Israeli Army Ousting Officer for Intolerance

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, continuing.

”The Reform and the Conservative caused the assimilation of eight million Jews,” he said, ”and this was worse than the Holocaust, in which only six million people were killed.”

Today, not even a week after the incident, the Israeli Defense Forces suspended Lieutenant 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 very sensitive issue in Israeli society.

This boundary is not often drawn here in the Jewish homeland, where the state religious authorities are rigorously 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.

Rabbi Block said that two weeks ago he faced a similar verbal assault from a member of Parliament. He and another well-known Reform rabbi had been invited to attend a Parliament committee meeting on conversion. A legislator from the United Torah Judaism Party entered the committee room.

”He started screaming,” Rabbi Block said. ”He said he wouldn’t sit with the Reformim because we’ve caused assimilation of millions of Jews, worse than the Nazis. It was the same thing this officer said, but I guess it’s O.K. for a Knesset member.”

The rigorously Orthodox leaders do not believe that Reform and Conservative Judaism 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 did 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, Mr. 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 today 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.

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