L.A. Orthodox rabbi open to a split Jerusalem

los angeles | A prominent Orthodox rabbi has broken a taboo by publicly advocating that his community consider a possible division of Jerusalem to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David Judea wrote in the Oct. 26 Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles that the “worst-case scenario” of returning the Western Wall and the Temple Mount to Arab control would be horrifying and unfathomable to him.

“At the same time, though, to insist that the [Israeli] government not talk about Jerusalem at all (including, the possibility, for example, of Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods) is to insist that Israel come to the negotiating table telling a dishonest story — a story in which our side has made no mistakes and no miscalculations, a story in which there is no moral ambiguity in the way we have chosen to rule people we conquered, a story in which we don’t owe anything to anyone,” Kanefsky wrote.

The 44-year-old rabbi occasionally has startled Orthodox circles with his innovative ideas, but he enjoys wide respect among his peers in other denominations, who elected him to a term as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.

Kanefsky predicts that no peace conference will succeed until Israelis and Palestinians accept honest versions of their conflict and admit their mistakes over the past 40 years, including the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank after the Six-Day War in 1967.

He acknowledges that the slogan “Jerusalem: Israel’s Eternally Undivided Capital” is treated with “biblical reverence by my community,” adding that it is “a corollary to the belief in the coming of the Messiah.”

It is because of the unquestioned acceptance of this slogan by the Orthodox, as well as Christian evangelists, that he decided to initiate “a conversation that desperately needs to begin,” Kanefsky wrote.

Within hours of the opinion piece’s publication, reactions began to pour in to the Jewish Journal. Editor in Chief Rob Eshman said he received more than 100 letters, emails and phone calls about the article, along with a number of rebuttals.

On Oct. 27, the Los Angeles Times reported on Kanefsky’s article as the lead story in its California section, along with local and national reactions.

Predictably, comments in mainstream Orthodox circles were highly critical, while liberal rabbis and peace groups praised Kanefsky’s views and his courage in speaking out.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the community’s umbrella organization, is drafting a statement on the article. However, its Web site said “the Orthodox Union is preparing a comprehensive action plan which will call upon members of our community to join on the walls of Jerusalem and become her defenders against those who would divide her.”

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, denounced the article, telling the Los Angeles Times that “Rabbi Kanefsky is completely off-base. I think his call for this discussion is ridiculous. It would amount to religious suicide.”

A Conservative Los Angeles rabbi, David Wolpe, also disagreed with Kanefsky’s viewpoint.

“To give up Jerusalem to people who want to destroy your country is an emotional high jump you’d have to be better than an Olympic athlete to vault,” Wolpe said.

However, another prominent Conservative rabbi, Harold Schulweis, applauded Kanefsky’s courage “to touch the third rail, which this is. It is a mark of courage and conscience.”

Reform Rabbi Laura Geller also praised Kanefsky as “a visionary leader” and hoped his article would lead to a thoughtful debate.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent