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Jewish Journal

Conference at B’nai David-Judea (Rabbi Kanefsky’s shul) tackles tough questions about Israel, Jerusa

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 15, 2007 | 7:00 pm

The morning had been filled with depressing insights into whether peace with the Palestinians is now possible for Israelis.

Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian affairs reporter for the Jerusalem Post and NBC News, said it isn't -- Fatah is too weak, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas too unpopular to sincerely negotiate a solution.

"Even if he gets 100 percent, he can't implement it," Abu Toameh said. "He doesn't have the power."

Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, followed with a similarly downtrodden tone. Muslims, he said, have time on their side, with a birthrate much higher than Israeli Jews and the hope of future nuclear weaponry.

"So you wait," Bard said. "Why would you want some crummy little state in Gaza and the West Bank, when all you have to do is wait?"

Certainly, these statements got heads nodding and invoked some impassioned questions. But, during lunch, the topic of conversation for many was the speaker, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, who opened Sunday's "Israel in Focus Conference" at B'nai David-Judea, the Modern Orthodox congregation he leads in Pico-Robertson. And it wasn't what the rabbi said -- "Love for Israel is something that runs deep in our veins" -- but what he wrote two weeks before in this paper.

"I don't understand why the rabbi is getting so much heat when Olmert himself would give away half of Jerusalem and 98 percent of the West Bank," said Michael Ungar, who belongs to Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue in Palos Verdes.

"Because he is Orthodox," replied Bart Gurewitz, a liberal Jew. "It's blasphemy."

Ungar's claim is not totally accurate. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has not advocated dividing Jerusalem, but has floated the possibility. Public outcry was dramatic. The Orthodox Union sent Olmert a letter stating it was "mandated to undertake all efforts that are necessary to secure and maintain Yerushalayim as the eternal and undivided capital of the State of Israel."

Neither did Kanefsky advocate dividing Jerusalem. But in an Oct. 26 column in The Jewish Journal, he broke an Orthodox taboo and said the Israeli government should have the independent freedom to negotiate over Jerusalem.

"To be sure, I would be horrified and sick if the worst-case division-of-Jerusalem scenario were to materialize. The possibility that the Kotel, the Jewish Quarter or the Temple Mount would return to their former states of Arab sovereignty is unfathomable to me, and I suspect to nearly everyone inside the Israeli government," he wrote.

"At the same time though," he continued, "to insist that the government not talk about Jerusalem at all [including the possibility, for example, of Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods] is to insist that Israel come to the negotiating table telling a dishonest story -- a story in which our side has made no mistakes and no miscalculations, a story in which there is no moral ambiguity in the way we have chosen to rule the people we conquered, a story in which we don't owe anything to anyone."

For a moment, local and international attention shifted from the upcoming peace summit at Annapolis between Abbas and Olmert. From the Los Angeles Times to the Jerusalem Post, headlines blared, "Orthodox rabbi backs division of capital," a characterization Kanefsky later told his congregation was inaccurate. (The rabbi declined to comment Sunday.)

Among those who responded was StandWithUs, the pro-Israel organization that works mainly on college campuses. Based in Los Angeles, the grass-roots group took out a full-page ad in The Journal to argue against Kanefsky.

The bottom of the ad included this: "Learn more about these and other issues at the upcoming Israel in Focus Conference."

What made that statement poignant is that Sunday's conference was organized by StandWithUs and co-sponsored by Kanefsky's shul.

"We felt it was not the most-timely decision," said Esther Renzer, StandWithUs president. "We debated with should we respond or shouldn't we, but in the end we felt it was best to straighten out the facts. Rabbi Kanefsky is a good friend, and sometimes friends disagree on important issues."

The conference, which focused on the prospects of peace, had been planned long in advance. It coincided with a weekend-long training by StandWithUs of more than 150 college students from across the country. In addition to Abu Toameh and Bard, featured speakers were Lee Green, founding director of CAMERA's National Letter-Writing Group, who explained how to write effective letters-to-the-editor; communications specialist Neil Lazarus; Wendy Lewis, director of Learn Israel, which provides educational materials; and Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, which translates Palestinian newspapers and textbooks.

"The gap between Fatah and Hamas is narrowing," Marcus said, pointing to soccer tournaments named after suicide bombers, textbooks approved by the Palestinian Authority that say the presence of non-Muslims on Palestinian land is an affront to Allah and an image used on Fatah TV that shows the Palestinian flag covering Israel on a map, with an emblem in the middle that states, "Palestine -- 2007."

For this reason, Abu Toameh said the time is not ripe for negotiations: "The Palestinian street is very radical, very bitter. I'm sorry to say it, but I don't see where we go from here."

"There are many Israelis who are prepared to give up large parts of Arab Jerusalem," the Jerusalem resident later added. "I think it is a mistake. If we had a really good government on the Palestinian side, I would say bring them in. But with Fatah and Hamas, I would run away."

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