Draft Chills ultra-Orthodox Australians' Support of Israel

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SYDNEY – Some of Australia’s most fervently Orthodox Jewish sects have been blasted as “opponents” of Israel for organizing a prayer service last week protesting the Knesset’s “evil decree” that ended the blanket exemption of Haredim from national service.

The service last Thursday came in response to the passing of a new Knesset law that mandates young ultra-Orthodox men to be conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces from 2017.

Organizers claimed about 1000 people converged on the Adass Israel synagogue in Melbourne to “beseech the Almighty to repel the harsh decree of the Israeli government.”

Similar services have been held in Jerusalem and New York.

Seven senior Australian rabbis attached their names to the call to prayer – three of them from non- or anti-Zionist religious sects, including Adass Israel. But two of the most senior Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis in Melbourne also signed it, sparking a furor among their members and igniting debate about whether Chabad is inside the Zionist camp.

But on Friday, Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner and Rabbi Zvi Telsner issued a statement saying they “deeply regret” signing the flier and “emphatically disassociate” themselves from its “negative inference to the Israeli government.”

“We, and the Yeshivah Center, strongly and proudly support Israel,” the senior Chabad rabbis said. “Chabad chassidim, including leading activists, communal leaders and educators around the world proudly serve in the IDF.”

It triggered a furious reply from Alex Fein, the editor of Galus Australis, a local Jewish blog. “The backdown is almost as appalling as their initial support for anti-State groups,” she wrote on Sunday. “While neither rabbi has the fortitude to stand by his convictions, both indulge in weasel words that are obviously a response to the fury that has spread throughout the religious community.

“These men are senior spiritual leaders of a movement that dominates Melbourne’s religious life,” she added. “In many areas, secular Zionist and even religious Zionists have divested themselves of religious responsibility and bestowed on Chabad custodianship over Melbourne’s Jewish future.”

The president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, also a Chabadnik, said he was not consulted about the prayer service. “Even if we had been consulted we would not have supported it,” he told Haaretz. The RCV is “disturbed” that a “rift appears to have developed between organizers and local community organizations.”

Mizrachi, the religious Zionist movement, “deeply regrets” the service, said its president, Ian Waller. “It is a matter of great concern that members of the Melbourne Jewish community have decided to publicly protest against a law of the State of Israel, especially one that recognizes that it is the duty of all able-bodied adults to share the responsibility of protecting and defending the State of Israel and all of its inhabitants.”

Although legitimate dissent should not be stifled, Waller added: “A public rally in Melbourne, which by its nature has been designed to attract the attention of the general community and the media, portrays those who organize and support it not merely as critics but as opponents of the State of Israel.”

But one of the organizers barked back: “There were no speeches, no placards and nobody shouting any words of protest whatsoever ... There were only prayers to Hashem. Let us remember that this evil decree only happened due to the insistence of the anti-Torah, anti-Yiddishkeit MK Yair Lapid.”

Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, said he “deplored” the gathering. “We very much endorse the Mizrachi statement and commend them for taking this position,” he said.

The war of words comes on the heels of a debate on Chabad’s dominance leading Orthodox synagogues, with Rabbi James Kennard, principal of Mount Scopus College in Melbourne, arguing in the Australian Jewish News last month that the “disproportionate” number of Chabad rabbis in synagogues has its “downside.”

Demonstration in Jerusalem brings traffic in and around capital to a halt for hours.Credit: Gili Cohen Magen
The men's section during the prayer service at Adass Israel synagogue in Melbourne, March 13, 2014.Credit: Courtesy

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