With firing, Israel takes stand in Judaism debate

Published Tuesday, November 23, 1999

San Jose Mercury News

JERUSALEM — The topic for the day in one Israeli army classroom was the status of women in Judaism. Sixty soldiers sat awaiting the lecture, part of an education series where attendance is mandatory.

The instructor, Lt. Gamliel Peretz, began by citing the traditional morning blessing in which, he said, all Jewish men thank God for not making them women. One young soldier, the teenage daughter of a Reform rabbi, raised her hand to challenge him. Not all Jews say that, she said. Some use an alternative blessing, which thanks God for making people as they are.

According to army records, the lieutenant, who is Orthodox, then said, “The Reform and Conservative are not Jews to me.” When the teenager and a friend stood to leave, the lieutenant reportedly followed them.

“The Reform and the Conservative caused the assimilation of 8 million Jews,” he continued, “and this was worse than the Holocaust, in which only 6 million people were killed.”

Monday, not even a week after the incident, the Israeli Defense Forces suspended Peretz and said he would be discharged from the military.

It was an unusually swift and resolute response, in which the Israeli army drew a clear boundary between acceptable and unacceptable discourse on religious pluralism, a sensitive issue in Israeli society.

This boundary is not often drawn in the Jewish homeland, where the state religious authorities are ultra-Orthodox and do not recognize the liberal Jewish movements to which most American Jews belong. And so representatives of Reform and Conservative Judaism expressed surprise and delight that their rights had been defended.

“Even in Israel, where there is such inequality in status between different streams of Judaism, it is, it seems, possible to go too far,” said Rabbi Richard A. Block, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders do not believe that Reform and Conservative Judaism branches are Judaism at all, since they liberate Jews from the divine commandments and allow them individual autonomy in their religious observance.

The movements are so liberal, they say, that they have caused millions of Jews to disengage from Judaism, to assimilate and to intermarry.

Reform and Conservative leaders, who also fret about assimilation and intermarriage, contend that by adapting religion to modern life they are instead giving millions a way to remain Jewish.

Jonathan Rosenblum, a spokesman for an Orthodox media resource center, said he does not consider the lieutenant’s statements on assimilation to be “extreme” but condemned his comparison to the Holocaust.

“Holocaust metaphors should be basically out of bounds,” he said. On the other hand, Rosenblum said he detected “an aura of witch hunt in the rapidity with which Lieutenant Peretz was tried, expelled from the army and classified as some sort of pariah forever.”

In a statement issued Monday by the army, Brig. Gen. Elazar Stern said the lieutenant had apologized for the reference to the Holocaust but remained “steadfast” in his view that liberal Judaism had caused more damage than the Nazis to the future of the Jewish people.

“I explained to the officer that when an Israeli army officer uses the term Holocaust to describe phenomena that occur within the Jewish people, he makes it clear he doesn’t understand what the Holocaust is, what the Jewish people is, what the state of Israel is, or what the Israeli Defense Forces stand for,” the general said.