Dance With Them That Brung You

Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says that he’s opening up a new front in his organization’s 85-year campaign to protect Jews from defamation. This new fight is a little different from battles past, though, because its target is other Jews.

Foxman wants Jews to watch their language when they talk about fellow Jews. Otherwise somebody could get hurt. Another Israeli prime minister, for example.

As his first salvo, Foxman has issued an unusual public statement, calling on American Jewish community leaders to rein in “inflammatory rhetoric” and “hate speech” when debating Israeli policy. “Irresponsible and inflammatory opposition leads to irresponsible and inflammatory action,” he declared.

What worries him, Foxman said in an interview, is the flood of vitriol directed against Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu since he signed the Wye Memorandum and agreed to hand over 13 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control.

It’s reminiscent of “the days before the Rabin assassination,” Foxman said. “It’s all the same words — ‘traitor,’ ‘enemy,’ ‘needs to be silenced.’ I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of Israeli press coverage I’m reading of hate rhetoric, of violent rhetoric, as if we didn’t learn anything the last time.”

What set off Foxman’s alarm bells, though, was some home-grown American rhetoric. In a statement issued last week, several prominent American Orthodox rabbis declared that the Israeli concessions contained in the Wye accord were “prohibited by Jewish law.”

The Wye agreement “poses a life-threatening danger to all of the residents of Israel,” the rabbis’ statement said. “Therefore, we have determined that it is prohibited by Jewish law to participate in this tragic and terrible agreement.” Also “prohibited by Jewish law” was Israeli government ratification of the pact.

The signers included two of America’s most respected talmudic authorities, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik of the Brisk Yeshiva in Chicago and Rabbi Moshe Tendler of Yeshiva University in New York. A third signer, Rabbi Herschel Reichman of Yeshiva University, was said to be the statement’s initiator.

The statement appeared in Sunday’s New York Post as an ad, showing the National Council of Young Israel as sponsor. Young Israel denied any connection, however. The real sponsor, sources say, was a pro-settler group linked to right-wing philanthropist Irving Moskowitz.

Foxman says that the rabbis’ statement shocked him. “They’re speaking as though this is God’s word, God’s truth,” he said. When that kind of political absolutism enters political debates, impressionable youngsters sometimes decide to do God’s will with a bullet. It happened once in Israel already, when Yigal Amir decided to murder Yitzhak Rabin.

“What’s happening now is a continuation of what happened before,” Foxman said. “We have learned that words can kill. Right now, the rhetoric of hate is escalating rather than abating. People must stand up.”

The problem is more serious in Israel than here in the United States, of course. It’s in Israel, not here, that lives are at risk if Israel makes the wrong decisions. It’s there that politicians might get shot over it.

What concerns Foxman as an American Jew, though, is this: Israelis have begun to talk about the problem. “I don’t see any of that here.”

“Now,” Foxman said, “is the time to speak up.”

If anyone could rally American Jews to such a moral accounting, it’s Foxman. A Polish-born Holocaust survivor, head of the ADL since 1987, he is one of the few American Jewish community leaders whose name is known beyond inner leadership circles. The agency he runs is one of the Jewish community’s most trusted and best funded.

This isn’t the first time Foxman has tackled Jew vs. Jew hate speech. In September 1995, just weeks before Rabin’s assassination, Foxman publicly resigned from his Orthodox synagogue in New Jersey to protest the rabbi’s inflammatory anti-Rabin rhetoric. In May 1997, he presented an ADL “Courageous Jewish Leadership” award to Yeshiva University president Norman Lamm, to honor Lamm’s calls for Orthodox soul-searching in the weeks after Rabin’s murder.

The efforts never gathered momentum, though. It’s hard to imagine this latest one doing better. American Jewish leaders see their first duty as uniting the community, not dividing it. Organizing a broad Jewish front against overzealous Orthodox rabbis is way out of character.

Foxman doesn’t want to divide the community, of course. He’d like to see everyone join hands against hate rhetoric, starting with the rabbis who’ve been spewing it. “It is time for them to show they’ve learned from the past,” he said.

But the main offenders aren’t interested. Tendler, for example, says it’s “unfair and intellectually dishonest” to say that Orthodox rabbis’ rhetoric may have created an atmosphere that incited Yigal Amir to murder. In fact, he said in an interview, “I don’t believe anyone really believes that.”

It’s important to point out here that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are not extremists or absolutists. Most value democracy. Most don’t share Tendler’s apocalyptic view of the peace process. Even Rabbi Soloveitchik, who consigned last week’s inflammatory statement, has reportedly backed away. A spokesman suggested that Soloveitchik, 82 and ailing, had been manipulated into signing something he hadn’t read.

It’s also important, however, to note that the extremists and absolutists aren’t being made to pay a price for their words and deeds. Abraham Hecht, the Brooklyn rabbi who lost his pulpit in 1995 after telling an interviewer that Rabin should be killed, retains his post as president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. The alliance is a small Orthodox group based in Brooklyn.

Foxman acknowledges that the absolutists among us aren’t about to turn around and embrace moderation. What he’s hoping for is greater boldness from everyone else, starting with other rabbis.

“We are a people who say, ‘Keep my tongue from speaking evil,’ in our daily prayers,” he said. “We believe in the power of words for life and death. If we didn’t believe in the power of words, we wouldn’t have prayer. Who more than our spiritual leadership ought to have that respect for words? They certainly need to speak out, because of the past.

“But then there are all those who have been silent. Those who looked for rationalizations why they don’t need to speak out. They must speak out now. We are in a crisis.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.