NEW YORK, Oct. 23 (JTA) — U.S. Orthodox Jewish leaders are outraged by an Israeli Reform leader’s comments drawing comparisons between fervently Orthodox Jews and the Islamic fundamentalists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
But Rabbi Uri Regev, the outspoken director of the Israel Religious Action Center — an organization that promotes religious pluralism in Israel — is standing by a speech he gave recently at a suburban Cleveland temple.
In the speech, which was reported in the local Jewish newspaper, Regev spoke about the dangers of Islamic terrorism.
He added, “In Israel we have our own religious extremists who feel they have the right to rule other people’s lives, spreading the venom of religious fundamentalism.”
Regev asserted that some fervently Orthodox Jewish leaders in Israel have used hate-filled and violent language to describe liberal and secular Jews and their institutions.
He also said fervently Orthodox Jewish individuals are believed to be behind recent acts of vandalism and arson against liberal Jewish institutions.
“We need to band together to fight religious zealots on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides,” Regev was reported as saying. “If we don’t learn from the Sept. 11 loss of human lives, we haven’t learned anything.”
Orthodox leaders, who quickly circulated the article by e-mail, bristled at the comparison with Muslim terrorists.
“How can you even think about comparing a Jew of any sort to the Arabs who flew into the World Trade Center and killed 5,000 innocent people?” asked Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.
Lerner, who is calling for Regev’s resignation, said no fervently Orthodox Jews have been proven guilty of vandalism against liberal Jewish institutions.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, described accusations that fervently Orthodox Jews had vandalized institutions as “apocryphal.”
Regev is “comparing murderers, hateful murderers, with people who simply want to maintain the standards of the Jewish religion with regard to things like conversion and Shabbat,” Shafran said.
Regev is “co-opting the horror the whole world is feeling against Islamic terrorists in his fight against religious Jews,” Shafran said.
Comparing fervently Orthodox Jews to “these evil people who murdered thousands is beyond the realm of comprehension,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi in Yorba Linda, Calif.
“Regev has crossed all boundaries in modern Jewish life,” Eliezrie said. “He is sowing the seeds of hatred and division when we need unity and understanding. Instead of participating in a meaningful theological debate about real issues, he lowers himself to the playground, using name calling.”
Reached by telephone in Jerusalem, Regev clarified that he was not criticizing all of Orthodoxy or even all the fervently Orthodox, as the Cleveland article implied. Still, he said he stands by his speech.
“The point that I made is that we are waking up too late when we express our concern and outrage when the actual assault takes place,” he said. “What we need to understand is that it’s the religious fundamentalist hate speech that precedes those outbursts that we should be more conscious of, concerned about addressing.”
Regev said he was particularly concerned about a Sept. 7 article in the Israeli edition of the fervently Orthodox newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, which described Reform and Conservative Jews as “destroyers of religion,” “criminals” and “enemies of God.”
He also pointed to a sermon one of Israel’s chief rabbis, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, gave in 1996, in which he defended the violence of the biblical zealot, Pinchas, and suggested that bloodshed in defense of Judaism is “like a doctor who spreads blood with his scalpel, but saves the patient.”
Rabbi Daniel Allen, president of the Conservative movement’s Masorti Foundation, another advocate for Jewish pluralism in Israel, said he is “not into Orthodox bashing,” but shared Regev’s concerns about the language and tactics used by some fervently Orthodox in Israel.
“Jews killing other Jews or using terror is an aberration,” Allen said. “They’re smart enough to use the terror of the Knesset Finance Committee,” he said, referring to fervently Orthodox political leaders’ recent blocking of public financing for a joint conversion institute that would have been operated under the auspices of Conservative, Reform and Orthodox rabbis.