In anticipation of possible Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America voted in Jerusalem last week to empower its leadership to issue statements critical of the Israeli government.
The action, taken after much debate, came after what many viewed as the organization’s tepid response two years ago to the planned Gaza disengagement.
"There was no clear consensus as to what our position should have been then, but there was a consensus that we dropped the ball and did not respond strongly enough during the disengagement process," said one of the attendees, Rabbi Kalman Topp, associate rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere, L.I. "We did not take a public role [during the disengagement], and this [resolution] was a consequence of that."
The action thus puts the Orthodox community "more in sync with what we have seen in the non-Orthodox community, which from time-to-time has dissented from Israeli policies," said Jonathan Sarna, the Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Sarna said that judging from the comments of some of the delegates, the decision appeared "aimed at ‘repenting’ for what many of its members feel was the organization’s error in not opposing the disengagement last year. … The important question, it seems to me, is whether more Modern Orthodox Jews, who do not necessarily share these views, will support the move of the OU into areas fraught with such political controversy." Sarna said also that the action "may reflect a concern on the part of some of those in the OU that with a more liberal government in power, they are going to criticize from the right in the same way that the Reform and Conservative criticized from the left."
Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, said the debate at the convention two years ago over the proposed Gaza disengagement was "very intense" and that a "majority of the delegates voted then to continue a long-standing policy that we would not publicly disagree with Israel about security-related issues."
But he said the issue has continued to be of concern in the community and after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, the issue was "back on the burner. Our convention resolutions are the main source of governing policy for us, and a majority at this convention decided not to specifically say right now that we disagree with x, y or z," Diament added. But in the future, he said, the executive committee or the board of directors was authorized to permit "the professional leadership to express public dissent from the government on security matters. That does not mean we are doing it tomorrow; each situation will be assessed." The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has also refrained from being critical of Israeli policy regarding security issues but it has not hesitated to object to other policies, according to its executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.
"There have been times in our history when we have broken with the government of Israel on all kinds of things … but on matters of security we generally have been supportive," he said. "Where we have not been able to, we have made great efforts to be quiet."
Asked if he would need a special resolution of his membership to able to express opposition to an Israeli policy, Rabbi Epstein said he would not but that the organization’s leadership "would not do that without serious consultation with a lot of people." He added that he believes the OU "will not be quick to be critical of Israel on security issues either.
"If we felt compelled to do so, we would speak out, but I think there is a fine line between being critical of Israel and critical of governmental actions that relate to security," Rabbi Epstein said. A spokesman the Union of Reform Judaism said the movement acts "in accordance with its resolutions" and that it has disagreed with Israel in the past when the governmentís policies were contrary to the movement’s policies.
"The professional leadership … takes into account our values, and if it is in opposition to what Israel is doing, we have made statements about that in the past," he said.
Sarna pointed out that there have been "forces within the Reform movement who have dissented from what was perceived by them to be rightwing Israeli policies about the land. We know that even this summer there were Reform Jews who dissented from the Reform movement’s official support for the war with Hezbollah. The Conservative movement’s dissent has dealt mostly" with the issue of religious expression.
Israel today is a mature country and it is normal that some Jews worldwide may disagree with some of its policies, Sarna observed. But he added that there are boundaries that one does not cross that "deal with the existence of the state itself. It is hard to imagine that will be up for debate."