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"Take the Word 'Withdrawal' out of the Israeli Lexicon"

Director of Rabbinic Congress for Peace describes his fight for a "more Jewish" discourse - and why he's not worried about US, EU pressure
By Ari Soffer
First Publish: 7/22/2013, 7:25 PM

RCP delegation meets EU Israel Representative
RCP delegation meets EU Israel Representative
Rabbinic Congress for Peace
As Israeli leaders scramble to react to pressure from both sides of the Atlantic - including a European Union boycott against Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria, the Golan Heights and Jerusalem; and US pressure to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority - one group of rabbis insists that the only effective response lies in a return to traditional Jewish values.

   

Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Lewin, Executive Director of the Rabbinical Congress for Peace (RCP), spoke to Arutz Sheva English and explained how his organisation is working to change the discourse, and why, in his words "we need to take the word 'withdrawal' out of the Israeli lexicon."

   

Return to Jewish values

    

The RCP was founded in 1993, amid talk of ceding the strategically-important Golan Heights.

     

The group's philosophy is based upon Jewish law, or Halacha, and centres around an explicit ruling in perhaps the most authoritative text on contemporary Jewish law: the Shulchan Aruch. 

     

In Orach Chaim (329:6), the section dealing primarily with the laws of the Sabbath and festivals, the Shulchan Aruch tackles the question of whether Jewish communities which find themselves under siege or attack on the Sabbath can violate the holy day to wage war.

     

The ruling states that "If their [the attackers' - ed.] intent was financial gain, the Shabbat [Sabbath] laws should not be violated because of them."

     

But it continues,

       

"[However] if their intent was against Jewish lives, or if they lay siege without any stated intention, or if there is a sense that they are coming for Jewish lives, then even before they come - and are only mobilizing themselves - it is a mitzvah [Torah commandment] to go out and attack them with weapons of war and violate the Shabbat laws.

        

"And if it is a city located near a border - even if they [the enemy - ed.] are only demanding hay or straw - we attack them and violate the Shabbat, lest they conquer the city, and because of that conquest it becomes easier for them to conquer the rest of the land."

    

The basis for this ruling is the concept of pikuach nefesh: that preserving lives takes precedence over nearly all other commandments of the Torah - including the Sabbath.

        

This ruling is fundamentally important, Rabbi Lewin explains, because it clearly categorizes the surrendering of land (or even property) to enemies as by definition pikuach nefesh - something which endangers lives and is thus forbidden by the Torah.

     

Return to Jewish values

   

Rabbi Lewin maintains that the reason behind the failure of Israeli politicians and Israel advocates to effectively combat international pressure, lies in their abandonment of their own Jewish values. If that is the case, he declares, then it is the task of rabbis to restore those values.

     

"As a rule, I am against rabbis being involved in political matters.

     

"But this is not a mere political issue. It is about pikuach nefesh [mortal danger] something which every rabbi is obligated to get involved in. If he doesn't he is failing in his mission to guide his congregation and the people of Israel in the way of the Torah - that is what being a rabbi is all about!"

     

In 2012, an RCP delegation lead by the group's founder and Chairman Rabbi Joseph Gerlitzky, took its position to the EU's representative in Israel, Andrew Standley. At the end of their meeting, the delegation presented Standley with a copy of the Shulchan Aruch's ruling.

    

In response, Standley politely but firmly declared that "you have your Bible, but we have international law, which is our Bible."

        

Yet despite being rebuffed, Rabbi Lewin sees this statement as crucial to understanding where the Israeli leadership and advocates - and the wider Jewish leadership - has gone wrong: instead of having the courage to adopt an independent "Jewish" discourse, they insisting on playing by the rules of others.

        

"Israeli spokesmen are afraid or embarrassed to mention the Bible because they think the world would not accept it," he laments, "But the world and even the EU understands that a Jew believes in the Bible" even if they disagree.

        

On the other hand, if one abandons that position, he is more susceptible to the discourse of others', he explained.

         

"Common sense"

         

When asked how he hoped to convince Israel's primarily secular leadership to adopt this Halachik ruling as policy, Rabbi Lewin responded that even secular Israelis understand and accept the Jewish principles of the supreme sanctity of human life. Moreover, he added, the Halachik decision is also a "common sense" one.

           

"Shamir wasn't religious either," he responded, referring to former Likud Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir, who passed away last year; "but when [Secretary of State James A.] Baker came to pressure him to make concession on behalf of George Bush Senior - just like Kerry is doing now on behalf of Obama - he just said 'no,' because he was a man of convictions.

         

"There were all sorts of pressures - including threats to withdraw American aid - but Shamir proves that when you stand by your convictions you will succeed."

          

In his opinion, current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is "fully aware" of the dangers posed by making concessions to the Palestinian Authority, but "lacks the backbone" to stand up to concerted international pressure.

           

Dismissing recent statements  in which Netanyahu insisted that the talks - and accompanying Israeli concessions - are in Israel's interests, he retorted that the PM was simply "assuaging his guilty conscience."

            

Urging a sense of perspective, Rabbi Levin points out that pressure from a US president is no reason to panic:

                 

"It's important to realize that the US President is not the final word - there is also Congress."

        

"Concessions invite more pressure"

        

Rabbi Lewin and his group view those who continue to advocate a policy of "land for peace" as willfully ignorant of the lessons of the past.

        

"In 1992, perhaps you could say 'give peace a chance.'  But after the failure of the Oslo Agreements, after the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif, even a blind person can see that we've already given peace a chance by giving land away, and it didn't work."

          

Moreover, he argues, concessions are not only useless, but counter-productive: "You'll never get peace by conceding - you'll just be disrespected."

       

Illustrating his point, he quipped,

       

"There is an old joke: why can you bury a dead person? Because he doesn't resist!

       

"If you keep conceding then you are inviting more pressure - why shouldn't they pressure you?! In contrast, the Arab side stands steadfast by its belief, and you can see that no one is pressuring them at all!

       

“The EU decision just proves that the side that will not budge and which remains firm in its beliefs will be respected and will not be pressured, whereas the side that vacillates and indicates that it is ready to make far-reaching concessions will always be pressured into giving more and more."

     

"This is a replay of history - and we must stop it"

        

So what does the Rabbinical Congress for Peace plan to do in response to indications that the current government may well follow the path of concessions?

      

The group's psak halacha (Jewish legal ruling) has already garnered over 350 signatories from rabbinic leaders across the Orthodox-religious spectrum - but they're not stopping there.

       

"We regularly get new signatures," he said, "and we're still collecting them."

    

But collecting signatures is not all they do.

      

In response to the Israeli government's agreement to embark on another "peace process" with the Palestinian Authority - one which Rabbi Lewin is convinced will simply mean more Israeli concessions and even more bloodshed - the RCP is embarking on a campaign which includes lobbying government decision-makers and policymakers to help them "see sense."

     

That lobbying effort will be accompanied by a spiritual one, as well.

     

"This resumption of talks and concessions by the Israeli side is a tragedy and a replay of the Olso process and the Gaza Disengagement - both of which not only failed to bring peace, but simply made matters worse.

     

"As religious Jews we know that on the one hand 'we have no one to rely upon other than our Father in Heaven,'" he says, quoting a famous Jewish proverb, "and so we will be calling for mass prayers and possibly days of fasting and repentance, to ask for God's help in our mission.

     

"On the other hand, we know that God requires us to do our bit, and so our efforts will continue apace. But with His help we will prevail."