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A Gratuitous Insult/Front-Page Atrocity

June 29, 2006
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A Gratuitous Insult

Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, disdained his office because he saw it as a figurehead post with no power. Some of his successors have done better in the job - precisely because they had no illusions about running the government, and were thus better able to capitalize on the position's moral authority.

That might have been the way most observers would have characterized Moshe Katsav, Israel's current president. But after his recent scuffle with Reform Judaism, you have to wonder whether this man really gets it.

The dispute was publicized when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union of Reform Judaism, said that he would not visit the president during this month's Zionist Congress because of Katsav's past refusal to address him by the title of rabbi. Katsav compounded the mess by replying publicly that he would not use the term "rabbi" to refer to a Reform Jew because Israeli law does not recognize this branch of Judaism. Though later statements from Katsav emphasized his respect for the movement and its leaders, the damage was already done.

Yes, it's true that Israel does not recognize any non-Orthodox stream, and that Katsav does not have the power to change that by himself. But in an office that's largely about symbolism, the man needs to understand that treating the head of a movement that commands the allegiance of a plurality of American Jews with the respect he's due is the real issue - not whether or not Yoffie has the authority to perform a marriage in the Jewish state.

This is a time of crisis, when Israel needs every friend it can get. The last thing anyone needs is for a needless quarrel to serve as an excuse for further disaffection. Calling Eric Yoffie or any Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist rabbi a rabbi will not change Israel's laws, nor will it do much to undermine the religious monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate. But it would help to bring our people a little closer. Katsav needs to back down, apologize and put this dispute behind us.

Front-Page Atrocity

For many in the media, Israel is always guilty until proven innocent.

That was the case earlier this month, when an explosion on a Gaza beach that took the lives of several Palestinians was attributed to Israeli guns firing on terrorists. Though the picture of a survivor of the blast was broadcast around the world as a new symbol of Israeli "cruelty," its guilt was from from certain. Indeed, an Israeli investigation and an examination of shrapnel taken from wounded Palestinians (who were treated in Israeli hospitals) thoroughly debunked the charge. But not according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

On June 22, the Inqy published a front-page story by one of its Mideast correspondents purporting to prove that, contrary to all evidence, Israel remained guilty. The story presented material by anti-Israel sources such as the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Palestinians themselves, while dismissing more authoritative Israeli sources as "biased" and "incapable of uncovering the truth."

While such thinly veiled advocacy might be acceptable on an opinion page, it was way out of place in the news section. Also questionable is the decision to put this story on Page 1, when previous reports highlighting Israel's innocence were not given similar prominence.

It also failed to place the events in the context of an ongoing Palestinian missile barrage on Israel, which would have placed the onus for any casualties - no matter who fired the specific shots in question - on the Palestinians themselves. While this episode will probably soon be eclipsed by events, we're left wondering why the Inquirer thought this paltry attempt to salvage a false charge was worth so much space and effort -

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