Jewish leaders on Israel visit express their grief, solidarity

JERUSALEM — Braving bitter morning cold and driving rain, five senior Jewish leaders from different continents laid a wreath at the grave of Yitzhak Rabin to mark his shloshim, the end of the 30-day mourning period.

The five were part of an international mission of 200 top Jewish leaders — including more than 70 from the United States — who came to express their grief and communal solidarity with the people of Israel.

The 24-hour visit, co-hosted by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, included discussions with Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, President Ezer Weizman, Minister Yehuda Amital, Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg and members of Knesset.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres addressed the group after sundown Tuesday, his first official meeting with Jewish community leaders. Peres had decided not to hold any such talks until after Rabin's shloshim ended.

Some Jewish representatives emphasized the symbolic importance of having so many diaspora leaders come to Israel on short notice to show their "solidarity with Israelis."

Other delegates came for more personal reasons.

"I wanted to visit Rabin's grave, and pay my respects," said Jack Abuhatzera, a delegate from France and chairman of the World Sephardic Federation. "We in the diaspora also suffered from the assassination, and I needed an outlet to show it. All these meetings with Israeli leaders I've done before and are really secondary."

Each speaker began with a few words about Rabin, but Jewish unity and solidarity were clearly the burning issues of the day.

Peppered with questions from the delegates, Amital — an Orthodox rabbi who recently joined the government as minister without portfolio — said he did not have any "quick fixes" to heal tensions between right and left, or religious and secular.

Promising to use his new Cabinet position to study the issue, he also warned against using the word "unity" to mask differences.

"The problem with unity is that everybody wants it — as long as it's done `my way,'" he said.

Although Amital stressed that differences were healthy and should be respected, he insisted that maintaining respect for Israel's democracy was, "even according to Torah," a matter of "pikuach nefesh," the safeguarding of life.

"Israel's very existence is dependent upon democracy," Amital argued. "So people must respect the authority of the democratically elected government, which has the ultimate responsibility to lead the Jewish people."

The Jewish Agency's Burg echoed the rabbi's opinion.

Warning delegates not to be "faked out by artificial unity," he said that living in a society with multiple opinions is important. But unity, he added, must be realized in terms of "agreeing to the rules of the game — on a culture of how to agree to disagree."

As both speakers and delegates grappled with the big questions, few offered any solutions.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, acknowledged that the American Jewish community has yet to devise concrete steps for bringing the community together.

"First, the proper environment must be created," he said. "Then we can move along with implementing solutions."

The first major effort, he said, is the mass rally scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 10 at Madison Square Garden to demonstrate united American Jewish support for the government of Israel and its "pursuit of peace."

Sponsored by numerous major Jewish organizations, the rally has already exposed divisions within the community over the event's billing.

Orthodox and right-wing organizations threatened not to attend the gathering if the words "peace process" were not replaced by the phrase "pursuit of peace."

And even though there seems to be a consensus among the groups about the need to tone down the rhetoric between right and left, some Jewish leaders still see the need to continue "telling it like it is."

"Some people are using the term `unity' and `halachah' to cloak the real issues," said Mary Ann Stein, president-elect of American Friends of Peace Now.

"But when signs hang in the street calling Rabin a traitor and a Nazi, I feel that organizations and the societies they represent need to take responsibility for their actions, and that we can't deny the right to demand this."

Issues other than peace and the Rabin assassination were also on the minds of delegates.

Rabbi Michael Cohen, a representative of the Reconstructionist movement in the United States, repeatedly raised the question of the right of rabbis other than the Orthodox to have legal standing in Israel. But the officials to whom he addressed the questions skirted the issue.

And Orthodox Union President Mandell Ganchrow admitted that certain disputes between Orthodox and the other religious denominations might never be settled because of "fundamental differences" on education and basic halachic issues such as conversion.

Sobered by the event that brought them to Jerusalem, the delegates ultimately returned in their conversations and declarations to the need to confront extremism.

Barak, in his short address, urged the diaspora leaders to fight the fanatics.

It is a message that is apparently being heard. But silencing the fringe provocateurs in lands that promote freedom of speech might not be easy.

Hoenlein, for example, explained that most of the offending rhetoric in the United States comes from outside the "organized Jewish world."

Therefore, he said, "there is little the organizations like the Presidents' Conference can do because we're not a police force."

Still, he admitted that there is more the organized community can do to "mobilize and isolate the offenders." And he expressed frustration that all organizations were not doing their share — or committing enough funds."

"Accountability is the key, and it must be on broader terms than just rhetoric," Hoenlein said. "People and organizations need to be held accountable for what they do."