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Orthodox groups blast Reform official’s civil rights analogy as ‘outrageous slur’

The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Credit: Emmanuel DYAN via Wikimedia Commons.
The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Credit: Emmanuel DYAN via Wikimedia Commons.

Four U.S. Orthodox organizations have strongly criticized a Reform Zionist official’s comparison of the Western Wall prayer controversy to the African-American civil rights struggle.

The controversy began Oct. 31 when Shoshana Dweck, a board member of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), was quoted in The New York Times as saying, during a visit to the Western Wall, that her movement’s quest for additional mixed-gender prayer space is more than just a fight over “a seat at a lunch counter, or a seat on the bus.”

Dweck was referring to the well-known battles over racial segregation in restaurants and on public buses in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s.

That comparison is “an outrageous slur,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, president of the Coalition for Jewish Values, a rabbinic public policy organization representing several hundred rabbis nationwide, and Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the group’s managing director. In a letter to ARZA’s leadership this week, Lerner and Menken wrote, “Charges of racism against Jews are particularly odious, both because of the outstanding Jewish contribution to the civil rights movement in America,” and because calling Israel or fellow Jews racists “plays directly into the hands of anti-Semites.”

The Coalition for Jewish Values leaders asked ARZA to dissociate itself from Dweck’s remark. They also charged that her statement violated the 1995 guidelines on communal discourse adopted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Those guidelines urge Jewish organizations to refrain from “demeaning characterizations and other excesses.” The coalition has forwarded its complaint about Dweck to Conference of Presidents Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.

Responding to the coalition’s complaint, ARZA President Rabbi Josh Weinberg wrote, “I completely stand behind the comments made by Shoshana Dweck,” whom he praised as “a great lover of Israel.” He charged that non-Orthodox Jews have been the targets of “vicious attacks against us by extremists” because of the Western Wall dispute. Dweck herself did not respond to inquiries concerning her comments.

Weinberg subsequently reiterated to his support for Dweck. At the same time, however, he acknowledged that the Western Wall controversy and the civil rights battles “are two very different struggles,” and he said that the harm suffered by non-Orthodox Jews in the current dispute is not comparable to the harm suffered by African-Americans at the hands of white segregationists.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which represents 1,000 U.S. Orthodox rabbis, said in a statement to that “to invoke images of racial discrimination in the southern U.S. during the early 20th century trivializes the suffering of African-Americans and the importance of the subsequent civil rights movement.” RCA Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch added, “Regardless of one’s position on the question of the Kotel compromise, we feel that Ms. Dweck’s comments were an exaggeration of the current situation…Her unfortunate use of this analogy reminds us of when some misappropriate the imagery or language of the Holocaust to garner sympathy for other causes.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, told that having men and women pray “in separate areas close to the Wall is simply an honoring of millennia-old Jewish tradition…To compare [the current prayer arrangement] to [a situation] where innocent people were hated, attacked and lynched because of their skin color is beyond outrageous. It is despicable, gravely dishonoring all those who were persecuted and even killed because of their race.”

The National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), which represents more than 100 Orthodox synagogues, is also criticizing the Reform Zionists’ rhetoric. “First, they disrupt the longstanding rules of decorum at the Wall, then they play the race card against anyone who dares to disagree with them,” said NCYI President Farley Weiss. “Shoshana Dweck and her colleagues are exploiting historical events that have nothing to do with the Wall, in order to score cheap political points.”

Two of the four protesting groups, the RCA and NCYI, are members of the Conference of Presidents. Spokesmen for the Conference of Presidents declined to comment as to whether the conference will take up the issue. ARZA’s Weinberg maintains that Dweck’s comments “are in no way in violation of their guidelines.”

Prof. Jonathan Sarna, a leading scholar on American Judaism and chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, told that the Israeli government’s actions regarding the Western Wall dispute have been “foolish and illiberal,” as well damaging to religious liberty and Israel-diaspora relations. As for Dweck’s analogy, Sarna said that the Western Wall issue is “obviously very different” from the civil rights struggle, “especially since in the American setting, racial discrimination reflects the unhappy legacy of slavery.”

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