Rabbi backs down over Big Tent

By Simon Rocker and Jonathan Kalmus, October 27, 2011
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Rabbi Guttentag

Rabbi Guttentag

The Orthodox organiser of an Israel solidarity conference in Manchester has backed down after being warned that his refusal to invite Progressive rabbis as speakers risked provoking a new religious rift in the community.

Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, the prime mover behind next month's "Big Tent for Israel" event, bowed to strong pressure this week from the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies.

Speakers for the conference, which is intended to mobilise grassroots action against the delegitimisation of Israel, will now be selected by an independent committee.

Mick Davis, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, had warned Rabbi Guttentag that his original stance would have promoted "a new cleavage and division in communal support for Israel".

In a trenchant letter, Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman told the rabbi: "I write with the authority and support of all the officers of the Board, none of whom will attend the event unless you change your position... what you see as adherence to principle is seen by all outside the Orthodox community and by many inside as plain discourtesy."

The committee now responsible for choosing speakers will be chaired by United Synagogue president Stephen Pack and is expected to include some Progressive representation.

Mr Pack, who explained that he had been approached by Rabbi Guttentag to be an honest broker, said: "My impression was that without the support of key organisations, it was unlikely the event would have gone ahead."

Since the conference was a political event, suitable guest speakers were likely to be lobbyists, politicians or diplomats. "I wouldn't be surprised if, when we go through the list, there aren't any rabbis on it," Mr Pack said.

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks had been invited to speak by Rabbi Guttentag but will be abroad on the day. The chief rabbis of South Africa and Poland are understood to have also been initially approached but it is unclear whether any invitation to them will stand.

Rabbi Guttentag, minister of Whitefield Hebrew Congregation, said that he was "delighted" to have gained widespread communal backing. "It remains now to discuss and to finalise the make-up of the speakers' committee so that is balanced and credible."

Reform movement head Stephen Moss declared support for what "will now be a truly cross-communal event".

Lucille Cohen, president of the Manchester Jewish Representative Council - which last month took a vote to support the conference - said: "I'm pleased that some solution has been found so that the community can go ahead and focus on the main objective which is promoting Israel advocacy".

But earlier she had dismissed the controversy over non-Orthodox participation as "a red herring", suggesting that critics from inside and outside Manchester had wanted to "put a spanner in the works for a conference in Manchester. It appears to be people involved with the Board or who work closely with it and Bicom who had different agendas and who felt it best to hold a Bicom conference."

Following the compromise, Mr Wineman, who also chairs the JLC's membership council, wrote to Rabbi Guttentag to offer support for the event "in partnership with you".

One Manchester Orthodox rabbi, Chaim Kanterovitz, of Yeshurun Hebrew Congregation, commented: "It's a shame that organisations like the Board and the JLC are bogged down with squabbling about small details rather than immediately supporting a fantastic initiative".

Rabbi Reuven Silverman of Manchester Reform Synagogue, deploring the row, said the episode had been "absolutely typical of Anglo-Jewry. A few weeks ago I was involved in a conference call with President Obama and 900 American rabbis from Reconstructionist to Agudas Yisroel, all in overriding support of Israel. That is the model we ought to be following, because they are streets ahead of us."

Last week Rabbi Guttentag had written to Mr Davis to say that while he had been happy to invite a Reform lay leader to participate in the event, "I was not willing to extend an invitation to Reform clergy".

He explained: "It is a well-known mode of conduct and policy of Orthodox rabbis to seek not to grant rabbinic legitimacy to those who are styled as 'rabbi' but who are leaders of non-Orthodox congregations."

Rabbi Guttentag pointed out that the Manchester Representative Council's Yom Hashoah event was "notable for the non-invitation of Reform clergy… inclusion of Reform rabbis would automatically preclude the Orthodox group from participating".

But he revealed that two years ago, at a pro-Israel rally at the time of the Gaza war, even though he had been dismayed to learn a Reform rabbi had also been invited to speak, he had chosen to participate "in the interests of the greater cause of defending Israel."

Last updated: 10:18am, October 27 2011