Jul 30, 2010

Haaretz.com: "Rabbi clashes with Israeli embassy in Washington over Western Wall arrest"

Haaretz.com: "Rabbi clashes with Israeli embassy in Washington over Western Wall arrest"

By Natasha Mozgovaya

The Israeli embassy in Washington was enraged on Thursday after receiving a letter from modern Orthodox rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who had organized a protest last week following the arrest of feminist activist Anat Hoffman.

Hoffman, founder of the Women of the Wall movement, was arrested on July 13 for carrying a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, which Israeli courts have prohibited women from doing. Herzfeld, along with dozens of protesters, demonstrated at the Israeli embassy in Washington following the event.

"He basically blackmailed us and made some headlines at the expense of the [Israeli] ambassador [to Washington]. These North Korean-style negotiations are not in the spirit of our relationship with the Jewish community," a source at the embassy told Haaretz.

The source quoted the letter, penned by Herzfeld, which read "I have invited Ambassador [Michael] Oren to come to Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue to explain this arrest. So far we've received no word from him on whether or not he will show up. But if I don't hear from him by tomorrow morning, then I will be forced to announce a public protest in front of the embassy."

"We are dealing a lot with the Women of the Wall story," the diplomat said. "The ambassador met with the Chief Rabbi and with the minister of the interior to discuss this matter. The way Rabbi Herzfeld chose to deal with it looked more like a public relations exercise. He called on the ambassador 'to come out and say that he is ashamed of this policy' – that's not how sensitive issues are dealt with. It was not appropriate and it left an unpleasant impression that the organizer seeks press coverage and ignores the serious and quiet work done by the embassy to deal with this issue."

Rabbi Herzfeld told Haaretz that his intention was to make the responsible side feel uncomfortable.

"The Israeli government did not criticize it at all. Michael Oren didn't say anything about it. So if we keep silent, at a certain point we become associated with this policy," he said. "Women and men in our synagogue – it affects all of us and it is starting to embarrass us."

"We are an orthodox synagogue and there is a phrase – silence is like acceptance. Our question to them was: do you agree with that? And the answer was: we don't know the facts. And I say, I am sorry, it's not good enough. You had 10 days to check. There is a YouTube video of the arrest with the facts," the rabbi went on to say.

Herzfeld stressed that he is an ardent supporter of Israel. "Many times I stood there counter protesting voices against Israel - it is something I take pride in. But I had two reasons to protest this time - I wanted Anat Hoffman to know she was not alone, that there are people who supported her and other women's right to hold a Sefer Torah. She had the right to do it based on a freedom of religion, but also from a halakhic (Jewish law) perspective, I think it's definitely permissible."

"If the government of Israel is going to continue with this type of action, they should know it's not acceptable and they will hear it from us," he said. "Some people say 'don't raise your voice, it will embarrass Israel' But even they won't defend the policy. How can Michael Oren and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu defend this policy?"

"Michael Oren was in my synagogue at Rosh ha-Shanah when the Torah was passed to the women's section. That demonstrates clearly that he doesn't have an ideological problem with this," Herzfeld continued.

He confirmed that embassy officials asked him not to demonstrate. "One of their arguments was that the ambassador had already discussed it directly with Netanyahu in a private meeting after the previous arrest. But clearly this quiet diplomacy is not having an effect. What could have an impact is if the government understands that there will be negative publicity."

Following the demonstration, Herzfeld was invited into the embassy to talk, but he wasn't placated. "The only thing they said is that they don't know the facts yet. I am sorry – 10 days after the arrest, they still don't know the facts? It shows they don't take it seriously. It's not going to blow over."

"One of the reasons I went out there is because I heard from a lot of people in our synagogue how upset they were about it. Most of the people in our synagogue are strongly affiliated with Zionism and support of Israel – and they tell me how outraged they were. I felt that this arrest was like a punch in the face."

Rabbi Herzfeld said that his invitation for Oren to visit the synagogue still stands. "I invited him to come at any point. He knows how to get here. He's been here before. But he refused to come. If he doesn't want to address these concerns, what should we do? Just be quiet?" 

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.