Israel Rules ‘Treason’ Label Rude But Legal

By Eric Marx, With Reporting by Elli Wohlgelernter in Jerusalem and Ha’aretz.

Published December 05, 2003, issue of December 05, 2003.
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Israel’s attorney general has declined to bring incitement charges against 250 rabbis who signed a religious ruling branding liberal opposition leaders as traitors for their role in the Geneva Understandings.

The decision not to prosecute was hailed by Orthodox leaders in Israel and the United States, many of whom were vehemently opposed to the peace initiative, led by former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin. The attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, said this week that the rabbis had engaged in unfortunate but legal behavior when they issued a religious edict branding the virtual peace pact an “act of treason” and urging that its negotiators be “brought to justice and declared outside the brotherhood of humanity.”

The rabbinic ruling, released to coincide with the Monday “launch ceremony” of the Geneva document, drew calls for a police inquiry from opposition Labor lawmakers Ophir Pines-Paz and Eitan Cabel. They argued that the rabbis were guilty of incitement of the sort that preceded the 1995 assassination of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“This madness must be stopped right away,” Cabel said. “This insane ruling paves the way for someone to kill those behind the Geneva Accord.”

The rabbinic ruling was sponsored by a non-profit organization, Pikuach Nefesh, whose leaders, Rabbi Yosef Goreletzky and Rabbi David Druckman, are described in Israeli press reports as prominent figures in the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement. Pamphlets elaborating the ruling’s theological underpinnings, published by Chabad, were disseminated this week to the public, according to a report in the daily Yediot Aharonot.

The peace initiative and the attacks on it divided another Orthodox movement, the Sephardic Shas party. One leading Shas figure, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, son of the movement’s chief religious mentor, was among the Pikuach Nefesh signers, while two other Shas leaders flew to Geneva to participate in the launch ceremony.

The chief rabbi of the West Bank city of Efrat, Shlomo Riskin, said he had no problem with the ruling, and in principle might have signed it. Often viewed as a moderate voice in the Orthodox community, the American-born Riskin said the 250 rabbis were on firmer ground than Beilin was when he forged his plan in defiance of the sitting government.

“I wouldn’t say what they did was absolutely treason,” Riskin said, referring to the Geneva authors. “I consider it bordering on treason. I would say they are definitely going against every tradition of democracy. These were people who were not elected to office.”

“Just because people say things that are not politically correct and are emotional and deeply-felt and are based on centuries of Jewish tradition, does not make it incitement,” said Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America. “I don’t see where they’re saying go out, kill these people, start a riot, burn their houses.”

During his stint as president of the Orthodox Union in the 1990s, both before and after the Rabin assassination, Ganchrow was sharply critical of rabbis who issued rulings classifying Rabin as a “pursuer” or rodef, a religious category that effectively made his killing permissible as a so-called act of self-defense.

In this case, however, Ganchrow defended the rabbis. “We shouldn’t immediately, when rabbis use our religion, say ‘You have no right to get into the debate’ and ‘you have no right to make people angry and emotional.’ Nonsense. That’s what democracy is all about.”

The Orthodox Union declined to comment on the controversy.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in New Jersey, an Orthodox rabbi who drew criticism for his verbal attacks on Rabin in the early 1990s, said he supported the sentiments behind the rabbinic ruling, but he chided the rabbis for creating the impression that the right wing is unruly and undisciplined. “It does a disservice to the right wing because it makes people think that the right wing cannot compete in the arena of ideas and has to resort to violence,” Pruzansky said.

Both Pruzansky and Ganchrow blamed the rabbinic ruling on the Israeli left and its efforts to “destroy” the Jewish people. Ganchrow described left-wing efforts to grant the Palestinians sovereignty over the Temple Mount as “traitorous to the Jewish people.”

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