Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday appeared to wade into the controversy surrounding Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi’s refusal to term the site of the Pittsburgh anti-Semitic shooting attack a “synagogue,” with the rabbi instead calling it “a place of clear Jewish character.”
Netanyahu seemed to be referencing Lau’s words with his tweet, which stated that the house of worship was unequivocally a synagogue.
“Jews were killed in a synagogue. They were killed because they are Jews,” the prime minister wrote on Twitter. “The location was chosen because it is a synagogue. We must never forget that. We are one.”
Chief Rabbi David Lau is an avowed foe of the liberal streams of Judaism and was last year, along with Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, instrumental in pushing the government to backtrack on a deal for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Lau clearly condemned the killings in Pittsburgh. However, when pressed on the attitude to Conservative Jews of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, to which he belongs, Lau said that the victims were clearly Jews, but he seemed to decline to acknowledge that Tree of Life is a synagogue.
“I’ll say one simple thing: Any murder of a Jew in any corner of the world, because they are Jewish, is unforgivable, it’s a crime that cannot, under any circumstances, be ignored,” Lau told the Makor Rishon newspaper.
His interviewer asked Lau to comment on the fact that “in the ultra-Orthodox media, they refused to refer to the Tree of Life as a Conservative synagogue, but as a ‘Jewish center’ in the best case.”
Lau responded that what the place is called doesn’t matter.
“They were killed because they were Jews. Does it matter which synagogue or liturgical tradition they pray in?” he said.
“We are talking about Jews,” Lau added. “We don’t need to create issues at painful moments.
“I have a deep ideological disagreement with them about Judaism, about its past and the consequences for the future of the Jewish people for generations. So what? Because of that they are not Jews?” he added.
His interviewer asked: “But it was a synagogue?”
“Jews were killed in a place that for the killer was a place of clear Jewish character. A place with Torah scrolls, Jews in tallits, there are prayer books, there are people who went there to be closer to God,” he said. “Because of that the killer specifically went there and not somewhere else. That is why there is pain and anger.”
Authorities say 46-year-old Robert Bowers killed eight men and three women inside the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday during worship services before a tactical police team shot and wounded him. Bowers faces state and federal charges.
Dr. Karl Williams, chief medical examiner for Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, named the victims as Joyce Feinberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Cecil Rosenthal, 59; David Rosenthal, 54; Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69.
The suspected gunman reportedly yelled “All Jews must die” as he entered the synagogue and began firing. He engaged in a shootout with responding police officers and barricaded himself inside the building before surrendering.
Lau has in the past dismissed the concerns of US Jews, the majority of whom belong to more liberal streams of Judaism.
Last year, after helping torpedo the Western Wall compromise, he dismissed the anger over the move, saying most American Jews did not care about the holy site and noting that 85 percent of them had never visited Israel.
The biggest issue facing US Jews was not the Western Wall or the conversion bill, but intermarriage and apathy about the Jewish state, he said.
Earlier Monday, Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay backed a call by Deputy Minister Michael Oren to recognize the liberal streams of Judaism, in the wake of the shooting
In a tweet on Sunday morning, Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said: “The Conservative Jews of Pittsburgh were sufficiently Jewish to be killed because they were Jews but their movement is not recognized by the Jewish State. Israel must bolster these communities, already challenged by assimilation, by strengthening our ties with them.”
He added, in his Hebrew tweet, but not in his English-language tweet on the same topic: “I call on Minister Bennett not to suffice with condolences, but to recognize liberal Jewish streams and unite the people.”
He was referring to the fact that Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also serves as Diaspora affairs minister, in the hours after the attack flew to Pittsburgh in order to visit the synagogue, meet with the local Jewish community, and participate in the funerals of those killed in the attack
Opposition party Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, like Gabbay and Oren, called for recognition of the liberal streams of Judaism.
“If you are murdered because you are a Jew, then you are a Jew,” he said in a Saturday night statement. “The Conservative and Reform are our brothers. They are our family.”
“It is good that the minister of education traveled to Pittsburgh to comfort and strengthen, but the relationship with the majority of US Jews cannot be based on condolences and grief,” Lapid said. “We cannot bring back the dead, but we have a duty to fix our relationship with the living.”