Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2000, page 67-68

Israel and Judaism

Is Israel Prepared to Confront Increasingly Widespread Jewish Intolerance?

By Allan C. Brownfeld

Israel faces a serious dilemma, as do its American Jewish supporters. Intolerance, not only of non-Jewish Israelis, but of non-Orthodox Jews, appears to be increasing.

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an ultra-Orthodox religious zealot, Yigal Amir, brought the largely unknown and unreported world of Israel's religious extremists under public scrutiny.

The assassin was a young man nurtured within Israel's far-right religious institutions. After the murder, he was hailed as a hero by many, not only in Israel but among kindred spirits in the United States.

Among those Amir held in high esteem was the late Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the American-born physician from the settlement of Kiryat Arba, adjoining Hebron, who murdered 29 Palestinians at morning prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs on Feb. 25, 1994.

Among the ideologues who influenced Amir was Noam Livnat of the Joseph Still Lives yeshiva (Od Yosef Chai) in Nablus. The yeshiva's patron, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg, repeatedly expressed a doctrine of racism. He declared that, "Jewish blood and gentile blood are not the same." He defended the act of one of the yeshiva's students who opened indiscriminate fire on Arab laborers standing alongside a highway near Tel Aviv in 1993, and he subsequently lauded Baruch Goldstein for massacring Arabs in Hebron. He explains that he differentiates between the murder of a gentile and that of a Jew because the Torah places a "light prohibition" on the former and a "grave" one on the latter.

In the years since the Rabin assassination, extremism has continued to grow in Israel. According to The Jerusalem Report, "One thing that appears to have changed too little since the Rabin years is the influence of radical rabbis—and silence of many other religious leaders."

In November, an army officer in Israel was removed from his position because he likened non-Orthodox Judaism to Nazi crimes. In a talk to 60 soldiers about the status of women, the instructor, Lt. Gamliel Peretz, began by citing the traditional morning blessing in which, he said, all Jewish men thank God for not making them women.

The New York Times (Nov. 23, 1999) reports that, "One young soldier, the teenage daughter of a Reform rabbi, raised her hand to challenge him. Not all Jews say that, she said. Some use an alternative blessing which thanks God for making people as they are. According to army records, the lieutenant, who is Orthodox, then said, 'The Reform and Conservative are not Jews to me...The Reform and the Conservative caused the assimilation of eight million Jews, and this was worse than the Holocaust, in which only six million were killed.'"

"The assimilation of eight million Jews was worse than the Holocaust, in which only six million were killed."

Lt. Peretz was suspended from the Israel Defense Forces, an action which the Times notes "was an unusually swift and resolute response in which the Israeli Army drew a clear boundary between acceptable and unacceptable discourse on religious pluralism...This boundary is not often drawn here...where the state religious authorities are rigorously Orthodox and do not recognize the liberal movements to which most American Jews belong."

Jonathan Rosenblum, a spokesman for an Orthodox media resource center, said he did not consider the lieutenant's statement to be "extreme," but condemned the comparison to the Holocaust. He said, however, that he detected "an aura of witch-hunt in the rapidity with which Lt. Peretz was tried, expelled from the army and classified as some sort of pariah forever."

In fact, the treatment of Lt. Peretz is indeed extraordinary, since denunciations of non-Orthodox Judaism in similar terms are widespread, even in high government circles.

Rabbi Richard A. Block, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, said he faced a similar verbal assault from a member of parliament. He and another well-known Reform rabbi had been invited to attend a parliamentary committee meeting on conversion. A legislator from the United Torah Judaism Party entered the committee. "He started screaming," Rabbi Block said. "He said he wouldn't sit with the Reform because we have caused the assimilation of millions of Jews, worse than the Nazis. It was the same thing this officer said, but I guess it's okay for a Knesset member."

"Destroyers" of Judaism

An advertisement appeared in the ultra-Orthodox press in Israel which declared that, "As darkness covers the earth, the Reform and Conservative sects that are the destroyers of the religion are trying to dig their nails into the Holy Land and receive recognition as though they were streams of Judaism, God forbid. We hereby pronounce da'at Torah [this Torah opinion] that it is inconceivable to grant them any recognition whatsoever, and it is forbidden to conduct any negotiations with the destroyers that counterfeit Torah..." This ad was signed, among others, by such Orthodox leaders as Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, the leading halachic authority of the haredi community, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas' spiritual mentor.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, states that, "It is not only the haredi community that holds this opinion. The Chief Rabbinate, which operates under the authority of the Knesset, voices no disgust at comparisons between non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and the Nazis."

Intolerance seems to be built into Israel's institutionalized state-controlled religious life. Decrying the lack of religious freedom in Israel for non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, Rabbi Michael Marmur, dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion branch in Jerusalem, declared: "In today's Israel, Judaism is a registered trademark, and anyone making use of it is expected to pay royalties...The decision to treat liberal Jews as carriers of an infectious disease is designed to keep the required distance between the real thing and the imitation."

Rather than welcoming the "stranger," as the Bible commands and Jewish tradition has mandated, many Israelis appear to fear anything which is different, whether it be a different stream of Judaism, or other religious traditions. A flash point at the moment is the fact that approximately 25 percent of the more than 800,000 immigrants who arrived in Israel during the last decade from the former Soviet Union are not Jewish, at least not in terms the Orthodox establishment is prepared to accept.

One legislator, Shmuel Halpert of the United Torah Judaism party, has called this fact "a national security problem," and has proposed a change tightening the Law of Return, which grants anyone who had a Jewish grandparent the right to immediate Israeli citizenship.

Gentiles Unwelcome

In the case of the Quara Jews of Ethiopia, most of whom have recently emigrated to Israel, some 170 have remained in Ethiopia after Israel demanded that they abandon their gentile spouses. The Jerusalem Report (Sept. 27, 1999) declares: "Israeli immigration authorities say the marriages are counterfeit, claiming that gentile spouses married the Jews to reach Israel—this despite the fact that most of the couples have children."

Israeli authorities have also refused to process 300 Quaran "Baria" Jews—ex-slaves treated by other Quarans as full Jews since they were freed. A Quaran leader told The Jerusalem Report: "They are our brothers, completely. We adopted them; they adopted our religion. They sold whatever they had, because we were sure they would be brought with us to Israel. Now they're destitute."

Reflecting an ethno-centrism which Jews have always vigorously opposed when manifested elsewhere, particularly when they were its victims, the actions of the Israeli government in this instance have been subject to much criticism. Quara leaders say that some of the couples involved in mixed marriages have been together for as long as six years. In almost every case, they have had children together.

The Report cites this example: "Yeshalem Venayu, an 18-year-old, was married four years ago to a gentile man who was her teacher in the local school. The couple has a 2-year-old son. But the Interior Ministry delegation in Ethiopia, headed by Michal Yosefov, told the couple that only Yeshalem and their child could come to Israel. Her husband signed the Ethiopian government form giving his wife the right to leave the country with their child. But when she reached Addis Ababa with her parents and siblings, say Quara sources, her longing for her husband overwhelmed her and she tearfully slipped away and returned to Gondar."

The tendency in Israel to refer to all those who reject the fundamentalist Orthodox religious agenda as either "non-Jews" or "Nazis," or with some other pejorative term, indicates a society ill at ease with democracy and pluralism. Many Jews, both in Israel and abroad, have expressed dismay at these tendencies. Have Jews suffered anti-Semitism in many times and places only to follow a similar path of bigotry once they came to power?

Describing a visit to Israel, the Canadian Jewish writer Modechai Richler, in his book, This Year in Jerusalem, reports: "...unable to sleep, I read The Jerusalem Post in bed...The Post paid tribute to cartoonist Noah Mordechai Birzowski, who had just turned 75. A contributor since 1940 to The Palestine Post, as it then was, and other Israeli newspapers, Birzowski signed his name Noah Bee. One of the cartoons reproduced for the tribute was in two final frames with the headnote, 'Final Solutions.' The first frame showed Jews in striped concentration camp uniforms, lining up to be consumed in a crematorium, smoke billowing out of its tall chimney. The second frame was a drawing of a couple being married in church, standing before a crucifix with the footnote 'intermarriage.' I did not wake up Florence, my Protestant bride of 33 years, mother of our five children, to show it to her. However, it did occur to me that had Bee been a cartoonist for the Catholic Herald, and had he drawn a mixed marriage couple clasping hands before a Star of David and equated it with genocide, the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League would have been on the case in a jiffy, accusing him of racism."

The intolerance of Israel's religious fundamentalists has been growing for many years. Both the Israeli government and leaders in the American Jewish community have repeatedly downplayed the dangers of such movements. Some American Jewish leaders have gone so far as to defend Israel's rejection of pluralism and genuine religious freedom.

Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, for example, states that while religious freedom works well in the United States, it is a bad idea for Israel.

In an interview with The Washington Jewish Week (Dec. 2, 1999), Ganchrow said that pluralism in America's predominantly Christian society allows Jews to function as Jews while enjoying civil liberties. "It makes it possible to have day schools, mikvaot (ritual baths), synagogues and people walking in the street with kippot."

Ganchrow is sharply critical of those American Jews who call for religious pluralism in Israel and object to the limitations placed upon Reform and Conservative rabbis and religious movements. He states: "Do American Jews—some who have never been to Israel, who contribute to federation or UJC (United Jewish Communities)—do they have the right to demand changes for the Israeli state because they are uncomfortable? Israel has rejected these changes."

The Opposite of Diversity

While Israel and many of its American Jewish supporters may have rejected such changes at the present time, Israel's future will hardly be a bright one if it transforms itself into a theocratic and ethnocentric society, fearful of free religious expression, wary of all those who are different, committed not to diversity but to its opposite.

For American Jews there is also a need to confront the dangerous double standard of vigorously advocating separation of church and state in the U.S. while supporting a theocracy in Israel.

Does the American Jewish leadership agree with Mandell Ganchrow that religious freedom is a virtue in the American society, where Jews are a minority, but a vice in Israel, where they are a majority? If they do, they are telling us that they argue in its behalf only when there are benefits to be gained for themselves. The vast majority of American Jews would be repelled by such a view.

It is time for Israel to confront Jewish intolerance and for leaders of the organized American Jewish community to extend their promotion of civil rights and liberties at home to Israel, to which they devote so much of their attention and fund-raising efforts.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.