Israeli Rabbis: Don't Destroy Empty Gaza Synagogues

July 7, 2008 - 8:16 PM

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Top Israeli rabbis are calling on the Israeli government not to demolish dozens of synagogues in the Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip because they fear that could set a precedent for destroying empty synagogues around the world.

Houses are already being demolished in many of the 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four in the northern West Bank, where residents were evicted starting last week until this past Tuesday. But the synagogues have not been knocked down yet.

The Council of Chief Rabbis of Israel -- 14 chief rabbis of Israel's major cities -- and the country's two chief rabbis met on Thursday to discuss the issue of what should be done with the synagogues, said Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen, who is a member of the council.

"There was a unanimous conclusion not to destroy them, but [we agreed] that they should remain intact," Cohen told Cybercast News Service.

The rabbis want the government to give guarantees that the "sanctity and completeness" of the synagogues will be preserved, he said.

There are 38 synagogues in the former Gaza Strip settlements. A handful will be moved completely, and others are being stripped of their holy and precious items.

On Sunday, Dov Zussman, a contractor from Ganei Tal, was working feverishly with a small crew to dismantle the inside elements of the synagogue he built there 22 years ago.

The podium, stained glass windows, the ark where the Torah scrolls were kept, the pews and the decorative iron grillwork that divided the men from the women in the 340-seat synagogue were all being removed one screw at a time to be placed in storage and hopefully used in a future synagogue, said Moti Klein, also from Ganei Tal.

Earlier, the rabbis of the Gush Katif Gaza Strip settlements filed a petition against the destruction of the synagogues with Israel's Supreme Court.

The petition was rejected this week after one of Israel's two chief rabbis, Yona Metzger, decided that it would be acceptable to destroy the buildings because the government promised to allocate funds to rebuild them.

According to Jewish law, it is possible to sell a synagogue in a neighborhood where it is no longer in use because no more Jewish people live there and use the money to build a new one, said Rabbi Cohen. But the old synagogue cannot be destroyed until it is replaced by a new one, he said.

Orthodox Jewish people do not drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays. Therefore, the synagogue must be within a short walking distance of the Jewish community.

Based on this principle, Metzger decided that once all the holy objects had been removed from the structures, the sanctity of the buildings could be annulled. But the rabbis received so many complaints from abroad that they met to discuss it further, said Cohen, and Metzger changed his mind.

Some Jewish leaders around the world fear that destroying the Gaza synagogues could set a negative precedent in other countries where synagogues have been preserved as monuments and historical sites in areas where there is no longer a Jewish community, Cohen said.

Metzger requested an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss the issue with him. The rabbis want Sharon to appeal to the Palestinian Authority to agree to preserve the synagogues and to the United States and other members of the Quartet -- the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- to ensure that the P.A. does indeed do so, Cohen said.

According to Cohen, the rabbis believe the synagogues should be preserved as monuments with historic significance.

The precedent for preserving them already exists in the northern Israeli coastal city of Haifa. Five mosques in central Haifa are no longer in use by Muslim worshippers, Cohen said, but the Israeli government has put a wall around them and says they are holy.

"We want the same thing [for the Gaza synagogues]," he said.

Without elaborating, Sharon's spokesman -- Dr. Raanan Gissin -- said that there are "certain implications" for Israel if it would leave the synagogues behind. He said he did not know about the rabbis' request to speak with Sharon about the synagogues.

The head of Palestinian Authority negotiations, Dr. Saeb Erekat, said the fate of the synagogues was an internal Israeli matter.

"We were not involved. They decided to demolish the houses. They decided to move," Erekat said since the Israeli pullout from Gaza was a unilateral move that took place without any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I don't think they will leave anything standing. That's what we were told," Erekat said.

International law expert, Prof. Yehuda Blum, said that he is personally against the idea of demolishing the synagogues.

"I don't feel good about destroying synagogues. It's not a civilized way of going about things," said Blum.

On the other hand, Blum said, he could understand the counter arguments that say the synagogues should be demolished because they would only be desecrated by the Palestinians, as other Jewish holy sites, which were in P.A.-controlled areas, have been.

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