Israel is denying claims that it has adopted a policy of ethnic profiling aimed at Orthodox Jews.
In a July 28 letter to leaders of the New York-based Orthodox Union, the deputy chief of mission of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Rafael Barak, said that he “can say with full confidence that the State of Israel does not tolerate any policy of discrimination.”
Barak was responding to a July 21 letter from O.U. leaders to Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon. The O.U. letter, which was made public by the organization last week, pointed to several recent news reports suggesting that Israeli security forces were curbing the rights of religious opponents to Israel’s Gaza pullout, which is set to begin August 15.
The exchange of letters comes as Israel prepares to dismantle all the Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank. In recent months, Israeli officials say, opponents of the disengagement plan have threatened the life of Prime Minister Sharon, who now travels with a beefed-up security contingent. Some Orthodox opponents of the plan have clashed with police and have attempted to organize a mass campaign of civil disobedience. Against government orders, settler leaders have also been vowing to organize a mass march on Gaza in an effort to hamper any attempt to dismantle the settlements.
Despite pressure from American and Israeli opponents of disengagement, O.U. leaders have said that while they may have misgivings about the pullout, it is their policy to leave security decisions to the Israeli public and the country’s elected leaders. As a result, the organization, which represents about 1,000 congregations and is the world’s largest certifier of kosher foods, has been criticized in some Orthodox circles. Some sources familiar with the situation said that one aim of the O.U. letter is to counter any perception that the organization is indifferent to the plight of the settlers who will be forced out of their homes, or to the rights of anti-disengagement protesters.
O.U. leaders said that they only released the letter after several days of not receiving a reply. In response, Israel’s consul general in New York, Aryeh Mekel, told the Forward: “I would say the reason that they released the letter was because they wanted it in the media. That makes more sense.”
Mekel said that in response to the O.U. letter, he had spoken on the phone with the organization’s president, Stephen Savitsky. The diplomat added that he has had many meetings in recent months with O.U. officials.
In their letter, the O.U. leaders wrote, “We are stunned by reports of security forces singling out persons displaying outward appearances of religious observance for disparate harsh treatment.
“Recent reports and eyewitness accounts have described security forces stopping, questioning and in some instances detaining persons traveling both in public and private vehicles solely because those persons wore kippot [yarmulkes]. Other persons in those vehicles without kippot were not questioned or detained,” the O.U. leaders added. “In at least one instance, we understand that the police stopped a bus leaving Ma’ale Adumim” — a Jerusalem suburb in the West Bank — “and removed from the bus all of the passengers who wore kippot . Those passengers were not even travelling to a demonstration, but were simply seeking to reach their place of work in Jerusalem on the same bus upon which they travel each and every day.”
In his written response to the O.U. letter, Barak denied that anyone’s rights had been abused. “According to our initial reports of the incidents mentioned in your letter, no act of discrimination took place,” he said. “However, because the government of Israel takes such allegations very seriously, we will ensure that each incident reported is investigated thoroughly.”
Earlier this week, a leading American supporter of the settlers, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jewish Democrat, reportedly called for the racial profiling of people of Middle Eastern descent on the New York subways. He did not return calls seeking comment.