Orthodox Jews increasingly divided over peace process

NEW YORK — The sound of the shofar during Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, is usually considered a call to unity and peace among the Jewish people in preparation for the Days of Awe.

However, for many Orthodox Jews this year, it is a call to opposition against the government of Israel, which has committed itself to establishing Palestinian rule in most of the West Bank.

The result is an extraordinary amount of public debate over whether the state of Israel, whose elected leaders are regarded as traitorous by some Orthodox Jews, should be supported at all.

Ads touting varying degrees of opposition to the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have been placed in Jewish newspapers, and several anti-government rallies have been held in New York in recent weeks.

And even though politically extreme elements have drummed up support for their views, other Orthodox voices have articulated concerns about the ultimate price the Jewish people will pay for the rhetoric.

Friends of Yesha, in Teaneck, N.J., placed an ad in Jewish newspapers in Teaneck and New York City the week of Sept. 1 urging readers not to buy State of Israel Bonds and, instead, to donate their money to the Yesha Heartland Campaign.

Yesha is an advocacy group for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

"We are not looking to cause a schism in the Jewish community. Our purpose isn't to diminish funds necessary for a whole lot of projects within the Green Line, though we can understand other people's emotions," said Steven Orlow, president of the One Israel Fund/Yesha Heartland Campaign, the U.S. fund-raising arm of Yesha.

But the ad apparently has influenced at least one Orthodox synagogue to suspend its annual Israel Bonds' fund-raising appeal held during the High Holy Days.

The board of Congregation Sons of Israel, in Cherry Hill, N.J., recently voted 30-2 to cancel its Israel Bonds appeal as an expression of opposition to the Rabin government's policies toward Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The congregation has a 300-family membership and is affiliated with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

In canceling the fund-raising drive for Israel Bonds, the board also asked congregants to contribute directly to the Israeli charity of their choice.

The High Holy Days appeal is "a substantial portion" of the effort by Israel Bonds to raise about $1 billion each year, said State of Israel Bonds spokesman Raphael Rothstein.

About 500 of the few thousand congregations that take part in the annual bonds campaign are Orthodox and a "few" of those have dropped their appeal this year, said Rothstein, who was unsure of the precise number.

"We're concerned but not overly concerned" about the loss of the Orthodox congregations, he said.

Meanwhile, two Orthodox organizations publicly decried Yesha's efforts.

The Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of about 900 largely centrist Orthodox rabbis, sent a letter to its members and issued a news release urging support of Israel Bonds.

The letter was sent out by RCA president Rabbi Rafael Grossman, who is also a member of Israel Bonds' Rabbinic Cabinet. "The Israel Bond organization is totally apolitical," said Grossman in a news release.

"No matter which party has governed, or shall govern the state, the people of Israel are the sole beneficiaries of all the vital human resources, public services and industry funded by Israel Bonds," which pay for things such as roads and telecommunications, he said.

A smaller Orthodox group, named Shvil HaZahav, or The Golden Mean, which has been supportive of the peace process, also denounced the Yesha ad.

"As we approach the High Holy Day season, Jews the world over must unite in their prayers for peace. This ad campaign fosters enmity and hatred among Jews, not fellowship and universal bonding," said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the group's founder and president.

The same week as Yesha placed its ad, the Orthodox Union ran one in seven Jewish newspapers. A carefully worded "open letter" addressed to Rabin urged him to slow the peace process.

"In the name of Jewish unity and destiny, we plead with you to use your resolve to unite our nation through a dialogue with all elements of Israeli society in order to bring about a sense of unity that the Jewish people so desperately require before proceeding further," said the letter, signed by the OU's president, Mandell Ganchrow, and executive vice president, Rabbi Raphael Butler.

The goal of the letter was to "create consensus in the Orthodox community," Butler said.

"The responses have been overwhelmingly, if not universally, positive" from Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing Orthodox group, to those in the Orthodox community supportive of the peace process, he said.

Still, the OU letter was attacked in The Jewish Press, a newspaper targeting the Orthodox community. The paper accused the OU of "categorically disenfranchising 1,000 congregations and their constituents" by not attacking Rabin.