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Is Bibi beholden to the right wing?

JERUSALEM – As the dust settles in Jerusalem after the U.S.-Israel confrontation over building in the city east of the 1967 Green Line, one key question comes to the fore: To what extent is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beholden to and dependent on the more hard-line elements in the Israeli right?

The answer will have major ramifications for the viability of the peace process with the Palestinians and future ties between Israel and the United States.

Netanyahu came to power last year on a cusp of right-wing support. Even though his Likud Party won one seat fewer than Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, all the right-wing parties backed Netanyahu, ensuring that he and not Livni would have a majority in the Knesset and become prime minister.

Netanyahu’s connections to the right run deep.

Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon, right, a member of the Likud Party, visits the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, where an announcement about Israeli housing starts became a flashpoint in U.S.-Israeli relations. David Vaaknin/ Flash 90 / JTA

In 2007, the Likud worked out a strategy for regaining power based on an alliance with the right-wing Orthodox Shas Party. Working in tandem with his Likud colleague Yisrael Katz, Netanyahu promised Shas leaders political gains that Kadima would never grant them. A bargain was struck and Shas delivered.

First, Shas prevented Livni from forming a government in the autumn of 2008, after Ehud Olmert resigned as Kadima leader. Then in 2009, Shas backed Netanyahu for prime minister. Likud leaders see the bond with Shas as a long-term investment to keep Likud in power.

Although there is no similar pact with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu owes Lieberman for tipping the scales in his favor in last year’s standoff against Livni for the premiership. Part of the payoff was to make the bellicose Yisrael Beiteinu leader foreign minister. Indeed, the fact that Netanyahu appointed Lieberman, of all people, to Israel’s top diplomatic post shows just how much he feels he needs him.

Coalition partners aside, potential right-wing constraints on Netanyahu start closer to home.

A majority in his own Likud Knesset faction opposes Palestinian statehood, to which Netanyahu is ostensibly committed. Many also oppose the 10-month freeze on construction in west bank settlements that Netanyahu agreed to last November and are insisting that it be rescinded as soon as it expires, irrespective of the state of negotiations with the Palestinians.

One of the Likud hard-liners, Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon, claims he has a hard and fast promise from Netanyahu to resume building on Sept. 26. Danon and his fellow hard-liners hope to tie Netanyahu’s hands here with a binding Likud Central Committee resolution next month.

Danon warns that if Netanyahu insists on making serious moves toward Palestinian statehood, he will face rebellion both in the coalition and the party. But Danon does not expect it to come to that. On the contrary, he claims that Netanyahu’s mind-set is no different from Likud hard-liners.

“It’s not as if he is prepared to pay a price for peace the way former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were,” Danon told JTA. “He fully understands that there is no viable Palestinian partner, and that what we need now is to manage the conflict and not try to solve it.”

Netanyahu brought the Labor Party into the coalition and publicly sought, but failed, to do the same with Kadima. But some pundits argue that Netanyahu, himself not enamored of the two-state solution, deliberately surrounded himself with coalition partners who would not allow him to make a move.

The result has been a performance strikingly similar to that of Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Then, too, he navigated between a U.S. administration seeking movement on the Palestinian track and a defiant right wing. Eventually he was brought down by the right for succumbing to U.S. pressure to hand over 13.5 percent of the west bank to the Palestinian Authority.

While those like Danon recognize the existential importance for Israel of the strategic relationship with Washington, they believe wholesale concessions to the Palestinians could put Israel’s survival at risk. They argue that once started, there is no saying where an inevitably salami-like process of compromise will end.

“I think the prime minister realizes that every concession he makes simply invites more pressure,” Danon said. “If he hadn’t agreed to freeze construction in the west bank, no one would be demanding a freeze in Jerusalem. Every time he gives in, he invites more pressure from the American administration — and we get nothing in return.”

In the past, Netanyahu has spoken of a need for flexibility on the Palestinian track for the sake of more intimate cooperation with the United States against the far greater Iranian nuclear threat. Some pundits have even suggested the possibility of a “grand bargain” under which Israel helps boost America’s regional standing by making serious peace moves with the Palestinians in return for which Washington helps neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat.

The hard-liners tend to reverse the linkage: First defang Iran to facilitate peacemaking — or to decouple the Iranian and Palestinian issues altogether. They argue that defanging Iran is as much an American as an Israeli interest, and should have nothing to do with the state of play on the Palestinian track.

But those close to Netanyahu acknowledge that any perceived tensions in the Israeli-U.S. strategic alliance could send the wrong message to Tehran.

“There must be a perception in Tehran of a strong, coordinated Israel-U.S. strategic alliance,” Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who now advises Netanyahu on American affairs, told JTA. “Otherwise the Iranians will say if America and Israel are not on the same wavelength, we can certainly go on doing what we are doing to develop a nuclear capability.”

Some observers argue that the right-wing hold over Netanyahu — or any prime minister, for that matter — goes well beyond party and coalition politics.

In a new book titled “The Shift: Israel and Palestine from Border Conflict to Ethnic Struggle,” Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, maintains that elements of the pro-settler right have infiltrated the establishment on a scale that makes withdrawal from the west bank in the context of a two-state solution with the Palestinians virtually impossible.

“That’s one of the main reasons that the political leadership is backing away from the showdown, because it will mean confrontation with large segments within the establishment itself,” Klein told JTA.

If Klein is right, Netanyahu, a prisoner of the right, will not be able to make serious moves toward a deal with the Palestinians even if he wishes.



Opposition to Israeli conversion bill mounts

WASHINGTON – Opposition to a proposed Israeli conversion bill is mounting, from the U.S. Congress to the Israeli prime minister.

Meanwhile, the bill is likely to be put on hold while the Knesset adjourns this week for a two-month recess.

The controversy over the bill erupted last week when its main sponsor, David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, unexpectedly put it to a committee vote. The measure passed by a 5-4 margin, sending it to the full Knesset.

Meant to give would-be converts more leeway in choosing where and how to convert in Israel, the bill also would consolidate control over conversions under the office of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Non-Orthodox diaspora Jewish movements and the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Agency for Israel all have warned that non-Orthodox converts would be put at risk of being disqualified as Jews by the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

Sen. Ron Wyden, left, is asking Jewish Senate colleagues to sign a letter opposing an Israeli conversion bill. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, right, has agreed to sign the letter. Office of Sen. Ron Wyden/Office of Sen. Frank Lautenburg

In recent days, a Jewish U.S. senator unhappy about the bill, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), began circulating a letter asking fellow lawmakers to join him in condemning the controversial Israeli measure. Wyden’s letter is circulating among the Senate’s 13 Jewish lawmakers for more signatures before it is delivered to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he opposes the bill in its current form. The bill “could tear apart the Jewish people,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday.

Following its passage last week by the Knesset’s Law, Constitution, and Justice Committee, the bill must pass three readings in the Knesset for it to become law. The prime minister said he would try to remove the bill by consensus, but if that fails he will ask members of his Likud Party and other coalition members to oppose it in the Knesset. With the Knesset on the cusp of a long recess, the bill is unlikely to come up for another vote until the fall.

Rotem says the bill aims to simplify the conversion process, empowering local Israeli community rabbis to perform conversions and thereby make it easier for Israelis to convert — including those who don’t intend to adhere to Orthodox observance. But in giving the Chief Rabbinate ultimate authority over conversions, the bill puts non-Orthodox converts at risk and may make it more difficult for non-Orthodox converts to make aliyah, critics in the diaspora warn.

Rotem says the bill should not concern diaspora Jews.

“It has nothing to do with Jews in the diaspora,” Rotem told JTA last week. “It is only an Israeli matter.”

Shas Party Chairman Eli Yishai, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition government, said he supports the bill.

“The absence of a conversion law is the greatest spiritual danger for the people of Israel at this time,” he told Ynet.

In the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox organization, said that “While the legislation in question may not be perfect, we who live in North America must recognize that it does contain much to commend it.”

The RCA called on diaspora Jews not to interfere with the internal Israeli legislation, noting, incorrectly, that “North American Jews have long embraced the principle that the duly elected leadership of the State of Israel should not be subject to outside interference or pressure by other governments, religious bodies, or communal entities.”

The chorus of American voices against the bill is growing, particularly in the Conservative and Reform movements, whose members make up most of American Jewry but have only a small presence in Israel. Opponents are concerned by the bill’s clause that converts will be recognized as Jews only if they “accepted the Torah and the commandments in accordance with halacha,” which could exclude some converts from being eligible to obtain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because they would not be considered Jews by Israel.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, wrote an open letter to Netanyahu explaining why the bill will divide the Jewish community.

“The way to really ‘solve this problem’ is to have options for multiple streams and for the indigenous Israeli expressions that will only flower in a non-coercive system,” she wrote.

The Jewish Federations of North America said it supports the U.S. Senate letter opposing the Israeli bill.

“We welcome any expression of commitment from influential Jews to maintain the unity of the Jewish people and the dangers posed by this divisive legislation,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of JFNA’s Washington office.

In Washington, U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have signed the Wyden letter.

“I am troubled by a proposal which I believe would make it more difficult for many people who want to convert to Judaism to do so,” Levin told JTA.

The letter’s text has not been made public.

Jewish members of the U.S. House of Representatives also have expressed support for Wyden’s letter. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee that oversees the State Department and international programs, left a message for Netanyahu and spoke directly to Oren to voice her objection to the bill.

“Congresswoman Lowey believes Israel should continue to be a welcoming place for Jews, as it has been through its history,” said Matthew Dennis, Lowey’s spokesman. “She is concerned that this bill would alienate Jews around the world and risks weakening the sense of unity within the diaspora that is critical to Israel’s security.”



MKs: New peace initiative to rely on international law

Knesset members — one a Druze — in Englewood

Two Israeli parliamentarians and a political activist told some 35 people last week at a gathering in Englewood of their concerns about attempts to delegitimize Israel.

Ayoob Kara, deputy minister for development of the Negev and Galilee and deputy minister for regional cooperation, is a Druze member of the Knesset for the Likud Party. (The Druze, an Arabic-speaking religious community, serve in the Israel Defense Forces.)

Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev is a member of the Knesset from the Shas Party, which he cofounded in 1984. He spoke to the attendees in Hebrew; his address was summarized in English by Karen Pichkhadze, executive director of the National Organization for Political Action, which sponsored the event at a private home.

The MKs were with Shoshana Bekerman, director of the Jerusalem-based Knesset Caucus for Judaism and Global Ethics. They plan to present the Jerusalem Initiative for Peace in the Middle East to Congress and the United Nations. The brainchild of Ze’ev, who chairs the caucus and who worked on it in cooperation with Kara, it seeks to combat the delegitimzation of Israel.

Speaking at the home of Irene and Robert Gottesman, Bekerman said that the delegitimization campaign started in Europe and has spread to the United States. The fight against it, she said, “is a tougher battle that any of the wars we have had to face.”

For Orthodox Jews, she said, the right of all Jews to Israel is based on the Torah, but today “you have to talk the language of international law, as our claims have to be based on international law,” which has given Jews legal instruments throughout history to make their case.

Some of those documents are from the 1937 Peel Commission, which suggested the partition of Palestine, and the 1923 British Mandate for Palestine, which favored the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” there.

The latest document is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Bekerman said, which was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 after 20 years of formulations. One hundred and forty-four countries voted for it and four against it, including the United States. Israel did not participate in the formulations.

The declaration purposely did not define the term indigenous, she said, but the United Nations does have a “working definition” of it.

According to that definition, indigenous people have a connection to the land through religion, history, language, culture, and economics.

“We definitely fit that description,” said Bekerman.

However, she added, Palestinians have been claiming their rights as indigenous people but Jews have not made use of the declaration because they lacked knowledge about it.

That lack, she said, was also evident among the politicians the MKs and Bekerman visited in Washington during their trip, Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who told them they had never heard about the document before.

Calling Israel an “occupying power” is a misuse of the term and manipulation by groups that have received money from leftist and Muslim organizations, Bekerman said, and also historically, morally, and legally wrong.

The Jerusalem Initiative, on the other hand, bills itself as “an innovative proposal presented within the framework of the two-state solution announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu and is intended to bridge the gap between the Israeli government, the Quartet, and the Saudi Initiative.”

It urges the Quartet to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital based on the indigenous right of Jews to the city and calls for maintaining the status quo regarding its population. It also accepts that an eventual Palestinian state may have its parliament in the Arab sector of the city.

The document asks the Quartet to recognize the rights of Jewish settlements, which should not be uprooted without the consent of the “indigenous Jewish inhabitants of the settlement.”

According to the project, the issue of refugees from the Middle East must be resolved in a way that includes recognition of the rights of those displaced from Arab countries, including Jews, Christians, and other groups.

Kara, the Druze MK, was critical of several of Israel’s past policies and said the Oslo accords “gave the criminal Palestinian leadership that was in Lebanon and Tunisia the legitimacy to be leaders in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.”

Peace in the region is far off, he said, as Israel has not found a partner or someone to lead an eventual Palestinian state.

Ze’ev said that his ancestors came to Israel from 10 different Middle Eastern countries, “leaving behind everything they had, leaving empires behind to come naked to our country, where we didn’t demand everything.”

But now, Ze’ev said, “we are fighting against people who are coming to the country demanding everything they can possible get for something they did not work for.”

According to Ze’ev, Israel needs members of Congress to understand the position it is in and the fact that “you can’t negotiate with enemies; it is impossible to do so with someone who believes you should not exist.”

Asked about the Jerusalem Initiative, Ben Choauke, NORPAC’s president, said, “You need every tool available to increase the standing of Israel before world opinion and the United Nations itself.”

The Initiative was presented in Paris in July and will be presented at the European Union Parliament in the near future.

From left are Knesset members Ayoob Kara and Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev, and NORPAC President Ben Choauke. The MKs spoke at a NORPAC gathering in Englewood last week. Daniel Santacruz

Rabbis’ statement takes on Ovadia Yosef, calls for moderate jewish voice

Rabbi David Greenstein, top, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg and Rabbi Ovadua Yosef

Urging a return to “authentic Torah teachings,” Rabbis Robert Scheinberg and David Greenstein have drafted a statement calling for an “open-minded and pluralistic” religious vision.

“We’re critical when we don’t hear voices in other religions teaching inclusiveness, compassion, and tolerance,” said Greenstein. “We need to create a strong Jewish voice as well.”

The document — which emerged after a discussion on the Conservative movement’s rabbinic listserve and emphasizes “pleasantness and peace” — has drawn more than 200 signatories, including individuals from each major Jewish denomination.

Several weeks ago, with the approach of Rosh HaShanah and the Mideast peace talks, “David Greenstein posted something on an e-mail list of Conservative rabbis suggesting that this would be a good opportunity for such a statement,” said Scheinberg, religious leader of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. “It appears to have resonated with a number of people.”

“It was immediately after Yosef’s statement,” he added. In late August, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef denounced peace talks with the Palestinians, dubbing them “evil, bitter enemies of Israel,” and called for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “perish from this world.”

Still, said Scheinberg, the joint statement was not simply a reaction to Yosef’s comments — though it did condemn his words in strong language — but a wider call for Jews, especially Jewish religious leaders, to speak out against Jewish extremism.

“The [Anti-Defamation League] was quick to condemn Yosef’s statement,” he said. “But we thought there should be a specifically religious voice doing so. With the controversy over the Islamic center in Manhattan growing, [we thought] it was somewhat hypocritical for the Jewish community to get very upset when Muslim moderates do not regularly, quickly, and forcefully condemn incendiary statements,” without Jews’ doing the same thing. “We hope to get it on the record that when a statement like this gets made by someone as prominent as Yosef, rabbis react with disgust.”

That wasn’t happening, said Greenstein, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, who conceived the idea of posting a petition on the Conservative listserve and later of making it public.

“The question is, what kinds of religious voices are going to be out there,” he said, adding that Yosef and others who agree with him have made such statements before and are likely to do so again.

Scheinberg added that as a Conservative Jew who has studied Yosef’s responsa, “learning a tremendous amount from him,” he is especially bothered by the Israeli rabbi’s incendiary statements, “since he’s very much within the canon prized by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.”

The joint statement, he said, suggests criteria by which the teaching of Torah is measured — “such as, does it foster pleasantness and peace.” While the piece originally was targeted to Conservative rabbis, it later “got passed on to some other places on the Internet where interdenominational dialogue takes place,” he said, attracting signers from other denominations as well.

In addition, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has since drafted its own statement, incorporating some of Scheinberg and Greenstein’s wording.

Greenstein said he’s not sure how all the signers learned about the statement, since “people were signing it before we did the extra outreach. I’m very heartened that this has become a cross-denominational venture.”

While the document has not drawn many Orthodox signers, Scheinberg said he has no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Orthodox leaders condemn Yosef’s statements.

He attributed the small number of signers to “a general wariness of a completely grassroots statement, not attached to any organization.”

“Rabbi Yosef was only the jumping-off point” of the joint statement, said Greenstein. “The main point was the affirmation of a challenge and an opportunity to teach a different kind of Torah. We can all unite for that and must continue to work toward it.”

The rabbi said he hopes the petition will “push, promote, and inspire more rabbis to reconsider the priorities of how, when, and to whom we speak about Torah, creating a more vibrant and just religious culture.”

“This year, more than ever before, we have to focus on eradicating extremism,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, religious leader of The Temple in Atlanta and former rabbi of Temple Beth-Or in Washington Township. Berg, who is Reform, signed the statement.

While Judaism exists “in argument and tension and the Jewish tradition is that no one agrees on much of anything, so many in our troubled world believe that there’s only one singular right way,” he said. “That’s a short step from thinking of ourselves as morally entitled.”

“If we believe that there is only one truth, then violence and death are sure to follow. In a democracy, we have to call upon religious leaders to come to the middle.”


Can Netanyahu accept new settlement freeze? U.S. might have to sweeten the deal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here at his weekly cabinet meeting on Oct. 4, reportedly is trying to convince cabinet members to agree to extend the west bank settlement freeze by 60 days. Kobi Gideon/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Following reports of an unprecedented U.S. offer of a host of assurances in return for a 60-day extension of the freeze on building in west bank settlements, some political analysts are wondering why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not grabbed the deal with both hands.

According to the reports, President Obama is offering Netanyahu pledges that the United States will:

News Analysis

• Not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building, which expired Sept. 26;

• Commit to using the U.S. veto to prevent U.N. recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail to bear fruit;

• “Accept the legitimacy” of Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government — understood as referring to Netanyahu’s demand for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern west bank;

• Broker talks with neighboring Arab states on a “regional security structure” — a nod to Netanyahu’s desire for cooperation on confronting Iran;

• Enhance Israel’s security through the sale of a second squadron of state-of-the-art stealth F-35 fighters and space cooperation, including access to U.S. satellite early warning systems.

The price: Israel must agree to extend for 60 days the recently expired west bank building freeze.

If Netanyahu spurns the offer, Israel not only would lose out on all the above, but the Americans would come out publicly in support of the 1967 borders as the basis for all future territorial negotiations with the Palestinians.

On its face, the deal would seem like a no-brainer for Netanyahu to take. So why hasn’t he?

For one thing, it’s not only up to Netanyahu. He needs the approval of a settlement freeze extension from his 29-member cabinet or at least his 15-member security cabinet, and he doesn’t have enough votes yet in those bodies. While by most accounts Netanyahu is inclined to take the deal and is pushing for cabinet members to approve it, the United States first might have to sweeten the pot.

The U.S. offer followed intensive negotiations in Washington between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and an American team led by veteran Middle East adviser Dennis Ross. The idea was to affirm the U.S. commitments in a presidential letter to Netanyahu to persuade him and pro-settlement members of his government to go along with a new temporary freeze — and in so doing keep alive the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in early September. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to quit the talks if the freeze is not extended.

For now, the Israeli prime minister is being pressed by cabinet hard-liners not to accept the American package as is. They warn that it is all very general and that much of it will not stand up in practice.

The hard-liners are suspicious, too, of Barak’s motives. They believe Barak is behind the American offer because he fears that if the peace talks with the Palestinians break down, his Labor Party would be forced to withdraw from the government. Such a move would cost Barak the post of defense minister and, in all likelihood, his political future.

As things stand, Netanyahu does not have the votes for the deal.

In the full 29-member cabinet, 14 ministers are for extending the freeze and 15 are against. In the 15-member security cabinet the count is seven for and eight against, and in the unofficial forum of seven top advisers, three are for extending the freeze and four are against. In Netanyahu’s governing coalition, without the support of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud hard-liners, the prime minister would have the support of fewer than 40 members of the 120-member Knesset.

Netanyahu’s greatest political fear is of a repeat of 1999, when after making concessions to the Palestinians at Wye Plantation, he lost his right-wing political support base and was roundly defeated by Barak in the ensuing election. This time, the scenario that Netanyahu wants to avoid is accepting an American package, going ahead with the peacemaking, and then losing the next election to Kadima’s Tzipi Livni.

Even if Netanyahu could jettison the pro-settler parties from his coalition and bring in Kadima — changing the balance of power in the government and the Knesset in favor of pro-negotiation parties, and accepting the U.S. package — it could cost him the premiership.

Netanyahu therefore is being extra careful about making any moves that could lose him large swaths of what he sees as his natural constituency.

The Israeli prime minister also has a major strategic concern. According to confidants, he fears that as soon as any new 60-day freeze ends, the Americans will put a “take it or leave it peace plan” of their own on the table. With the U.S. midterm elections over, Obama might feel able to publicly present parameters for a peace deal that Netanyahu would find impossible to accept.

Israel might then find itself totally isolated and under intolerable international pressure. That is a scenario Netanyahu hopes the current negotiations with the Americans will help him avoid.

So far, Netanyahu has spoken of ongoing “delicate” negotiations with the Americans and implied that much of what has been reported in the press is inaccurate.

As so often in the past, Netanyahu is caught between the U.S. administration and his right-leaning coalition. If he chooses his coalition, he risks losing the support of the current administration; if he chooses America, he fears he could lose his coalition and, with it, the premiership.

What Labor and Likud moderates reportedly are telling him is that it is not 1999, and that now he can have his cake and eat it, too: If he goes with the Americans and the peace process, he will win the next election hands down.



U.S. rabbis offer rare rebuke of Israeli edict

An edict signed by dozens of Israeli rabbis barring the sale or rental of homes to non-Jews in Israel has led to a rare consensus among American rabbis, who have issued a nearly unanimous condemnation of the ban.

Statements by the American Modern Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic associations, and by the spokesman for an American haredi Orthodox umbrella group, all denounce the Israeli rabbis’ directive. So does an online petition signed by more than 900 rabbis, most of them affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, says that the Israeli rabbis’ statement “couldn’t be left on the record without a response.”

Controversial proclamations by Israeli rabbis are not unheard of, but this sort of broad American rabbinic response is rare. Now it appears that the collective response has reached a tipping point — so many American rabbis have spoken against the edict that others may feel compelled to concur.

“The halachic issues here are complex,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largely Modern Orthodox rabbinic group. “But a blanket statement that singles out a certain population and says ‘don’t rent to them; don’t sell to them’ in such a blanket fashion is something that struck a very raw nerve.”

The Israeli letter was drafted in support of an effort by the chief rabbi of Safed to bar home rentals to Arabs. Tensions have run high in recent months between haredi Orthodox and Arab students in that northern Israeli city.

Exactly how many rabbis signed the edict is unclear. Some right-wing Israeli news outlets reported that the letter had 300 signatories, while other news organizations pegged the number at fewer than 100.

Regardless, the edict drew attention in the Israeli and international media because dozens of those who signed it were municipal rabbis employed by the government.

Israel’s leading Lithuanian haredi leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, refused to sign the letter, as did, according to one report, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the letter.

In America, rabbinic opposition to the letter came quickly. An online petition for rabbis posted by the New Israel Fund on Dec. 10 had received 914 signatures by Dec. 15.

“Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel,” the NIF statement read. “They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing.”

Signatories of the NIF petition included Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Most signatories appeared to be members of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, with a few notable exceptions including prominent New York, liberal-leaning Orthodox Rabbis Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school and Marc Angel of Cong. Shearith Israel.

Some Orthodox rabbis said the sponsorship of the petition by the NIF, which is identified with left-wing causes, may have discouraged the participation of rabbis who otherwise might have agreed with the petition’s sentiment.

The RCA’s statement, released Dec. 14, criticized the Israeli rabbis’ letter in somewhat gentler terms.

“We are surely sympathetic to the impulse to protect a Jewish community in the face of intermarriage, communal conflict, or unsafe neighborhoods,” the statement read. “It is our view that in spite of the concerns of the authors of the statement, it is wrong and unacceptable to advocate blanket exclusionary policies directed against minorities of other faiths or ethnic groups.”

Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, said the RCA felt compelled to speak because, unlike an off-the-cuff comment by Yosef, who is known for making provocative remarks, the Israeli rabbis’ edict was a formal statement of Jewish law.

“That is what drew our attention — that once such a formal statement is issued, we felt that it couldn’t be left on the record without a response,” he said.

“It’s always easy to criticize those with whom you fundamentally disagree,” he told The Jewish Standard. “It takes greater courage … to publicly differ when someone from your own camp steps over the line. The rabbis who signed the document are zionist Orthodox rabbis with whom the members of the Rabbinical Council of America share great affinity on so many issues. Precisely because of that affinity, I am proud that the Rabbinical Council of America was willing to speak up on this matter.”

The RCA’s statement came hours after the posting of a translated version of a letter opposing the edict written by prominent centrist Orthodox Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, an American living in Israel, to a widely read Orthodox blog. Some observers saw the RCA’s response as a gambit to protect the group from recriminations for not speaking out on the issue.

“They came up with it because they had no choice, because everyone else was already speaking out and they felt, ‘We better say something so people don’t think we’re in favor of this,’” said Angel, a former president of the RCA and a frequent critic of the group.

“They’re facing the reality, political realities, that this is not an issue that you want to have your name stamped on,” Mendy Ganchrow, former president of the Orthodox Union and a retired executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, said of the RCA.

In an e-mail, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the American haredi Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, said his organization concurred with Elyashiv and Yosef.

“The rabbis who signed the letter [banning the rentals] were simply misguided,” Shafran wrote.

Though the mainstream American rabbinical associations appear to oppose the Israeli rabbis’ letter, at least one prominent Orthodox rabbi was sympathetic.

“I think it’s part of a concern — and I believe a rightful one — that there’s a war going on, and we’re trying our best to maintain normalcy,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva, or dean, of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University and a major rabbinic arbiter.

The Forward

The Jewish Standard contributed to this report. For an opinion piece by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, chair of the Depts. of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and religious leader of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, go to The Rental Controversy and Halakhic Decision-Making.


Have haredi-secular tensions reached boiling point?

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