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Rabbi Yoffie Urges Jewish Community To Confront The “Extremists In Our Midst”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2005

“Why can’t American Jews call extremism by its name?” asks Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.  

Writing in The Forward (Feb. 11, 2005), he notes that, “Over the last year, I have looked on in dismay as Israeli settlers who openly oppose our most cherished values as Americans and Jews have been treated by Jewish organizational leadership and the Jewish press with attitudes ranging from polite silence to sympathetic understanding. Even worse has been the failure of much of our community to offer its clear support for an Israeli government that has confronted these fanatics with a firm hand, clearly articulating the dangers that they pose to the Zionist enterprise.”  

Yoffie points out that, “Settler leaders have threatened civil war, called on religious soldiers to refuse orders by their commanders to evacuate settlements, proclaimed that rabbinic law — as interpreted by their rabbis — takes precedence over democratic decisions ... At one point settlers began wearing orange stars, thus comparing themselves to Holocaust victims and Israel’s government to Nazi Germany ...”  

While polling data show that American Jews overwhelmingly support Israel’s disengagement plan and reject the extremist rhetoric of the settlers, Yoffie asks: “Why, then, have the settlers been given a free pass by the organized Jewish community here in the United States?”  

Among the reasons for the Jewish community’s failure to confront such extremism, Yoffie cites the following: “... right-wing organizations and supporters of the extremist settler groups are well organized and politically active, and conduct their own independent lobbying operations in Washington ... unlike others in the community, they do not hesitate to actively oppose positions of the government of Israel. Thus, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), despite its small size, has developed impressive political clout ... Centrist and left-leaning groups, on the other hand, are often less active politically, and are far more likely to function as part of broader communal coalitions that ultimately constrain what they can say and do.”  

The Modern Orthodox movement in the U.S., declares Yoffie, “which is closer ideologically to the settlers than any other part of the community, has remained resolutely silent on settler extremism.”  

In the case of the centrist, moderate, non-Orthodox segments of the American Jewish community, which constitute the overwhelming majority, writes Yoffie, they “have been silenced by a long-standing and increasingly bizarre adherence to communal organizational norms. Most of these groups operate as part of communal coalitions because of their commitment to the desirability of ‘unity’ and ‘consensus’ among Jewish groups. But in fact, ‘unity’ and ‘consensus’ are defined in such a way that small, outspoken minorities are given a veto over positions that are shared by a substantial majority of American Jews.”  

The worst offender, in Yoffie’s view, is the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — which waited more than a year to express support for the disengagement plan from Gaza.  

Yoffie concludes: “Settler extremism is a disgrace to the Jewish community and to the principles of Torah that we hold dear. Courageous leaders in Israel‘s government have spoken out against the dangers of the extremists, and American Jews expect their leaders to do the same. Failure to do so undermines both our authority and the credibility of the religious tradition in whose name we speak. What we would like to see, of course, is real reform of our communal bodies. But lacking this, Jewish organizations need to set aside those self-imposed organizational constraints which were intended to strengthen our community’s voice but instead have served to stifle debate and silence the voice of the majority. ... We need to reject extremism in all forms, and champion the cause of realism and moderation that alone can inspire our community and ensure the future of Israel."  

"The Washington Jewish Week" (Feb.17, 2005) reports that, "Dozens of Israeli officials are under guard for fear they could be targeted by Jewish extremists. Security sources said...that as many as 80 civil servants, including Cabinet members, are receiving Shin Bet protection following a spate of death threats attributed to Israelis opposing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip."  

Dalia Rabin, the daughter of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, wrote in the Israeli newspaper "Yediot Achronot": "Wake up before it is too late. If we do not do enough now to stop the deterioaration, we will again witness the horrible sight of another prime minister's murder."

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