Jewish Journal

UJ Students SupportIsrael, Mixed on Iraq

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Apr. 3, 2003 at 7:00 pm

"President Bush has the best interests of the United States and the world at heart ... if push comes to shove, I would fight with the American Army," said Jacob Proud, a 20-year old freshman in bioethics at the University of Judaism (UJ).

"I question the real motives for this war... I want my country and Israel to be as just and righteous as possible," observed Mark Goodman, 26, a second-year student in the UJ's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. The opinions, expressed in separate interviews during the first week of the war in Iraq, illustrate an obvious and a more subtle point.

For one, not all students think alike, not even in a university whose students are, by self-selection, dedicated to Judaism. Secondly, even within the UJ, undergraduates and rabbinical students sit largely on opposite sides of the fence.

It's risky to jump to big conclusions from a very small sample of interviews, and the perspectives might have been different among students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion or an Orthodox yeshiva, and most certainly at a secular institution like UCLA.

But thanks to the diversity of backgrounds in the UJ undergraduate college, which is nondenominational, the viewpoints of its students seem to represent sizable Jewish constituencies.

The Jewish Journal held a roundtable discussion with four undergraduates. Besides Proud, they were Michael B. Salonius, 29, a senior in Jewish philosophy; Samuel Sternberg, 19, a freshman in international business; and Rachel N. Tobin, 21, a senior in political science.

The students' support for the war, though varying in fervor and rationale, was striking and reflected, they said, the overwhelming attitudes among UJ's 124 undergraduates.

Salonius, the oldest, most bearded and most reflective of the group, would have liked "a more complex and nuanced explanation [of Bush's decision]. But at the core," he added, "this is a clash of civilizations and I hope our values will win."

Sternberg, whose backpack sports a "Anti-Zionism Is Anti-Jewishness" sticker felt that "the situation would fester" if action had been delayed. While acknowledging that his generation had no clear picture what it meant to be in combat, he would be ready to serve in the armed forces, if drafted.

Rachel Tobin perceived no gender gap in war support between men and women. She said that she would be willing to join a demonstration to back the troops, but worried about "the many unknowns" and admitted to a certain "hypocrisy" in counseling her brother against Army enlistment, if it came to that.

All four concurred as to their strong personal and emotional attachment to Israel and expressed deep concern for the fate of the Jewish State. On balance, they hoped that the American action would ultimately benefit Israel. The anti-war peace movement generally earned the undergraduates' contempt.

"The peace movement has been hijacked," Salonius said. "There is no place for a Jew who supports Israel."

Rabbinical student Goodman and his first-year schoolmate Danya Ruttenberg, 28, represented a sharp difference in tone and attitude.

"I'm afraid this war will do a lot of damage and might leave the Middle East in worse shape than before," Ruttenberg said. "We must hold our government accountable for its actions and make certain that it sets up a viable structure for life in the area after the war."

Goodman felt that, "It is easier to be a 'patriot' and just back the government ... but this war is not necessarily justified and many other countries are questioning our real motives."

Both students estimated some two-thirds of the 67 rabbinical students shared their general reservations about the war. The differences between undergraduates and rabbinical students seem to run deeper than just their perspectives on the war.

"There's a lack of support for Israel in the rabbinical school," charged Sternberg, and his viewpoint was seconded in even stronger language by a graduate student in management, whom we encountered at the university library.

Indeed, much of the campus apparently looks at the rabbinical students as both leftist and elitist, a perception seen as simplistic by Ruttenberg and Goodman.

"I am strongly pro-Israel, but being critical of its government is not being anti-Israeli," Ruttenberg said. "It is not black and white, the world works in shades of gray."

However, she added with a smile, "This is the left coast and people who come to study here tend to be unconventional."

Goodman, who will leave in the summer for the required year of study in Israel, emphasized that, "I have a deep love for Israel. I have many close friends there and I am terribly concerned for their safety."

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinical school, questioned both the extent and validity of the impressions of his students cited by others.

"This has been a pro-Zionist school from the beginning," he said.

"Our rabbinical students took the lead in putting up an Israeli flag on campus. We currently have 13 students in Israel, they're the ones who are putting their bodies on the line."

As for the perception that the rabbinical students are "elitist," Artson recalled, "When I was studying at Harvard, the graduate students didn't mingle with the undergraduates.

 It's not a matter of looking down at anyone, but there is a big differences in age here and you hang out with the people in your own program."  

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