New York activist Rabbi Avi Weiss has asked a national rabbinic court to resolve a dispute with the American Jewish Committee over construction of a $4 million memorial project at the Belzec death camp in southeastern Poland, where a half million Jews were murdered by the Nazis in 1942.
This comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by Rabbi Weiss last week against AJCommittee in New York Supreme Court to block the project, which is cosponsored by the Polish government.
But at the same time, Israel’s Foreign Ministry this week said it fully endorsed the Belzec memorial, which is currently under construction and expected to be completed in the fall.
In asking the Bet Din of America to step in, Rabbi Weiss appears to be pulling out all stops to halt the construction of a sunken pathway or "trench" designed to allow visitors to wind past the mass graves of Jewish men women and children from eastern Galicia who were gassed and buried over a 10-month period.
Rabbi Weiss contends that constructing the 600-foot-long, 30-foot-deep path violates Jewish law because it disturbs the victim’s bones and ashes, which are strewn throughout the surface of this little-known and long-neglected camp: one of the first killing centers built by the Nazis solely to kill Polish Jews.
"I am by no means opposed to a memorial," Rabbi Weiss said. "My primary concern here is to stop the desecration."
But project supporters say the memorial should be completed as designed as soon as possible.
"This holy work should continue without any delay," London’s Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, an internationally recognized expert in Jewish cemetery law, told The Jewish Week in a fax last week.
In a swipe at Rabbi Weiss, he added: "It is shocking that individuals with no connection to the rescuing of Jewish cemeteries are creating unjust obstacles."
Into this fray comes the Bet Din of America, whose director Rabbi Yona Reiss, has agreed to mediate the dispute upon Rabbi Weiss’ request.
"…we would be glad to help both parties bring about such a resolution through either mediation or arbitration services," Rabbi Reiss wrote to AJCommittee executive director David Harris in a July 22 letter.
"We would appreciate if you could let us know by August 14, 2003 whether you would like to utilize our services to help resolve this matter."
The Beth Din letter is not an official summons but a preliminary invitation.
Harris said Tuesday he had not received the Beth Din letter. After The Jewish Week provided him with a copy he said, "We’re not going to respond until we had a chance to read it carefully and discuss it.
"In any case, I can say there is no dispute," Harris said, noting that "the highest rabbinic authorities, the government of Israel, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and many in the survivor community who donated over $2 million to support this project are all determined to see this through as quickly as possible."
Ironically, Harris received a letter this week from Israel’s Foreign Ministry endorsing the Belzec memorial.
The letter said "…we would like to express our admiration and full support for this project," wrote Nimrod Barkan, deputy director general for World Jewish Affairs and David Peleg, deputy director of Central and Eastern Europe in a missive dated July 28.
"We also know that the design plan was carefully reviewed by rabbinic authorities in Europe and Israel. Moreover, it will prevent further desecration of a site that has hitherto been left entirely unattended."
The letter said the memorial "will enable future generations of Jews and non-Jews to gain an understanding of the terrible events that took place in Belzec," and foster greater cooperation between Israel and Poland, "an important friend of the State of Israel."