Katsav enraged by Reform rabbi's snub

Tells 'Post': It's an outrage for a foreigner to boycott Israel's president.

katsav independence 88 2 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
katsav independence 88 2
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
President Moshe Katsav is still seething over media reports that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the World Union for Reform Judaism, has declared a boycott on him over his refusal to address Reform and Conservative rabbis using the title "rabbi" when speaking to them in Hebrew. "I have no problem calling them 'rabbi' in English, Katsav told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday in an exclusive interview in his office, "but I cannot call them 'rav' in Hebrew. I can call them 'rav reformi' or 'rav conservativi' - because that's what they are." Katsav regards Yoffie's reported stance not only as a personal insult but also an affront to the presidency. "It's an outrage for a foreigner to boycott the president of Israel," he said. "He would never dare do that to other world leaders." Yoffie on Monday rejected reports that he was boycotting Katsav, explaining that he didn't request a meeting with the president on his current trip to Israel because he thought it would be "tense." Katsav reiterated his recognition of and respect for Reform Judaism and its leadership and said he had received a lot of flak from the Orthodox establishment for agreeing to address Reform communities in the US. Although Katsav is Orthodox, he makes a distinction between his personal views and his public office. "I am the president of all the citizens of Israel," he said, and in that capacity, he recognizes and respects all streams of Judaism, even if on a personal level he does not agree with what they stand for, he added. The president said that members of his staff had reminded him that when speaking to Reform rabbis in English, he had indeed used their titles, and all correspondence with Reform and Conservative rabbis carried their titles. He produced copies of a sheaf of letters to prove his point. He could not use the titles in Hebrew, he said, because this would contravene the ruling of the Knesset and the Chief Rabbinate, and he did not want to place the presidency in the center of a controversy between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Reform Movement in the US, he said. If the Reform Movement wanted to influence a change of attitude, it would do well to move its 1.5 million members in the US to Israel, he said, declaring that he would not be dictated to from abroad as to how to address a Reform rabbi. "Only Israeli citizens can decide on any path that Israel will take," he said. Katsav subsequently raised the issue again, less than two hours later, when he met with a delegation of the United Jewish Communities headed by chairman Robert Goldberg. The delegation came to talk about three topics: Falash Mura, the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles and how to cope with Jewish illiteracy. Goldberg delicately stayed away from the Reform issue. Katsav repeated some of what he had said to the Post, as well as remarks that he had made on Sunday, at the opening of the Jewish Agency Assembly. The Chief Rabbinate, he said, was utterly opposed to use of the title 'rav' with respect to anyone who was not an Orthodox rabbi. With regard to the Falash Mura, Goldberg reminded Katsav that the UJC had raised $60 m. for Operation Promise at the urging of the Sharon government and the Jewish Agency with the understanding that immigration would be stepped up from 300 people to 600 per month. Because that was not happening, he said, the UJC was losing credibility with American donors. The UJC has asked the government to accelerate the pace to determine who is eligible for immigration to Israel. "When the Interior Ministry determines that someone is not eligible, they don't tell anyone, so people are staying in the compound for eight years," Goldberg said. "The quicker they can determine who is qualified to come and make a list with the names, the quicker they can close the compound, so that when someone does come to the Israel Embassy a year from now, his name is on the list." Katsav promised to raise the matter with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. John Fishel, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, stressed that once they are in Israel, the Falash Mura should be assured of "quality klita (absorption)." Katsav concurred. "The question of immigration is very important," he said, "but the question of absorption is no less important." Fishel also spoke of the large Iranian Jewish community in greater Los Angeles, which is home to the largest number of Iranian expatriates in America, and asked for Katsav's assistance in bringing about an evolution that would take this mainly segregated group into the larger Jewish community under the Federation umbrella. Fishel invited Katsav to come to Los Angeles to inspire his fellow former Iranians. The president said that he would try but was not sure he would be able to find the time. Karsav is now embarking on the final year of his presidency, and his travel plans during that time include South America, Romania, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Norway, Africa, Thailand and Korea. Incoming UJC chairman Joe Kanfer, speaking prior to Katsav's reference to Reform Judaism, hinted at it when he talked about the diversity of the American Jewish community. "We have many different outlooks. We need to reach out to geographic differences and to age differences," he said, "and we want to be passionately engaged with you in moving the agenda forward." That opportunity will come in December with the convening at Beit Hanassi of the next meeting of the World Jewish Forum, where the focus of discussion will be Jewish literacy, Jewish educational opportunities for every Jewish child and the preservation of Jewish identity. Katsav said that he was concerned that in some communities the rate of assimilation was as high as 70 percent.