Learn how the Momentum Campaign is reconstructing Judaism → 

Shared Values and Multiple Opinions in Reconstructionist Congregations

A Message from Reconstructing Judaism’s Israel Affairs Specialist, Rabbi Maurice Harris:

On December 17, 2023, I led a webinar for members of Reconstructionist congregations called “Shared Values and Multiple Opinions: Reconstructionist Congregations and the Israel-Hamas War.”

The main goal I had for the webinar was to share some important things I’ve observed in the course of many conversations I and others in the Department for Thriving Communities have had with lay leaders and rabbis across our congregations since October 7.

Since that horrible day, members of Reconstructionist communities have been coping with intense shock, grief, and trauma. Initially that trauma was focused exclusively on the brutal massacres, kidnappings, and sexual violence carried out by Hamas. In the weeks that followed, as the Israeli military bombardment and invasion of Gaza intensified, many in our movement have also felt grief and growing moral concern over the rapidly growing number of Palestinian civilians killed in the course of Israel’s military campaign to destroy Hamas.

Across our movement, rabbis and congregants have come together to share grief, to listen to each other’s views about the issues at stake in the war, and sometimes to work together to make public statements or take part in community-wide gatherings.

At the time of this writing, roughly 1,400 Israelis have been killed, including about 900 civilians of whom 50 were children. Around 18,500 Gazans have been killed, including 13,600 civilians of whom 6,500 or more were children. Thousands more civilians, including children, remain buried in rubble, as much of the Gazan population has fled south.

Across our movement, rabbis and congregants have come together to share grief, to listen to each other’s views about the issues at stake in the war, and sometimes to work together to make public statements or take part in community-wide gatherings. And, in many of our communities, there have been deep and painful divisions, as well as a lot of people struggling internally over where they stand on specific issues involved in the war. 

Having had the time to talk with a wide range of congregational leaders and rabbis across our movement, I have come to believe that there are five goals regarding the current crisis that a super-majority of members of our congregations support, even if they are not certain about how to achieve those goals. These goals are (in no particular order): 

  1. Freeing the hostages
  2. Protecting Israelis from future attacks
  3. Protecting Palestinian civilians
  4. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by negotiated agreement (probably two-states)
  5. Removing Hamas from power in Gaza

I focused my webinar presentation on this super-majority of members of our congregations, while acknowledging that in our diverse movement we have members whose politics regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fall well to the left or the right of the movement’s longstanding progressive Zionist platform (see Note #1 below for more on this subject). But even within this super-majority, there are several political and moral issues dividing people, sometimes painfully. 

Those Calling for Immediate Ceasefire

Some of our members have been passionately advocating for an immediate ceasefire. In this instance I’m not talking about members who are anti-Zionists or who align themselves primarily with Palestine solidarity political movements. 

I’m talking about members whose Israel politics are much more mainstream, but who at some point since the war began have come to feel that the price in innocent blood of continuing the war is just too high.

These are members who have argued that the most important of our Jewish values now is the prohibition against the killing of innocents. They object to the large numbers of Gazan civilians who have already been killed, especially the thousands of children, and to an Israeli invasion that has displaced an enormous percentage of Gazans and risks wider humanitarian catastrophe. They are worried about the hardening of the Jewish soul and the mistakes human beings sometimes make in the immediate aftermath of collective trauma.

Some are concerned that this particular Israeli government includes cabinet ministers who have made racist and genocidal statements, and they argue that this Israeli coalition cannot be trusted to honor international laws of war. They are also chilled by the indifference with which this Israeli government has treated radical Jewish settler gangs who have murdered West Bank Palestinians and driven many out of their villages since the war began. 

Some feel that too many war crimes red lines have been crossed by Israel, even as they fully acknowledge that Hamas’ October 7 attacks were horrific war crimes that were likely designed to elicit a massive military reaction. It’s important to note that people in this camp agree that Hamas’ conduct, using civilians as human shields, is reprehensible; that its ideology is antisemitic; and that its human rights record ruling Gaza is abysmal. They share the goal of Hamas being out of power, but they can not support the current Israeli military campaign as a morally acceptable or politically realistic means of achieving that goal. First, they have concluded, the killing needs to stop.

Those Opposed to Immediate Ceasefire

In contrast, others in our congregations have just as strongly opposed an immediate ceasefire. They feel that the nature of the Hamas attack necessitates Israeli military action as legitimate self-defense. Some in this camp view Israel’s overall security position as much more vulnerable than it appears on the surface. 

They are concerned about Hezbollah’s 150,000 rockets in southern Lebanon and its extreme, antisemitic ideology. They are concerned about Iranian involvement, about the potential for violent breakdowns between Arabs and Jews within Israel’s borders, and about the limits of Israel’s ability to maintain a high level of military reservist duty for a long stretch of time. They can picture nightmarish scenarios in which Israel’s ability to withstand future surprise attacks, whether from Hamas or other actors, ruptures, perhaps leading to Israel losing control of some of its towns and villages anywhere along its periphery. The mass-taking of hostages by Hamas, and the ongoing holding of Israeli hostages, leads many in this camp to believe that allowing Hamas the ability to regroup is an invitation to more hostage-taking on a larger scale, possibly even targeting Israelis or general Jewish populations outside the Middle East. 

Within this camp are many who have also criticized Israel’s military methods for killing too many civilians, including many who argue that Israel should change those methods so that far fewer civilians are killed. But ultimately they believe that allowing Hamas to remain in power would be a grave mistake that would harm Israelis and Palestinians in the long run. 

They argue that leaving Hamas in power risks many future rounds of warfare, given Hamas’ repeated pledges to continue carrying out attacks like October 7, and given that Hamas is an organization that has sworn to sabotage any kind of future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that includes the existence of Israel. The people I’ve heard express these views feel shocked and demoralized by the large number of Palestinian civilian deaths, and many feel guilt or some measure of doubt about their position. But they also hold Hamas’ human-shield policy partly responsible for these deaths, and they want to see more international pressure brought down upon Hamas and its network of supporters, who include major human rights violators. Ultimately, an end to the war that leaves Hamas in charge of Gaza seems disastrous to people in this camp.

Differences of Opinion Resulting from Differences in Prioritizing Shared Goals

Within both of these camps are people who find it hard to understand why some of their fellow congregants who share their overall goals and values are not drawing the same conclusions that they have drawn. Meanwhile, as the news shifts day to day, the overwhelming majority of our congregations’ members long for the same things. They want the hostages freed. They want Israelis to be safe. They want Palestinians to be safe. They want a two-state solution or something similar to redefine the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians for the better. And they don’t want to see Hamas, or any extremist dictatorial group, running Gaza, or any part of Israel or Palestine for that matter. 

The differences between people in our movement advocating for different policy positions about the war mainly come down to how people rank and prioritize the five goals listed above, as well as how they understand the moral urgency attaching to some of those goals as compared to others. I wanted to offer the webinar I led because I hoped that understanding this could be helpful to members of our congregations. People with similar shared goals and shared values can draw different conclusions about how to prioritize and triage those values in a crisis, and when the stakes are high, they may feel conscience-bound to advocate passionately for the positions they’ve embraced. Hopefully we can, across our movement, assume humility about our own personal views and give the benefit of the doubt to others who have drawn different conclusions.

Speaking personally, I live this struggle every day, internally. I have not joined public calls for immediate ceasefire, but I also think I might be making a moral mistake. I sway back and forth between these two perspectives. And that leads me to the note I’ll end on. 

I’ve spent most of this essay describing two large “camps” within our congregations, but I think the reality is actually much muddier. A really large number of our members, perhaps much larger than the numbers of people who feel certain about their views, sees that there is merit in both of these perspectives, and is not sure what is right. My hope is that we can all seek to follow our consciences as best we can and withhold judgment towards our fellow community members who differ. My hope is also that we can stay open enough to allow the possibility of being moved or swayed by each other’s best arguments and sincere intentions.

Note #1: What I mean by the Reconstructionist movement’s progressive Zionist platform:

From our movement’s beginnings in the 1920s, we have expressed a deep commitment to the flourishing of Jewish life in the Land of Israel based on principles of democracy, Jewish religious pluralism, Jewish cultural renewal, and the pursuit of compromise and peace with the Palestinians. In the decades since 1967, when Israel began its military rule over the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza and began building Jewish settlements there, the central organizations of our movement have approved multiple resolutions calling for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the following principles:

  • securing Israel’s place in the Middle East as a Jewish and democratic state according to the vision expressed in its Declaration of Independence; 
  • ending Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza;
  • halting the expansion of settlements in those same territories;  
  • establishing a democratic Palestinian state alongside Israel within final borders to be agreed by both parties; and
  • implementing mutually agreed creative compromises to resolve the status of Jerusalem and the claims of Palestinian refugees. 

These are the principles of progressive Zionism. No one has ever been required to agree with all of these positions in order to be a Reconstructionist, but the movement as a whole has affirmed these principles many times and continues to hold this progressive Zionist view as its established position.

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

The Reconstructionist Network