Focus on Issues: Divisions Among Orthodox over Peace Process Escalate

The sound of the shofar during Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, is usually heard as a call to unity and peace among the Jewish people in preparation for the Days of Awe.

However, for many Orthodox Jews this year, it is a call to opposition against the government of Israel, which has committed to turning governance of most of the West Bank over to Palestinian rule.

The result is an extraordinary amount of public debate over whether the State of Israel – whose elected leaders are regarded by some in the Orthodox community as traitorous – should be supported at all.

Ads touting varying degrees of opposition to the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have been placed in Jewish newspapers, and several anti- government rallies have been held in New York in recent weeks.

And event though politically extreme elements have drummed up visible support, other Orthodox voices have articulated concern about the ultimate price the Jewish people will pay for the rhetoric.

Friends of Yesha, in Teaneck, N.J., placed an ad in Jewish newspapers in Teaneck and New York City the week of Sept. 1 urging readers not to buy State of Israel Bonds and instead, to donate their money to the Yesha Heartland Campaign.

Yesha is an advocacy group for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

“We are not looking to cause a schism in the Jewish community. Our purpose isn’t to diminish funds necessary for a whole lot of projects within the Green Line, though we can understand other people’s emotions,” said Steven Orlow, president of the One Israel Fund/Yesha Heartland Campaign, the fund-raising arm of Yesha in the U.S.

But the ad apparently has influenced at least one Orthodox synagogue to suspend its annual Israel Bonds’ fund-raising appeal held during the High Holidays.

The board of Congregation Sons of Israel, in Cherry Hill, N.J., voted recently 38-2 to cancel its Israel Bonds appeal as an expression of opposition to the Rabin government’s policies toward Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The congregation has a 300-family membership and is affiliated with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Instead of raising money for Israel Bonds, the funds collected will be donated to Yesha, said Benjamin Sharfman, a board member of the synagogue.

The High Holiday appeal is “a substantial portion” of Israel Bonds’ effort to raise about $1 billion each year, said State of Israel Bonds spokesman Raphael Rothstein.

About 500 of the few thousand congregations that take part in the annual bond’s campaign are Orthodox and a “few” of those have dropped their appeal this year, said Rothstein, who was unsure of the precise number.

“We’re concerned but not overly concerned” about the loss of the Orthodox congregations, he said.

The Yesha ad states that “Israel bonds support the Rabin government who has carried out an unprecedented campaign of bias, bigotry and beatings against 150,000 of its own people,” and “has already given the PLO over $60,000,000 (all unaccounted for), besides 25,000 stolen Israeli automobiles (used by the PLO police).”

In response, Rothstein said, “Bonds supports all the governments of Israel, year in and year out.”

“We are an agency of the Israeli government but not a political organization,” he said. Buying Israeli Bonds “is a profound expression of love and support for Israel, an investment in the future of Israel.”

Meanwhile, two Orthodox organizations publicly decried Yesha’s efforts.

The Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of about 900 largely centrist Orthodox rabbis, sent a letter to its members and issued a news release urging support of Israel Bonds.

The letter was sent out by RCA President Rabbi Rafael Grossman, who is also a member of Israel Bonds’ Rabbinic Cabinet.

“The Israel Bond organization is totally apolitical,” said Grossman in a news release.

“No matter which party has governed, or shall govern the state, the people of Israel are the sole beneficiaries of all the vital human resources, public services and industry funded by Israel Bonds,” which pay for things such as roads and telecommunications, he said.

A smaller Orthodox group, named Shvil HaZahav, or The Golden Mean, which has been supportive of the peace process, also denounced the Yesha ad.

“As we approach the High Holiday season, Jews the world over must unite in their prayers for peace. This ad campaign fosters enmity and hatred among Jews, not fellowship and universal bonding,” said Rabbi Shmuel Golden, the group’s founder and president.

“Whether I agree or disagree with any Israeli government’s policy, I cannot justify any actions which present the world, and especially U.S. policy-makers, with seriously mixed messages as to Israel’s ultimate goals and directions,” said Steven Eidman, a member of Shvil HaZahav’s board of directors.

The same week as Yesha placed its ad, the Orthodox Union ran one in seven Jewish newspapers.

A carefully worded “open letter” addressed to Rabin urged him to slow the peace process.

“In the name of Jewish unity and destiny, we plead with you to use your resolve to unite our nation through a dialogue with all elements of Israeli society in order to bring about a sense of unity that the Jewish people so desperately require before proceeding further,” said the letter, signed by the OU’s president, Mandell Ganchrow, and executive vice president, Rabbi Raphael Butler.

The goal of the letter was to “create consensus in the Orthodox community,” Butler said.

“The response have been overwhelmingly, if not universally, positive” from Ateret Cohanim, an ultraright-wing Orthodox group, to those in the Orthodox community supportive of the peace process, he said.

Still, the OU letter was attacked in The Jewish Press, a newspaper targeting the Orthodox community. The paper accused the OU of “categorically disenfranchising 1,000 congregations and their constituents” by not attacking Rabin.

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