Maryland’s Junior Senator and Area Rabbis Clash Over Israel

Sen. Van Hollen: Official government photo/U.S. Congress;

Eighty area rabbis have signed a letter to U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) denouncing his recent public comments regarding Israel, asking that he show stronger support for Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas and accusing him of “stoking deeper divisions” in the community.

The letter, which garnered signatures from a wide range of rabbis from throughout the Baltimore and DMV areas, was primarily spearheaded by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Rabbi Chai Posner of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore, Rabbi Dana Saroken of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore and Rabbi Shmuel Silber of Suburban Orthodox Congregation in Baltimore.

“I think [the letter] shows the overwhelming sense of frustration that we are feeling with the positions that Sen. Van Hollen has taken and the things he has said. I would say we rabbis are very much giving voice to both what we feel, but also to, I would say, the broad consensus of the Jewish community in Maryland,” Weinblatt said.

The letter heavily criticized recent Senate speeches by Van Hollen that included blaming Israel entirely for the humanitarian crisis caused by the war, his calls for conditioned military aid, his labeling of Israeli actions as war crimes and a portrayal of Israel as the aggressor in the conflict.

The letter accused Van Hollen of perpetrating false claims about the war and the Israeli actions and asked him why he was not doing more to call out Hamas for its actions against Israel and the Palestinian people.

The letter critiqued Van Hollen for not speaking out about the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which the rabbis said had deep ties to Hamas and had members participate in the attacks on Oct. 7.

Weinblatt said that the positions the senator was taking were unfair to Israel, which he said is taking “extraordinary measures to prevent civilian casualties,” and that the care Israel is taking to reduce harm and provide aid wasn’t getting
fair credit.

“It’s our hope that [this letter] might bring to his attention the reality of the situation on the ground,” Weinblatt said.

The rabbis were also concerned that such rhetoric from an elected official would increase the prevalence of antisemitism in the state and that it makes their jobs more difficult as faith leaders attempting to navigate the situation.

“A group of rabbis from across the denominations drafted this letter together to show Sen. Van Hollen that rabbis across denominations and throughout Baltimore are deeply concerned about his recent rhetoric pertaining to Israel. We believe that his words are problematic and dangerous and are inciting hate and antisemitism,”
Saroken said.

The letter is signed by rabbis across the various denominations of Judaism and from locations around the state in a rare showing of broad unity over the issue, a fact that the letter addressed to show its widespread support.

Saroken added that the letter and its signatories demonstrate the Maryland Jewish community’s united stance on Israel and support for the hostages.

“As rabbis, we represent many different communities and people. We don’t always see eye to eye, including about Israel. Yet we come together knowing that Israel and Jewish people have the right to exist and to feel safe – just as Palestinians do,” the rabbis wrote in the letter.

Van Hollen’s recent positions have landed him in unfavorable territory with the Maryland Jewish community, with JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber telling reporters at a March 15 event at Beth Shalom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac that he believes Van Hollen is “hemorrhaging Jewish support.”

Van Hollen’s office responded to questions about the letter by reinforcing his support for Israel’s right of self-defense, but remained critical of the approach the Israeli government and military are taking.

“I always welcome feedback from my constituents, and I appreciate these rabbis sharing the views they expressed in this letter. Since October 7th, I have repeatedly and unreservedly spoken out about the horrors of the Hamas terrorist attacks,” Van Hollen’s office said in a statement.

“Like President Biden, I fully support the right of Israel to defend itself and eliminate the military threat of Hamas – there must be no more October sevenths – and I have continuously prioritized and pressed for the immediate release of all hostages. I also believe that a just war must be fought justly,” the statement continued. “That is why I have continued to express my deep concerns about the actions taken by the Netanyahu government in the face of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. These are deeply important issues – and difficult and challenging times – and I look forward to continuing these conversations.”

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