Netanyahu answers Israel's Chief Rabbi: Tree of Life is a 'synagogue'

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel refused to describe the Squirrel Hill synagogue, instead, called it "a location that, for the murderer, was a place clearly marked as Jewish.

October 29, 2018 16:37
4 minute read.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz (L), and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman stand for a moment of silence to honour the victims of a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem October 28, 2018. (photo credit: ODED BALILTY/POOL VIA REUTERS)


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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implicitly criticized Chief Rabbi David Lau for failing to describe the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 people were killed on Shabbat as a synagogue.

“Jews were killed in a synagogue,” Netanyahu tweeted in both English and Hebrew on Monday afternoon. “They were killed because they are Jews. The location was chosen because it is a synagogue. We must never forget that. We are one.”

On Sunday, Lau was interviewed by Makor Rishon and was asked directly if he considered Tree of Life, which is a progressive, non-Orthodox community, to be a synagogue.

“Jews were murdered in a place which, for the murderer, was a place with a prominent Jewish symbol, a place with Torah scrolls, Jews with prayer shawls, with prayer books, people who came there for the closeness to God,” Lau replied.

Lau has been widely criticized for not calling Tree of Life a synagogue, but he expressed solidarity with the US Jewish community and said denomination issues should be irrelevant.

“They were murdered because they are Jews. Does it matter which synagogue [it was] or which prayer customs they use?” he asked.

Lau said that “the murder of any Jew in any corner of the world for being Jewish is unforgivable,” and is “a crime that cannot be allowed to pass.”
A spokesman for Lau said that the chief rabbi had said in the interview that he did not want to address the issue or discuss ideological disagreements at a time of such trauma for the Jewish people.

A source in the chief rabbinate said the way Lau’s comments had been reported were an injustice to him, that his words had been taken out of context, and that the chief rabbi had simply been trying to identify with the outrage and grief of the entire Jewish people over the attack without dealing with divisive issues.

Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations defended Lau’s comments, and said that subsequent reports of the interview, originally in Hebrew, were “not at all what was reported” in the original interview, and that the chief rabbi’s comments “were not at all inappropriate,” saying that it was “irresponsible reporting that could be very damaging at such a sensitive time.”

Israeli haredi press covered the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue on Sunday morning, but major newspapers used euphemisms such as “Jewish center” to describe the congregation instead of “synagogue” because it is a progressive community, formerly associated with the Conservative movement.

The widest-selling haredi daily newspaper Yated Ne’eman, of the non-hassidic Lithuanian community, led its newspaper with the story, with its headline reading “Neo-Nazi terror attack in Jewish center,” but did not mention that the Tree of Life community is progressive or use the word synagogue.

Hamodia, another widely read haredi daily of the hassidic community, also led its newspaper with news of the attack, and like Yated described it as a “Jewish center,” but unlike the former paper described the synagogue it as Conservative.

The newspaper ran a commentary piece on its front page, decrying the rise in antisemitism in the US and the Tree of Life shooting and the shooter for his antisemitic attack, which it described as seeking “to harm Jews just for being Jews.”

The Hapeles haredi daily also had a front page headline about the attack and described the synagogue as a Jewish center, without mentioning that it was a progressive community.

By contrast, both the widely read haredi news websites Kikar HaShabbat and B’Hadrei Haredim, used the word synagogue and mentioned that Tree of Life is a progressive congregation.

And the US branch of the Agudath Israel haredi movement denounced “the murder of eleven people during a Shabbos service this morning in a Pittsburgh synagogue,” and expressed sympathy with the bereaved families and their friends “who were targeted because they were Jews.”

Agudath Israel America also condemned antisemitism in general, called for social media platforms and other groups not to tolerate it.
“Until all Americans confront the horror of antisemitism head on, our great democracy will not have achieved its promise,” Agudath Israel concluded.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said he was “shocked to hear of the murder of innocent Jews in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for simply being Jews.”

“My heart is with the bereaved families and with all our Jewish brothers living in the US,” Yosef said. The chief rabbi also denounced rising antisemitism in the US.
“Unfortunately, antisemitism has risen its head again in the US,” he said, and called on Jews to act with “extreme caution.”

There is no intention as a result of Saturday’s attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh for Israel to change its formal relationship with the Conservative or Reform movements abroad, a senior political official said on Monday.

The official said Netanyahu embraces the movements, but the question about recognition in Israel is an “evolutionary” political process dependent on coalition considerations.

The official said that, contrary to the chief rabbi’s comments, Netanyahu recognizes the synagogue as a synagogue.

Herb Keinon contributed to this report.

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