Rabbis Again Nix Synagogue Destruction

After 2 gov't decisions, a High Court restraining order, and a Knesset Law Committee resolution, it is still unclear if the Gush Katif synagogues will be destroyed. High Court will decide on Sunday.

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Hillel Fendel, | updated: 13:00

The Knesset Law Committee resolved yesterday that the original government decision to destroy the synagogues in Gush Katif would "have long-standing negative ramifications on the efforts to prevent harm to synagogues around the world."

The committee, headed by Likud MK Michael Eitan, therefore called on the government to discuss the issue once again, "in light of its tremendous sensitivity."

The Cabinet originally decided that the synagogues should be destroyed, in order to avoid Moslem desecration following Israel's withdrawal. The decision was supported by the minority opinion of Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who said that the synagogues' sanctity could be voided. Most of the rabbis consulted on the issue disagreed.

Rabbi Metzger later retracted his opinion, and the government spent close to three hours earlier this week meeting with Chief Rabbinate Council members trying to find an agreed-upon solution. The rabbis said it would be better, from a Halakhic [Jewish legal] standpoint for the holy places to be desecrated by non-Jews than to have the State of Israel destroy them.

They also said that rabbis and Jewish communities around the world had made the point that if Jews destroy synagogues in the Land of Israel, it would be hard to prevent other countries and cities from razing synagogues under other circumstances, such as zoning and planning considerations.

The Cabinet therefore decided that a team of rabbis and Defense Ministry engineers would analyze each synagogue, and decide what to do with each one. Just a few hours later, a Supreme Court justice issued a restraining order against the demolition of the synagogues.

Rehovot Chief Rabbi Simcha HaCohen Kook and Be'er Sheva's Chief Rabbi Yehuda Deri, together with Defense Ministry officials and engineers, made the trip to Gush Katif on Tuesday. The following is a paraphrasal of Rabbi Deri's account of the trip and the rabbis' subsequent recommendations:

"Until last Thursday, the government had only one intention: to destroy almost all of the synagogues, after taking out a few symbolic stones to put in a museum or something. On Thursday, however, a few of us in the Chief Rabbinate Council decided that we could not stand by, and we began a struggle that appeared to be totally lost, given the previous Cabinet and Supreme Court decisions. It's not often that our decisions are made unanimously, but this time it was - we ruled that it is forbidden for Jews or the State of Israel to destroy the synagogues, under any circumstances.

"The assistant legal counsel of the Prime Minister's Office, Eyal Yinon, practically pleaded with us not to publicize the ruling, and said that the issue was already decided, etc. He asked that we meet first with the Prime Minister. But we stood firm, and publicized this ruling. It in fact made waves, and we were invited to the Cabinet meeting three days later [this past Sunday].

"We were supposed to be at the Cabinet meeting for 20 minutes, but in actuality, it took almost three full hours. This shows how critically they perceive the issue, and their concern over the lack of rabbinic support for their decision.

"The main concern of the government ministers was how terrible it would be to see Arabs dancing in victory on the roofs of the synagogues and desecrating them - but we said it would be even worse for Jews to desecrate them!"

Reminded that there would be no external evidence that the buildings had been synagogues, Rabbi Deri said, "They claim that television announcers would announce all over the world that Arabs are dancing on a building that was once a synagogue. But this is a foolish argument, because if we destroy the buildings, the Arabs will dance on the ruins, with the same explanation that here was once a synagogue, and that the Arabs are dancing in victory, etc. ..."

"Most of the Cabinet ministers remained stubborn, [Rabbi Deri continued,] but Defense Minister Mofaz proposed the compromise of our fact-finding trip to Gush Katif followed by our submission of recommendations.

"On Tuesday, we went to Gush Katif with a very senior Defense Ministry delegation - again showing that they really want to solve this problem. We went to 7-8 communities, and it truly was heart-breaking to see the piles of ruins that just a few days before had been vibrant Jewish communities; we broke out in tears more than once. We went to N'vei Dekalim, Pe'at Sadeh, Bdolach, Kfar Darom, Ganei Tal, and some others...

"Afterwards, we submitted our final recommendations, in coordination with the Chief Rabbis, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and others. First of all, we found a solution for about a third of the synagogues, 8 or 9 - some could be destroyed either because they were still in the process of being built and had not yet been used, or because they were in bomb shelters and were temporary by their very nature. Another 2-3 can be moved in toto as the government previously decided...

"However, regarding the others, we insisted that they not be destroyed. We said that the government should do something it has not yet done, and that is to turn to all relevant international bodies, and to the Arabs, and to the Palestinian Authority, and request their protection of these holy sites, as is customary all over the world.

"By the way, to strengthen this point, I received a note from a journalist that day saying that [PA senior] Jibril Rajoub had complained that Israel had not turned to him on this issue. Rajoub said that just like the Arab countries had preserved synagogues for 500 years, the PA could do the same. Even if there's only a small chance that the PA would stand by its word and preserve the buildings, it is worth something. Just like today, in [PA-controlled] Jericho and [Egyptian-controlled] Yamit, there are synagogues standing and have not been destroyed...

"In addition, we asked that the government seal off all the windows and doors with concrete to prevent, or impede, the entry of potential vandals...

"If we turn to the PA, and even if the PA promises to preserve them but fails to do so, it's better from every standpoint - Halakhically, morally and internationally - than if we ourselves destroy these synagogues. It would be a terrible precedent for the State of Israel to destroy synagogues in the Land of Israel.

"We are now waiting for the Supreme Court to make a final decision on the issue this Sunday. We're noticing cracks in the wall of opposition to our position. Knesset Law Committee Chairman Michael Eitan rushed to conduct a meeting yesterday, and we were pleasantly surprised to see great openness on the issue - as well as the results of their vote. Eitan was very quick to understand what we were saying, and one by one, he knocked down each of [Sharon's deputy legal counsel] Eyal's points. He even said, with a sharpness that we couldn't use, that this government will go down in infamy for actually destroying synagogues. 'You threw them out,' Eitan said, 'and took their homes and the like - at least let them have this small thing; let the rabbis decide. If the rabbis think it's OK, then why are you intervening?' Eitan said he would also speak personally with Sharon about this...

"We are slightly optimistic that the Supreme Court will in fact overturn the Cabinet's decision and follow our recommendations. And even if not, it will at least be clear to all that the rabbis did everything they could to make sure this travesty does not happen."

Asked if there is any chance of taking down the large walls and trying to move them, Rabbi Deri said, "No, not at all. You should know, I have seen many synagogues throughout the country, and I don't know of any other area that has such a concentration of such beautiful and large synagogues. The people here really invested in building beautiful structures... It is simply impossible, given the time frame and normal constraints, to try to saw these giant walls into pieces and transfer them elsewhere."

Rabbi Deri was also asked if it would make a difference if non-Jews operate the bulldozers to destroy the structures. "Not at all," he responded. "The State of Israel is sending them, and it doesn't matter who actually pushes the buttons. It is forbidden either way."