What do local Jews make of latest Middle East news?

Jared Kushner speaking while U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman looks on at the opening ceremony of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Rabbi Amy Feder of Congregation Temple Israel tries to remain neutral during discussions on Israel at the Reform synagogue.

“In our classes, we can talk Torah, we can talk anything, but the minute you talk Israel — immediately the conversation becomes so one-sided that it really does silence others,” she said. “There are certain classes where I know that they are such fierce hawks that we become the lonely doves in the room. Or they are all so left-wing that we become fiercely Zionist, simply because we feel that if you cannot see that there are two sides to a situation, then you are lost.”

That effort to produce constructive dialogue among local Jews won’t become any easier because of world events in the last week. 

While Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, her husband Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood smiling at the dedication of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem Monday, more than 50 Palestinians were killed and thousands injured during protests in Gaza at the border with Israel. Less than a week earlier, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

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Jews in St. Louis seemed unsure what the especially rapid string of events — even in these times when news concerning Trump’s administration breaks constantly — mean for the future of Israel, the United States and the Middle East.

“These are strange times, and it is very hard to not speak out and to not take sides anymore,” Feder said after a meeting at the synagogue on helping Jewish veterans. 

“If you had asked me two years ago if this is where I thought we would be today, I could never have imagined the things that have gone on in our country because of our leadership in the last few years,” she added.

Among various sectors of the St. Louis Jewish community, the Jewish Light found few people opposed to the decision to move the embassy — which correlates to U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital —  though some disagree with the timing and/or were concerned about the larger implications of the move.

“I think if you are Jewish, there is part of you that says, ‘It’s nice to have the embassy in Jerusalem.’ I think that’s meaningful. However, by doing that, I think any chance of peace is going to be long-term; it’s not going to happen for a while,” said Steve Rosenblum, a Temple Israel member who attended the meeting to help veterans and describes himself as an independent politically.

The Israel Defense Forces responded to the protests by sending fighter jets to strike five Hamas targets in Gaza.

Hamas, the group that controls Gaza and is designated by Israel and the United States as a terrorist organization, has organized protests against Israel for the last seven weeks. Monday was the deadliest day of the protests, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Eitan Oberlander, a senior at Yeshivat Kadimah High School, said the embassy move seemed, “very exciting because it’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty and ability to choose where it’s capital is. 

“But on the other hand,” he continued, “the timing seems suspect to say the least. Because we are at a time with protests along the Gaza border and tensions are very high, it seems like it’s stirring the pot.”

The IDF has said it used riot dispersal measures “according to standard operating procedures” to prevent Hamas from breaching the border and committing terrorist attacks in Israel. People in Gaza have also been sending kites carrying explosives into Israel, causing wildfires in forests and agricultural fields.

“Israel has the right to secure its borders,” said Jackie Kofsky, a Democrat and retired teacher who belongs to Congregation Shaare Emeth and was exercising Monday at the Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur. “Israel has the right to retaliate if it is [attacked.]”

Andrew Warshauer, a Democrat and Reconstructionist Jew who works in marketing, sees the embassy move as an “unnecessary provocation.”

And on the protests, he adds, “to see so many people shot dead, when there is no real threat of violence from the protesters, is reprehensible.”

While violence in Gaza continues, some analysts have said that the United States is also now on a path to war with Iran. European nations urged Trump not to leave the agreement, which had lifted sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear ambitions for at least a decade.

U.S. officials have since said they will try to renegotiate a more comprehensive deal.

“We need to prevent Iran from getting a bomb, so if what Trump wants is to renegotiate a better deal, then hopefully we can get that done quickly,” said Oberlander, who plans to study for a year at a yeshiva in Israel after he graduates from the Modern Orthodox high school

Israel’s Netanyahu had long opposed the deal and described Trump’s withdrawal as an act of “courageous leadership.” Before Trump’s announcement, Netanyahu gave a PowerPoint presentation in which he displayed documents on Iran’s nuclear program that he said showed its leaders had lied during negotiations, which helped bolster Trump’s case for leaving the agreement.

“I think it’s so premature to do something like that,” said Murray Hochberg, cantor emeritus at United Hebrew Congregation, who was also at the J. “There was a 10-year agreement. I guess Iran is very guilty of hiding. I think there has to be a new negotiation regarding nuclear development in Iran and see where we can come up with a better deal — but not pull away just arbitrarily,” which is what occurred with Trump’s withdrawal, he said. 

Gabriela Szteinberg has paid close to recent events in Israel, in part, because she is scheduled to travel there next week. She points to warnings from analysts and political leaders that there would be a backlash to the embassy move and describes the subsequent violence in Gaza as “predictable” and “sad.” 

A Bolivian native, she and her mother, who are both Jewish, are participating in an organized trip with a group of Argentinians. It’s her mom’s first trip to Israel.

“I know that I will be safe but it’s just heartbreaking because not only are there going to be a lot of deaths on the Palestinian side, but also there is going to be a rise in anti-Semitism,” said Szteinberg, a chemistry educator at Washington University. “And that is going to put Jews in a lot of difficult situations, yet again.” 

Information from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency was used in this report.