeshiva University's Stern College, asked the teens what Israel means to them.

"To me, it means the ultimate existence of Jewish people as a whole," said Ari Resnikoff, 15, a freshman at Berkeley High. "Losing it is not a choice."

Valerie Morris, 16, a Berkeley High junior, said the existence of Israel is particularly important. "Now you can see it with a rise of anti-Semitism," she said. "There needs to be a place for Jews to go."

Sam Lyon, a 13-year-old Tehiyah eighth grader, said his generation has always taken the state of Israel for granted. "My dad feels differently about Israel than I do because he was around when it was born," said Lyon. "I've always had the luxury of it being there."

Calling Israel a "physical insurance policy" for the world's Jews, Weiss recounted the story of the St. Louis, a ship carrying 950 Jews from Nazi Germany to safe harbor in Cuba in 1939. After being denied entry to Cuba and the United States, the ship was forced to return to Europe. More than half of the passengers later perished in the Holocaust.

"One of the reasons why Israel is very unique is because they say that's not going to happen again," Weiss said, noting that Israel grants Jews automatic citizenship. "I view this as a very, very holy act."

Lesser said it's often difficult in a city as liberal as Berkeley to defend Israel against accusations of racism when non-Jews there are not granted automatic citizenship. "How can you be a Jewish state and a democracy?" she asked.

Acknowledging his own liberal credentials, Weiss pointed out that no two democracies are alike. Certain laws in the United States such as the one prohibiting any foreign-born person from becoming president may appear discriminatory, he said.

Resnikoff said that most of the countries surrounding Israel don't even allow Jews to visit, much less become a citizen. "No one ever mentions that they are racist against Jews," he said.

"One million mostly Sephardic Jews used to live in Islamic countries, but not anymore," responded Weiss. "By and large the hatred is very, very deep."

Ezra Malmuth, 15, a freshman at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, said he fears for the future of Israel.

Weiss, recalling that during the Holocaust "too many had too little to say," encouraged the teens to visit Israel and to continue articulating the thoughts they had shared with him.

"With your help, Israel is going to survive," said the rabbi.