N.Y. Orthodox rabbi vows to sue Israel for $2 billion

Hecht termed the ban, which was prompted by violent pronouncements related to the peace process, "an insult and a disgrace."

"To attack a man of my standing" is "almost comical," Hecht said, citing 55 years in the rabbinate and decades of work on behalf of Israel through the United Jewish Appeal and Israel Bonds.

"I'm a criminal?" asked Hecht, the president of the RAA, an Orthodox group claiming hundreds of rabbis in its membership. "I have an impeccable record. God has been good to me and kept me away from trouble."

Interior Minister Haim Ramon last month announced that Hecht was on a list of seven American Jews barred from entering Israel both as tourists and immigrants because they pose a threat to Israel's security.

Ramon's announcement cited statements Hecht made last summer that Jewish law permitted the assassination of Israeli leaders who endangered Jewish lives by trading land for peace. The other six were barred for their alleged "connection to planned illegal activities in Israel" or their ties to extremist organizations that are illegal in Israel.

The list was seen as an unusual move that underscored government efforts to tighten security in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.

Officials said the move was based on provisions in the Law of Return, which automatically grants immigrant status to diaspora Jews except when they are deemed a threat to national security or public safety.

The Israeli Consulate in New York declined to comment on the latest developments in the affair. One of its officials defended the ban after it was announced, saying that it was a legitimate tool a democracy can use to defend itself.

Hecht has been suspended by the board of his synagogue — Congregation Shaare Zion in Brooklyn — for the same rhetoric and is expected to be induced with a settlement to retire.

Hecht said he is negotiating over his retirement, but refused to disclose sums of possible settlements except to deny a reported $2 million.

Hecht has sent a letter to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), asking him to intervene and immediately rescind the decree that "has been most damaging to my reputation" and "caused me many personal difficulties with my colleagues."

He also wrote to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and asked him to condemn "this senseless and vicious attack on my reputation from a foreign government seeking to suppress freedom of expression in our beloved country, America."

Hecht said he would sue the government as a whole as well as several officials individually, including Ramon; Colette Avital, the consul general in New York; Deputy Foreign Minister Eli Dayan; and Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet.

"These are bad people who hate Orthodoxy," he said.

Hecht wrote a letter to Rabin days before the Israeli prime minister was assassinated saying that he regretted any hurt that may have been caused by the remarks that he had made.

Hecht said he regretted that his remarks were misconstrued, but his opposition to the peace process with the Palestinians remains firm.

"God gave us the land and our boys and girls got killed reconquering it and we're giving it to a murderer and a band of terrorists who want to take all the centers holy to the Jewish people," he said.

Hecht also said he did not accept the government of Israel as either legitimate or democratic.

"Any country that deprives its citizens of the right of self-expression is not democratic and any government that takes its enemies and uses them to get a majority is not legitimate," he said, referring to Arab members of the Knesset.

For some Israelis, the ban against Hecht has raised some questions about the country's commitment to protect basic freedoms while acknowledging that his words were reprehensible and come in a highly charged climate.

Foxman, however, was not disturbed by the ban. He defended the right of "Israel, as a sovereign nation, to determine who will serve the national interest and who will not.

"Anyone who continues to teach and preach that the government is not legitimate or democratic clearly has not experienced remorse" for his actions, Foxman said.

Israel "certainly" has the right to its decision, he added.

No one at D'Amato's office could be reached for comment.