Jan. 14, 2005
7 Days: US rabbis disengage


As some Orthodox rabbis in Israel have called on soldiers to resist IDF plans for evacuating settlements in Gaza-and other rabbis have condemned those rabbis-Orthodox leaders in America largely have been silent.

Their more liberal counterparts in the Reform and Conservative movements have come out in support of the prime minister's disengagement plan, and some have condemned calls to resist IDF evacuation orders, but the Orthodox rabbis seem to have disengaged.

"We don't interfere with internal Israeli matters," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at the Agudath Israel of America, the US haredi umbrella group. Agudah has not issued any public statements on the matter.

Pointing to polls that show a majority of Israelis supportive of disengagement, Shafran said that even as some American Jews may be upset about the notion of Israel pulling out of historic Eretz Yisrael, it's hard for them to interfere with something most Israelis seem to favor.

"How do we Americans come to tell Israelis what they should or shouldn't do? You can't fight City Hall," Shafran said.

This week, Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, centrist Orthodoxy's flagship institution, broke the silence. Lamm issued a statement condemning calls for Israeli soldiers to resist evacuation orders. It also was signed by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, head of Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Etzion bloc, and Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel.

"Recent calls for insubordination, in the event that Israeli Defense Forces be employed to implement a planned withdrawal from the Gush Katif area, are deeply disturbing and dismaying," the rabbis wrote. "Regardless of one's view of the proposed withdrawal itself, selective insubordination cannot in this case be countenanced on either moral or halakhic grounds."

Perhaps it's fitting that the statement was not authored just by an American. After all, as concerned as US Jews may be about disengagement, what right do they have to tell Israeli soldiers what they should or should not do?

What makes the silence in this case so unusual, however, is that those things have never stopped American rabbis in the past. Americans are notoriously tinkerous in internal Israeli affairs, often to the great consternation of Israelis, and rabbis have been no exception.

Instead, there may be something else at play here: ambivalence.

Orthodox rabbis in America have little to gain from being outspoken on this issue. If they call on soldiers to obey IDF evacuation orders, they risk alienating right-wing constituents unhappy with the idea of Israel ceding territory to the Palestinians-not to mention the fact that these pleas will be heard only by American ears thousands of miles from Gaza. If, on the other hand, they echo calls for disobeying orders, they risk being labeled irresponsible and meddlesome by everyone from their own constituents and colleagues to US Jewish leaders and Israeli officials.

Bu there's more. Many Orthodox rabbis in America may also have not quite made up their minds. On one hand, they or their constituents may have family in the affected settlements, and they may be loathe to the idea of Jews giving up what most consider part of historic Eretz Yisrael. On the other hand, they may have absorbed the popular support in America for disengagement, which has been embraced by the Bush administration and has at least the tepid support of major US Jewish groups.

It's also hard to passionately espouse a position whose ramifications may well cost Israeli lives-either if Israel stays in Gaza or if it pulls out.

So for now, many Orthodox rabbis in America-like many of the right-leaning Jews that are their constituents-simply are willing to go along with whatever the Israelis decide.

Whether that detachment can be sustained once disengagement really gets under way remains to be seen.