The Gaza Dialogues

With more than 100,000 Jews in Miami, it's no wonder the debate here is hot

Labels matter. Just as one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, the tiny sliver of Middle Eastern land that some refer to as the "Occupied Territories" is to others an integral part of Israel. Indeed for a growing faction of Miami's Jewish community, even the term "West Bank" is ideologically suspect. Instead their preferred map markers are Judea and Samaria. As for the Gaza Strip, where last week nearly 9000 Israeli settlers were forcibly removed from their homes to make way for a nascent Palestinian state, Gush Katif is the name of choice. And if all of this revised terminology sounds awfully biblical to be bandied about in the modern age of 2005, well, that's exactly the point.

G-d decreed all the land belongs to the Jews declared a handmade sign defiantly waved at one of last week's protests in downtown Miami, the public face of a bitter debate that has spilled out of area synagogues and coffee klatches and into the streets. A midnight prayer vigil outside Biscayne Boulevard's Israeli consulate, where hundreds of mourners held aloft a sea of candles, only reiterated the sharpness of the debate. Lamentations once aimed at conquering Philistines and Romans were now being aimed at other Jews.

"Not everybody who opposes the disengagement is Orthodox," explains Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, referring to the Israeli government's official description of its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and several West Bank settlements, "but just about everybody who is Orthodox opposes the disengagement."

Solomon watched that dispute unfold within the Jewish Federation, an umbrella organization with representatives from many of the various temples and civic groups that serve Miami's 113,000 Jews. "You know the saying: If you have two Jews, you have three opinions," he says with a sigh. "This is a heartbreaking situation with good people on all sides." Unlike their more socially liberal Reform and Conservative brethren, Orthodox Jews generally maintain a literal reading of the Torah and an often fundamentalist interpretation of its teachings. For them ancient history seems to be repeating itself, and a subsequent Jewish Federation public statement reflects that split: supportive of the disengagement but filled with anguished hand-wringing and a notable reference to Samaria, a none-too-subtle linguistic symbol that serves as a line in the sand.

This same division has also been in evidence at local anti-disengagement gatherings, where flocks of young girls wearing the trademark long denim skirts of Orthodox garb are ubiquitous. Still, the movement isn't entirely monolithic. Linda Ostashev, a North Miami Beach activist with the Alliance for Eretz Yisrael, joked about the difficulties involved in coordinating her August 13 prayer vigil. That Saturday afternoon she had plenty of key info to relay to a host of attending Orthodox rabbis and cantors, "but you can't get hold of anybody on the phone -- they're allshomer shabbos," declining to use electrical instruments during the Sabbath.

To Ostashev, though, maintaining Israeli control of Gaza is as much about security as theology. She cites the recent newspaper photos of T-shirts and banners produced by the Palestinian Authority that celebrate the disengagement by announcing Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem. "They will not rest until the state of Israel is no longer in existence," she says. "The message we're giving is terrorism works. In Israel they killed enough Jews, so the Jews gave up. You don't think al Qaeda won't learn from that same message?"

Although resigned to the loss of Gaza, Ostashev is steeling herself for the next conflict over the West Bank: "We're raising money and sending it over to people who are fighting disengagement on the ground there." But just how far do you go?

"If I had lived in Gush Katif," she says, "they would have had to carry me out. That doesn't mean I would throw a rock at a policeman or go bomb a building. But I would not walk quietly into the oven."

Excuse me, the oven?

Ostashev pauses to reconsider: "You're right, that kind of talk may be going too far."

However, there was no shortage of comparisons to the Nazi era at the protest she helped organize. Upward of 300 people, from teens to seniors -- clad mostly in the chosen anti-disengagement color of orange -- hoisted placards that insisted Let My People Stay, saving the bulk of their scorn not for the Palestinian Authority but for the Jewish leaders they felt had abandoned them. Sinat Hinam, a Talmudic phrase describing senseless hatred among Jews, was continually invoked, and speakers and crowd members alike were quick to cite the rabbinical warnings that it had caused the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples in Jerusalem and the resultant scattering of the Jewish people; what outside foes could not accomplish, Jews had done to each other. Apocryphal or not, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was certainly taking heed. He had pushed back the start of disengagement to avoid its concurrence with Tisha Bov, the annual commemoration of the loss of the temples, and a period whenSinat Hinam would be on every rabbi's lips.

With Sharon absent from Bayfront Park's Torch of Friendship, it was Kulchur -- outed as a member of the tribe after being spotted by a fellow Talmud class member -- who seemed to raise the ire of many, particularly when he initiated a skeptical line of questioning. While black and Latino TV newscasters covering the event were eagerly sought out, an angry huddle began to form around Kulchur. "Why don't you put away your little pad and pen and start doing something for your own people!" snapped one woman to an assent of nods. "Stop being a reporter and start being a Jew!" she cried before being pulled away by friends.

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