Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

21 Shevat 5761 - Febuary 14, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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Agudas Yisroel Vice President Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel: The Struggle for Equality is a Real Problem
by Yisroel Friedman

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel is a lawyer whose his legal achievements have earned him a reputation as a top-notch attorney. And yet, he left this profession, and the handsome salary that goes with it, and devotes himself wholly to Klal Yisroel as head of the Agudas Yisroel Department for Governmental Affairs. One of his many responsibilities is taking care of legal and judicial issues on behalf of American Jewry. In just a few words he is able to analyze a particular situation with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel. Almost all subjects, no matter how sensitive, are fair game for him to discuss and deliver straightforward and fearless responses. This interview was originally conducted at the end of November, and the topical references were left out. The remarks here are relevant to all times.

Rabbi Zweibel, one of Agudas Yisroel's axioms is unity. Has the movement indeed succeeded in instilling this value or is it simply a product of the nature of American Jewry which prefers to live in peace with their fellow Jews rather than to be bothered with ideological arguments?

Rabbi Moshe Sherer and Agudas Yisroel made it their goal in the past, present and future to infuse the Jewish public with peace and unity. The aim is to create people with values; people with a Torahdik outlook; people who care, and who want to get involved; who will be able to put their petty differences aside and sit together in love and brotherhood in order to sanctify Hashem's name.

In the speeches of the HaRav Avrohom Pam and the Novominsker Rebbe at last year's Convention, the American government was referred to as a "malchus shel chesed" -- a benevolent regime. This is indeed so. But, isn't the American golus a little too comfy? Wouldn't you say that American Jews have lost the feeling that they are in golus in this land of "unlimited opportunities?"

This is unmistakably a difficult problem. I, too, face this dilemma in my work, which involves achieving equality for Orthodox Jews. I'll give you an example. The case of five Orthodox students from Yale University was brought to court. According to university regulations, all students must reside in the dorms during their freshman year. Can a person who is shomer mitzvos live in the student dorms? Of course not!

But the university deans argued that it would be impossible to make exceptions on the basis of religion, since in the U.S. there is "separation of church and state." Nathan Lewin, a well-known constitutional attorney in Washington (grandson of the Rov of Risha H"yd and son of Dr. Yitzchok Lewin zt"l, former permanent representative of World Agudas Yisroel in the UN and editor of Eileh Ezkro) proved that this situation, which effectively prevented any Orthodox Jew from attending Yale University, was an outright violation of equal rights and equal opportunity. In this specific instance, Agudas Yisroel refrained from intervening for reasons that cannot be listed here.

However, the actual struggle for equality, in all areas, has definitely added to the problem that you mentioned. Equality means losing the feeling of golus. Our battle to make America open to all, and to provide the opportunity for all Jews to reach any position or rank, undoubtedly creates and augments this problem.

So, how do you deal ideologically with this quandary?

I'll give you another example where we did get involved. In the past we fought for kosher food to be available in the U.S. Army, and for the right of soldiers to wear a yarmulke. Years ago, the case of Simcha Goldman, who served in the U.S. Air Force, was brought to court. In the Air Force, no soldier may wear a yarmulke. We appealed to Congress in order to have the law amended.

I think to myself that it would be better if Jews would not be exposed to so many opportunities, because a Jew, really, does not have to be able to go all places. But on the other hand, the reality of the situation is that there is a Jew in that place and there are Jews who reach positions that it would be better for them had they not gone there. And since there are Jews in these places, it is our duty to take care of them. We constantly face this dilemma and our feelings go from one extreme to the other.

Here is another example: There is a Jewish lawyer by the name of Chanoch Lobling who participated in the session dealing with honesty and trustworthiness in the past convention. He is active on behalf of Jewish prisoners. Unfortunately, as was brought out in the convention, although they make up only a tiny fraction of the general population of prisoners, the number is on the rise. We fight to provide these Jewish inmates with what they need in order to be able to live as Jews under the circumstances. However, perhaps if the conditions were harsher Jews would think twice before taking a risk that would have any likelihood of landing them in jail.

The Kli Yokor says on the posuk, "penu use'u lochem tzofona"--turn and go northward--Hatzpinu es atzmechem--Hide yourselves. The idea, as is explained further at great length is that Jews should not flaunt their wealth or status. Can we honestly say that this is reflected in the American reality today?

This is a difficult problem. I recently read some literature on the campaigns for the presidential elections. The majority of private donors to the Democratic Party were indeed Jews.

How can Jews in golus dare to take a public stance in the presidential elections? If they don't "win the bet," couldn't this endanger their position?

The American public is well aware of the fact that Orthodox Jewry, as a group, does not identify with any one party over the other, nor does it favor one president over the other. Chareidi Jewry has always made an effort to keep up a good relationship with all sides. This was the neutral policy that Rabbi Moshe Sherer advocated, unlike other factions of the Jewish population which have a clear and historical Democratic slant.

Rabbi Sherer's greatness could be seen in the fact that both sides could always view Orthodox Jewry as a potential partner because we never took a stance. It is for this reason that whenever a president was elected who did not conform to the plans, viewpoints or expectations of the other Jewish groups, Agudas Yisroel always remained with an open door in order to represent the interests of the Jewish nation. A Jew should not take a stance.

What is your opinion about Joe Lieberman, the Democratic candidate for vice president? Do you think that his election would bode well for the Jews?

This subject was discussed openly and extensively during the last Convention. Both sides were presented. On the one hand, Lieberman is good for the Jews. This is a man who understands Jewish interests and who even worked toward that goal in the past. Others however, are afraid of the "Kissinger Effect." Precisely because he was a Jew, Henry Kissinger felt obligated to work against Jewish interests so as not to appear biased.

There is yet another aspect that was expressed in that session. Such an accomplishment by a Jew is liable to cloud our vision. Jews would be inclined to turn Joe Lieberman into a model and a hero. Our true heroes are the gedolei Torah. They should remain our exclusive role models and Torah should be our exclusive ambition.

For the moment, at least, these issues are not relevant.

Don't you think that the very fact that "one of our own" ran for vice president (and may some day reach the White House) increases the lack of golus consciousness?

Definitely. From that point of view we have a serious problem on our hands. Agudas Yisroel tries to convey the message to the public that we as Jews are still in golus even if in under benevolent rule. This is the situation at the moment, however nothing is static. Economic changes could easily bring on antisemitism as Jews are always blamed for a country's financial woes. It is for this reason, some maintain, that we must always present ourselves are guests, temporary residents, and not as an integral part of the populace. This is the message that Agudas Yisroel consistently conveys.

Do you think that the involvement of American Jewry in the Middle East conflict, their stance on the matter and the actions taken, is liable to turn the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians into an international one between all Jews and Muslims? And couldn't this, in turn, aggravate the problem in Eretz Yisroel as well as endangering the Jews of the U.S.?

You are right. But how can a Jew look on without taking any action? When the Jews living in Eretz Hakodesh are suffering we strongly identify with them and want to show our support. This though, must be expressed through Torah and prayer, the most effective means to this end. As to the question itself, I am not qualified to give an answer. This must be presented to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.


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