American Orthodox Jews Experience ‘cognitive Explosion’ over Peace Talks
Menu JTA Search

American Orthodox Jews Experience ‘cognitive Explosion’ over Peace Talks

Download PDF for this date

AMERICAN ORTHODOX JEWS EXPERIENCE `COGNITIVE EXPLOSION’ OVER PEACE TALKS. When Baruch Goldstein fired his automatic Galil rifle into a crowd of Muslim worshipers at a Hebron mosque, the shots reverberated in the American Orthodox community, underscoring the tensions running through a movement long supportive of Israel but newly skeptical of some its recent policies.

Orthodox Zionists in the United States roundly condemned the act committed by Goldstein, himself an American-born Orthodox Jew, as morally and religiously reprehensible.

But some could not help but feel satisfied that the shooting accomplished in a single stroke what many in the movement have advocated for months: it brought the Middle East peace process, at least temporarily, to a screeching halt.

Some, of course, feared the opposite – that the murders in Hebron could place the very settlements that Goldstein sought to defend at even greater risk of being handed over to the Palestinians in a show of good will by the Israeli government.

But no matter which way the chips fall, it is support of the settlements that has become the linchpin of the American Orthodox community’s response to the peace process.

It is this movement, more than any other within the American Jewish community, that has become identified with the settlements in the territories. It supports the settlers financially: it undergirds their position with religious conviction: it send its children to live among them.

And after years of dealing with like-minded, Likud-led Israeli governments, American Orthodox Jews are suddenly confronted with the star choice of either supporting Israel or supporting the settlements, which in many cases include friends and family.

The struggle to reconcile this dilemma has led to what Rabbi Daniel Landes has called a “cognitive explosion.”

Landes, national education director for the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that in order to resolve this conflict, Orthodox communities are trying to pressure Israel into shaping a peace plan they can ultimately support.

In the meantime, they are also organizing efforts to support the roughly 140,000 Israelis living in the Gaza Strip and especially the West Bank, which many religious Jews refer to by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

Last month, Beth Jacob Synagogue in Los Angeles hosted a meeting to raise funds for the Yesha Council, an organization which supports settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Rabbi Abner Weiss, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, said that dissatisfaction with the direction of the peace process has led many in his congregation to decrease traditionally strong financial support to Israel and to refuse to buy Israel Bonds. And at a February rally in New York, 13 Orthodox synagogues “adopted” Jewish settlements, providing them with moral and financial assistance.

Fred Ehrman, honorary president of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, which participate dint he adoption program, said he hopes to use publicity generated by the rally to show “the strategic importance of the Jordan Valley for the security of Israel.”

At a follow-up meeting, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, former leader of Lincoln Square and now chief rabbi of the West Bank town of Efrat, envisioned the terms of an Israeli withdrawal from the territories.

“I don’t believe any settlement should be denied Israeli sovereignty unless that is the wish of the settlers,” Riskin said.

He also gave some rationale for what could have motivated Goldstein to attack the Arabs in Hebron. “There is a feeling of not being protected” among the settlers, he said. “It is an extremely incendiary situation.”

Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, executive vice president of the Union of American Orthodox Congregations, said his organization is deeply concerned over the implementation of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which calls for Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

“Out position is that the security and safety and development of the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria must be protected and enhanced,” Stolper said.

Many in the Orthodox leadership insist that expressions of solidarity with Jewish settlers do not constituted a political stance.

“There have been dreams of returning to Zion for 2,000 years,” said Rabbi Moshe Gorelick, president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “Are these dreams political?”

The concern over the settlements takes on a personal dimension for American Orthodox, Jews, as well, since about 15 percent of settlers are American-born, according to reports.

Joyce Lempel, a member of Lincoln Square Synagogue, who helped organize the “adoption” program, insisted that concern over the fate of the settlers in simply a human rights issue.

“Why can the Palestinian refugee problem be seen as a human rights problem but with Jews it’s a political problem?” Lempel said. “These are Jews in distress who are being demonized and maligned.”

But Daniel Goldschmidt, a board member of Congregation Kehilat Jacob, which also participated in the adoption program, said that members of his synagogue were not consulted on whether to participate in the rally.

He and others represent a backlash among Orthodox Jews who resent their movement associating itself so closely with that of the settlers. They maintain that the political views of the American Orthodox community are far from uniform.

“The effect of identifying the rally as being in solidarity with the settlers, was that everyone would see this as solidarity for the political position of the settlers,” Goldschmidt said. Goldschmidt has helped to organize an ad hoc coalition called Orthodox West Siders for Peace, to combat what he calls “the misperception of monolithic Orthodox opposition to the peace process.”

He said the group, which protested outside the adoption rally, will help provide a forum for those in favor of the peace process.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, held of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., said that statements by Orthodox leadership to the effect that they are not really taking a political position do in effect constitute a criticism of the current course of peace negotiations.

Goldin says this misrepresents the cautious optimism felt by many in the Orthodox world.

Goldin describes the atmosphere in Orthodox circles as “extremely polarized,” with those opposing the peace process unfairly dominating discussions.

“There’s a lot of willingness to wait and see, that is being overwhelmed by the immediate reaction of `no, no, no,'” Goldin said.

A spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York said that there have been contradictory concerns over the government’s tactics.

“On the one hand, they say the government doesn’t do enough, but when the government insists on no concessions on the safety of settlers, and the discussions are marred, they say `see, you can’t depend on the P.L.O.'” said the spokesman.

He also said there was concern over calls for money to be given directly to settlements rather than to the United Jewish Appeal, which has a policy of not distributing money in the administered territories. “We don’t think Jews in the U.S. should discriminate against Jews who don’t live in the territories,” said.

The issue of American involvement raises long-standing questions over the role of Diaspora Jewry in Israeli affairs. Goldin and others insist that the pace process is ultimately an issue for Israel itself to resolve.

“We’re not sending our kids to the army,” Goldin said, “so we can’t demand that Israelis send their kids to defend every far-flung settlement.”

But Gorelik of the Rabbinic Council insists that American involvement is by invitation only.

“If they feel that the American religious community should stay out of it,” Gorelik said, “then they shouldn’t come and lobby.”

In the end, many Orthodox leaders turn to their usual source for support and guidance. By coincidence, the weekend after the slaying in Hebron had been designated by the Orthodox Union as a Shabbat of prayer, to think about the peace process and hope for the best outcome.

“What is the nature of this peace and the price to be paid?” asked O.U. President Sheldon Rudolf, in a statement. “I can think of no batter moment that now to talk with God.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund