A leading ultra-Orthodox organization has launched a campaign to shift attention from a controversial book on Jewish superiority, choosing instead to attack the Forward’s reporting on it.
Agudath Israel of America has refused to condemn the book by Rabbi Saadya Grama, published in Hebrew under the title “ Romemut Yisrael Ufarashat Hagalut ,” which can be translated in several ways, including “The Grandeur [or Superiority] of Israel and the Question of Exile.” Instead, several Aguda officials have sought to discredit the Forward’s account of the work.
The Aguda’s response contrasted sharply with that of the nation’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., whose religious leaders had given the self-published book a pre-publication endorsement. Questioned by the Forward last month, the yeshiva’s religious leader, Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, issued a statement saying he had not read the book carefully before endorsing it, but was repudiating its “alleged” contents. Grama, the author, is a graduate of the yeshiva, and such perfunctory pre-publication endorsements of graduates’ works are common, Kotler said.
“In looking at the specific points allegedly contained in the sefer [book], I can certainly tell you that they are not reflective of normative Jewish thought and are certainly not the philosophy of our yeshivah,” Kotler said in his statement.
In its December 19 article, the Forward reported that “ Romemut Yisrael ” describes gentiles as “completely evil,” constituting an inferior “species.”
One member of the Aguda’s ruling Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Avraham Chaim Levin, publicly described the Forward article on the book as an antisemitic “blood libel,” while acknowledging never having read “ Romemut Yisrael .”
Speaking January 3 at an Aguda convention near Chicago, Levin approvingly cited a critical letter sent to the Forward by David Zwiebel, the organization’s director of government and public affairs. In an interview Tuesday with the Forward, Zwiebel acknowledged sending many Orthodox leaders copies of private letters that he had written to Forward editor J.J. Goldberg attacking the initial coverage of the book.
The Forward article, said Levin, a widely respected Aguda leader, “is reminiscent of the blood libel trial of Beilis, in which the antisemitic prosecutor researched talmudic and midrashic literature to find any hints of any statements which would be derogatory about gentiles.”
“You would not expect this type of antisemitism from a Jewish newspaper,” Levin said. A video clip of the speech was obtained by the Forward.
In his speech, Levin cited Zwiebel’s letter, saying: “He says he read the book thoroughly, and [that] there is not a single passage in the book which can remotely be seen as embracing deception or duplicity to gentiles, nor any allusion to genetic superiority.”
Following the speech, the Forward faxed photocopied sections of Grama’s book to Levin and several other members of the Aguda’s Council of Torah Sages, but by press time none had returned phone messages seeking comment.
In its initial coverage, the Forward quoted condemnations of the book by an official at the Anti-Defamation League and by Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva Univesity and dean of its affiliated rabbinical seminary. Both based their criticisms on translated passages and summaries provided to them by the Forward.
The book was subsequently condemned by the brother of the Lakewood leader, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, who serves as the yeshiva’s chief executive officer. In an interview with the New Jersey Jewish News, Kotler stated without qualification that the ideas in Romemut Yisrael are “repugnant and abhorrent.”
The Aguda, however, has avoided airing any public criticisms that its officials may have of the book’s content. Instead it has focused its public response on challenging the Forward’s reporting.
Zwiebel originally sent letters to the Forward and asked that they not be published, a request the newspaper honored. He subsequently distributed copies to leaders of other Orthodox organizations. In his first letter to the Forward, dated December 22, Zwiebel wrote that he does not consider it his “purpose to defend the book.”
Instead, Zwiebel wrote, he wanted to “call [the editors’] attention to the shoddy quality” of the article, which he characterized as “grossly inaccurate and misleading, perhaps libelously so.” Zwiebel repeatedly claimed in his letters that Grama’s actual ideas are consistent with those found in earlier Jewish texts.
Goldberg described his correspondence with Zwiebel as a “difficult exchange” between friends. He said Zwiebel’s distribution of the letters was “surprising” but understandable.
Zwiebel’s primary objections to the Forward’s coverage of the book centered on the paper’s assertion that Grama had characterized Jews and gentiles as different species, and that Grama had recommended “duplicity and deception” when dealing with gentiles.
In his book, Grama used the phrase “ shnei minim nifradim ,” which the Forward translated as “two separate species.” In an interview with the Forward, Zwiebel suggested that “two different types” would be a more accurate translation.
In a reply to Zwiebel, Goldberg argued that “ min ” is the standard word used in modern Hebrew for the term species, and that Grama’s prose reflected a thorough grounding in modern Hebrew usage.
Scholars interviewed by the Forward said the term is generally understood the same way in earlier texts. “The definition of the term ‘ minim’ in both Jewish thought and Halacha means biological species,” said Rabbi Alan Brill, a professor of Jewish intellectual history at Yeshiva University.
As for the Forward’s description of Grama’s book as urging “deception” and “duplicity,” Zwiebel noted that the words do not appear in the text itself. The article’s author, Allan Nadler, director of Jewish studies at Drew University in New Jersey, replied that those words were intended in the article to sum up the contents of a chapter in which Grama urged Jews to hide their true beliefs and feelings from gentiles.
Zwiebel countered that the words had an emotional charge not present in the chapter in question, making them misleading.
After reading Grama’s book, Rabbi Yosef Blau, a leading rabbinic counselor at Yeshiva University, sent the Forward a letter arguing that the newspaper had accurately translated the work (please see Page 10). But, he added, Grama “is not an advocate of acting against the gentile. On the contrary, his message is the need to separate from a hostile, intrinsically antisemitic world.”
Still, Blau wrote, the “possibility exists” that Jewish extremists in Israel could use the text to “justify horrendous behavior.” He suggested that American scholars such as Grama may be unaware of the possible impact of such writings in today’s charged atmosphere.
Moreover, Blau added, it is possible for traditionalists to argue for Jewish isolation “without ascribing evil to gentiles and denying that they are created in God’s image. One can acknowledge the intractable existence of antisemitism without seeing it emanating from the essential nature of the gentile. Unfortunately this book does not make such distinctions. Yet it is inaccurate to place it in the category of racist tracts that call for the superior race to rule the world. This work is a call for a superior people to withdraw from the world and live in isolation while submitting to its enemies and placing trust in God.”