Right after the news broke, Rabbi Menachem Creditor’s e-mail inbox began to fill.
Members of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley wanted to discuss with him the firestorm of criticism Israel endured after the May 31 interception of a pro-Palestinian flotilla off the Gaza coast. Nine Turkish activists died and several Israeli commandos suffered injuries.
Creditor wrote back asking congregants to “pray for all those injured, the families of the dead, and for a better day for Palestinians and for Israelis.”
His e-mail went on to say: “Israel isn’t about pain; it’s about Jewish pride, which of course has made these past days excruciating for the global Jewish community.”
Across the Bay Area, pulpit rabbis have fielded congregants’ questions, comments and concerns regarding the flotilla incident. Some rabbis have sermonized on the topic, others wrote prayers and some sent out mass e-mails.
“People are anguished, but in the conversations I’ve had there is also great concern about the portrayal of the situation in the media,” said Rabbi Elon Sunshine of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek. “Some people do think it’s unfair. [The coverage] always raises the question of whether the portrayal is accurate.”
Like Creditor, Sunshine e-mailed his congregants, acknowledging conflicted feelings and noting that emotions “can and do impact our perceptions and interpretations.” He told congregants during Shabbat services June 5 that Israel has the right to protect itself and ensure the safety of its citizens.
“Sometimes,” he said, “accomplishing that requires very complex decisions and sacrifice, which can be painful.”
Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco found his congregants were united in staunch support of Israel and their disgust over the international outcry.
“The response I got across the board was, here it goes again,” Strulowitz said. “Israel can never do any right, the other side can never do any wrong. Another double standard for Israel. People who are antagonistic toward Israel aren’t going to let the facts get in the way.”
Though protests over Israel’s actions erupted around the world, the Israeli government attempted to get out in front of the story, releasing video showing IDF commandos being assaulted by activists on board the Mavi Marmara, and offering a strong defense of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.
“In the beginning this seemed it would be a big PR coup for pro-Hamas groups, but in the end it might have backfired a bit,” Strulowitz added. “It certainly galvanized the pro-Israel community. The fact that they got the video out so quickly was a big a deal.”
Negative PR for Israel was on the mind of Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham when he heard the news. Besides lamenting the deaths, he initially wondered if Israel could have planned the operation better.
Then he reconsidered. “Relatively speaking, I’m not positive Israel could have done any better,” Bloom said. “If they had gone in with assault rifles, more people would have died. Israel has been doing a reasonable job of managing the PR. The videos show Israeli soldiers getting beaten mercilessly, and yet that’s irrelevant to Israel detractors.”
Bloom described his congregation’s initial reaction to the news as one of sadness and exhaustion. “My job is to give comfort,” he said. “I’ve had trouble finding the words to give that comfort.”
On the other hand, he pointed out that 80 congregants have signed up for a synagogue trip to Israel next year. “What we have to focus on is that Israel is still a very real country,” Bloom adds. “There is so much to celebrate.”
With congregants seeking guidance on the flotilla incident, Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel wrote a prayer for Shabbat services last week.
In her prayer she asked whether U.S. Jews could still find the strength to play a part in “creating conditions that will, at last, make peace possible.”
“I felt a prayer was what we needed more than analysis,” she said. “Regardless of where the blame lies, and it lies in more than one place, we’re going to see more of these incidents until we see a political solution.”
At Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, the flotilla incident and aftermath were “much on everybody’s mind,” said Rabbi David Booth. “From everybody there was a sense that the press was too quick to characterize what was going on, and a lot of concern.”
Booth noted that within his congregation there is a wide spectrum of opinion on Israel. For that reason, normally he focuses not so much on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but on other Israel-related issues, such as Jewish pluralism and economic disparity.
But the flotilla incident was too important to ignore, and he addressed the subject in his sermon last weekend, which he ended with a prayer for peace and healing.
He said that congregants were “appreciative of my taking it on. None us are experts, and if we knew the magic solution to peace we would have done it already. What became clear to me was the Jewish community really is in love with Israel.”