WASHINGTON — After months of refusing to oppose the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza, the largest Orthodox organization in America is stepping up its criticism of the Israeli government.
The Orthodox Union, representing 1,000 congregations in North America, sent an August 31 letter to the Israeli Supreme Court, urging it to forbid Prime Minister Sharon’s government from destroying the synagogues in the 21 recently evacuated Jewish settlements in Gaza. In its letter, the O.U., which is also the world’s largest certifier of kosher foods, argued that bulldozing the sanctuaries would violate Jewish law and set a precedent that would put synagogues in the Diaspora in jeopardy.
The president of the O.U., Stephen Savitsky, said that the organization was supporting the preparation of a report by the Jerusalem-based Israel Policy Center alleging that Sharon’s government repeatedly violated the civil rights of disengagement opponents. An official with the center said that the O.U. had offered to help cover some of the publishing and distribution expenses, but Savitsky denied that any direct financial assistance was being provided.
The letter to the Supreme Court is the latest — and perhaps the most confrontational — in a series of actions taken by the O.U. in response to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, as the organization attempts to support its Orthodox settler allies in Israel without entering into a full-fledged clash with the Israeli government. In the months leading up to the Gaza pullout, the O.U. was criticized in many anti-disengagement circles for refusing to criticize Sharon’s disengagement plan.
“The two basic themes that have driven how the O.U. has reacted to the disengagement are on the one hand a basic belief that it is the government of Israel that has the right to decide questions of security for the State of Israel,” said Harvey Blitz, chairman of the O.U.’s board of directors. “On the other hand, there was a very strong feeling of empathy with the residents of Gaza and the four communities” in the northern West Bank — who, Blitz said, were vilified instead of being recognized for their sacrifice.
These two themes, Blitz added, “are in tension with each other, yet they served as the touchstones by which we measured what our response was going to be.”
This dialectic produced a controversial middle course that drew criticism, albeit mostly in private, from supporters and opponents of the disengagement.
On July 8, more than a month before the disengagement began, the O.U. issued a statement making it clear that it neither would support nor oppose this Israeli policy. That statement, Israel’s consul general in New York, Arye Mekel, told the Forward, “took the wind out of the sails of American Jewish opponents of the disengagement” by isolating them in the extreme right end of the Jewish community’s political spectrum.
“We believe that the O.U.’s position — indeed their overall conduct — was very responsible and helpful,” Mekel said.
But after opting to sit out the disengagement debate, the O.U. came under intense pressure from its members to show that the organization was not indifferent to the plight of the settlers and their supporters, Savitsky said. “Many, many, many of our members felt that we should have taken a much more active position,” the O.U. president told the Forward.
On July 28, as clashes between Israeli police forces and anti-disengagement demonstrators intensified, the O.U. sent a letter to Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Daniel Ayalon, protesting the alleged policy of profiling aimed at Orthodox Jews by Israeli law enforcement officers.
“We are stunned by reports of security forces singling out persons displaying outward appearances of religious observance for disparate harsh treatment,” the letter said. Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the letter drew “outraged reactions” from members of Sharon’s government in Jerusalem, who were concerned that the timing and style of the letter could have an inflammatory impact. An angry message was promptly communicated to the organization’s leaders, the Israeli officials said.
Since the evacuation of the settlements in Gaza, the O.U. has taken several steps to support the settlers, while carefully navigating the previously uncharted waters of taking issue with official Israeli policies.
The O.U. is raising money to help the evacuees. A fund-raising link on the group’s Web site, under the headline “Their Grief Is Our Grief,” depicts the settlers as being all but abandoned by the government.
“Many of the families expelled from Gaza in the last few days have been put into crowded and inadequate living conditions,” the O.U. claims on its Web site. “Some are being housed temporarily in hotels, with entire families sharing one room. This arrangement is to last for only 10 days, after which they will have to fend for themselves. Many do not yet have access to their household goods and personal items that were left behind, and need emergency support.”
This link appears above the one calling on constituents to support victims of Hurricane Katrina. O.U. officials said that totals were not available for either fund-raising effort.
Last week, the O.U. sent its letter to the Israeli Supreme Court, warning that an Israeli government decision to destroy the 30 synagogues and eight yeshivas and seminaries left behind in Gaza and the northern West Bank may set a precedent, or serve as a justification, for foreign governments around the globe to destroy Jewish holy sites in places where Jews no longer live. O.U. officials could not remember a case, in recent history, when the organization turned to the Israeli Supreme Court to oppose an Israeli government policy.
In voicing support for the Israel Policy Center’s report on alleged civil rights abuses, the O.U. is aligning itself with an institution that regularly attacks the Israeli Supreme Court, describing it as a bastion of elitist liberalism bent on thwarting majority rule. The center argues that a “small, unelected elite, chiefly based in the judiciary and the civil service” is Israel’s chief problem in attempting to balance parliamentary democracy and Jewish values in Israel’s public life. This elite, according to the group’s Web site, is influenced by a post-Zionist worldview. As a result, the group’s mission statement says, “public policy in Israel frequently is hostile to Judaism and to the idea of a Jewish state. Consequently, many Israelis now feel alienated from their government and its policies.”
Many O.U. constituents are certainly feeling a sense of alienation — or at least of isolation — from the Israeli government over disengagement, said several leaders of the organization. The trend, O.U. leaders added, is alarming. Modern Orthodox Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom belong to O.U.-affiliated congregations, are typically the staunchest, most committed supporters of Israel within the American Jewish community, and typically maintain the strongest ties to the country. It has become routine for Modern Orthodox high school graduates to spend at least a year in Israel studying at a yeshiva, often in the West Bank, and many Modern Orthodox Jews have a relative who immigrated to Israel.
According to Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s public affairs office in Washington, when young Orthodox Jews return from studying in Israel, they bring back a strong Israeli-style, often messianic religious-Zionist influence to their families and friends, creating an “accelerated cycle of influence.”
For many religious Zionists in Israel and in America, Diament said, the disengagement put all the fundamental assumptions that underlay what it meant to be an Orthodox Zionist for the past 50 years “on the table for discussion again.” These questions — dealing with the validity of “participating and partnering” with the secular state, the appropriate role of a religious Jew in the army whether he answers to his commander or his rabbi, and the significance of messianism in the religious Zionist camp — relate on a practical level to Orthodox Jews living in Israel, Diament said. But, he added, all these questions are also being asked by religious Zionists in America.
In an effort to help begin the post-disengagement healing process within the religious Zionist camp in both Israel and America, the O.U. intends to initiate a series of private meetings among rabbis and other opinion leaders and to organize public town hall-style meetings, Diament said. He left this week for Israel for preparatory talks.
Blitz, the O.U.’s chairman of the board, said, “This experience has spotlighted the relationship between religion and state — not in the American sense of division between religion and state ” — but in the Israeli context of “how people relate to their religion and to their state at the same time.” He added, “This is a time for heshbon nefesh [self-scrutiny], and I am hopeful that one of the more positive things that may come out of this is that people will think about what it means to be both Zionist and Orthodox, both there and here.”