From the Archive: Avi Weiss isn’t the quiet type


Israel’s Chief Rabbinate messed with the wrong rabbi.

The Chief Rabbinate had refused to accept a letter from Rabbi Avi Weiss attesting to the Jewishness of a couple seeking to get married in Israel. Apparently, the denial was motivated by a distaste for some of the liberal innovations Weiss has supported. (The Bronx-based rabbi is a champion within Orthodoxy of women’s ordination.) But now, following a predictable crescendo of outrage, the Chief Rabbinate has backed down and agreed to accept Weiss’ word on such matters.

Of all the rabbis in America, the Chief Rabbinate had picked a fight with a legendary activist, someone not exactly known for quiet acquiescence.

A search of the JTA Archive shows the volume and breadth of Jewish causes that have spurred Weiss to speak out, take to the streets, file lawsuits, or get arrested. Occasionally, he has protested against Jewish groups’ actions. Sometimes, his followers have even donned concentration camp uniforms to make their point.

While Weiss first made his mark as an activist with his many years of advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jewry, he also has demonstrated for Ethiopian and Iranian Jews, against anti-Semites, on behalf of Jewish settlers in the Sinai and the West Bank, in support of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, and against both a Catholic convent at Auschwitz camp and a Holocaust memorial at Belzec.

Targets of Weiss’ ire have included Jimmy Carter, Caspar Weinberger, Kurt Waldheim, Yasser Arafat, PBS, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Patrick Buchanan, John Demjanjuk, Louis Farrakhan, Carlos Menem, Mikhail Gorbachev and Mel Gibson.

He has demonstrated outside diplomatic facilities belonging to the Soviet Union, Israel, Syria and Austria; at U.S. government offices, and even at the Vatican. He has participated in sit-ins at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, the U.N. General Assembly, the National Council of Churches, Lehman College, a West German consulate and a Soviet airline office.

He has chained himself to the Soviet mission in New York and handcuffed himself to a fence outside the White House. He has been arrested in New York (many times), Geneva and Oslo, detained by police in Istanbul, jailed in Washington, and was met with physical violence while protesting at Auschwitz.

When an organization hosted or honored someone whom Weiss deemed beyond the pale, he did not remain silent. He has protested events put on by the American Jewish Committee (featuring Caspar Weinberger), the Appeal of Conscience Foundation (honoring Carlos Menem), Israel Bonds (Mikhail Gorbachev), the NAACP (Louis Farrakhan), the University of Pennsylvania (Nabil Sha’ath) and the Nobel Prize (Yasser Arafat).

He is also  willing to take his adversaries to court: Weiss has filed lawsuits against a Polish cardinal, the FBI, Howard University and the American Jewish Committee. And he filed a petition with a rabbinic court  on behalf of Jonathan Pollard assailing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations for failing to help the imprisoned spy.

In short, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate should have known that Avi Weiss isn’t shy about making some noise.

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