There’s no ‘blacklist’ of rabbis

July 10, 2017
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) attend a New Year’s ceremony of the Israel Police Command at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem on September 7, 2015. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

In the last 48 hours, Jewish media have breathlessly reported on an Israeli “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis, including Orthodox ones, whose letters attesting to the Jewishness of olim (immigrants) as candidates for marriage were rejected last year. Furious denunciations of Israel’s rabbinate followed, particularly since the story came right after last week’s Kotel and conversion controversies.

One problem: it’s not true.

Israel’s rabbinate has never used the term “blacklist” or anything like it, and the chief rabbi said he had never heard of any such list. The term arose in a story published Saturday night by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), attributing it to Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM, an organization that regularly criticizes the rabbinate. Since then it’s been repeated ad nauseam in headlines and opinion pieces; Facebook posts and Tweets.

The term is wholly inappropriate. Blacklists are not retroactive. Even calling it a “list” implies that Israel looks up the names of rabbis submitting letters to see if they’ve been banned. We have no evidence that’s happening. All we know is that in 2016, certain letters were rejected (for whatever reason) and Rabbi Farber’s Freedom of Information request collected their names. That’s it.

If Israel had a policy to reject letters from all non-Orthodox rabbis (and some left-of-center Orthodox rabbis), that indeed would be news and worthy of debate. But more than 3,000 Americans move to Israel each year, many hundreds of whom are non-Orthodox, and hundreds of whom get married each year. If the rejections are ideological, why are letters from only 45 non-Orthodox American rabbis being rejected? And why none from women?

We don’t know why these letters were rejected, because neither the rabbinate nor Rabbi Farber are saying. But my guess is that many were for routine matters – confirming the Judaism of the mother but not the grandmother, for example. In one case I know of (in a previous year), the rabbinate rejected a proof-of-Judaism letter because it was signed by a rabbi whose name was not on the stationery. In another case, a supposedly blacklisted rabbi had one of his letters rejected but others accepted. Sure, the rabbinate may have also rejected some letters because of antagonism toward the rabbi who wrote them. But it hasn’t said so, and that as-yet-unproven possibility does not justify scandalous headlines.

I hesitate to use a 2017 cliché like “fake news,” but this is an entirely manufactured controversy, and we know who manufactured it: Rabbi Farber. In an essay published earlier today in the Jewish Journal, he used the issue of proof-of-Judaism letters to renew his longstanding antagonism toward the rabbinate, and that’s his right.

But the timing of the controversy couldn’t be worse, while Diaspora-Israel tensions are at historic highs. Looking around social media, some American Jews are starting to think, “Israel reneged on its deal accepting the way I want to pray at the Kotel, won’t accept non-Orthodox conversion, and now is keeping a blacklist of rabbis like mine? Forget it.”

It doesn’t matter that all three of those claims are unfair. The mounting “evidence” that Israel disdains the bulk of American Jewry is straining the relationship and in some places even beginning to break it.

The Jewish people should be looking to defuse those tensions right now, to find common ground between Israel and the Diaspora. But 21st century social and other media tends to reinforce people’s prejudices, and nuggets of news that do just that can zip around the net before anyone has a chance to “Snopes” them.

Well, in this case, Snopes would give “blacklist of rabbis” a big, fat FALSE. It just doesn’t exist.

David Benkof is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Clarification: this story has been adjusted to reflect the fact that the letters in question were used for marriage, not aliyah.

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