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In a sign of growing tension between some Orthodox Jewish groups and non-Orthodox Jews, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary called Wednesday for ``dismantling'' Israel's chief rabbinate and ending donations to groups that oppose the recognition of non-Orthodox movements in Israel.
In a letter mass-mailed to Conservative rabbis and major Jewish organizations, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch also warned that a recent declaration by a small group of Orthodox rabbis could, even unintentionally, create a climate conducive to violence by one Jew against another.
Schorsch referred to a March 31 declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, which said the Reform and Conservative movements were ``not Judaism'' and urged Jews to avoid the movements' synagogues. The union's statement drew widespread opposition, including criticism from the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation's largest Orthodox rabbinic group.
Schorsch's letter, sent to 1,500 members of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly and to organizations like the United Jewish Appeal-Federation, comes at a time of friction between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements, as well as between the non-Orthodox and the Israeli government, over the issue of Orthodox rabbinical control of religious life in Israel.
The founders of Israel gave Orthodox rabbis authority over religious affairs, including marriages, divorces and conversions, supervised these days by a chief rabbinate that includes a large religious bureaucracy. But in 1995 the Israeli Supreme Court opened the door to a greater role for non-Orthodox rabbis by ruling that Orthodox conversions were not required for an Israeli to be registered as a Jew.
While the Reform and Conservative movements comprise the vast majority of religiously-affiliated American Jews, they are a minor presence in Israel, whose population is divided, about 4 to 1, between secular and Orthodox Jews.
On April 1, the Israeli Parliament voted to reverse the Supreme Court's ruling, by granting preliminary approval to a bill that would give Orthodox rabbis sole authority to conduct conversions in Israel. The vote outraged Reform and Conservative leaders, who said that in rejecting a pluralistic view of Judaism, the Parliament threatened Jewish unity.
Reactions by Jewish leaders to Schorsch's letter were divided.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a large Orthodox organization with ties to the United Torah Judaism Party in Israel, said Schorsch was engaging in ``shameless political posturing'' by suggesting that the Union of Orthodox Rabbis's declaration could contribute to an atmosphere where violence was possible. He noted that the union stated that it regarded Reform and Conservative Jews as no less Jewish than those in Orthodox synagogues, even though it viewed those movements' teachings as outside historic Judaism.
He also objected to Schorsch's proposal to dismantle the chief rabbinate and its courts, which govern matters of conversion, marriage and divorce, saying that to do so would risk allowing different definitions of Judaism to take root in Israel.
``They say they want what they call religious pluralism,'' Shafran said, adding, ``In less kind terms, anarchy.''
Speaking for the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, Rabbi David Hollander called the letter ``a terrible, shocking, groundless indictment.'' He also criticized Schorsch's reference to the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in conjunction with a suggestion that the Orthodox group's declaration could lead to violence by Jews against one another.
Hollander said that Rabin's killing had been condemned by ``the whole rabbinate.''
Nevertheless, Hollander, a member of the union's executive board, said, as he did last month, that Reform and Conservative rabbis were teaching heretical ideas. As an example, he cited rabbis allowing members of their synagogues to drive on the Sabbath. ``That happens to be a biblical violation,'' he said.
But Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement's synagogue organization, endorsed Schorsch's letter, saying he agreed ``with all the major points.''
Rabbi Yoffie said he supported the idea of dismantling the chief rabbinate. ``It has no place in modern Israel,'' he said, adding that he believed the Orthodox would do better in a ``free market'' environment, in which all branches of Judaism competed for Israelis' allegiance.
An official of the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, could not be reached for comment.
Gadi Baltiansky, first counselor at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, offered a broad statement in response to the letter, saying that leaders of the Israeli Parliament ``are involved in these very days in serious dialogue with leaders of Jewish communities around the world in order to find the right formula that will re-emphasize the fact that Israel is a state for all Jews.''
In his letter, Schorsch began with a reference to Rabin's grave. He said that last month's statement by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis ``seems to be an ominous replay'' of events prior to the assassination.
Before the assassination, some Israeli rabbis ``had stretched medieval Jewish law beyond all reasonable limits to classify Rabin as a `pursuer' whose life could be taken in self-defense,'' Schorsch wrote. ``The same body of medieval law explicitly sanctions the killing of Jewish heretics, as the Union of Orthodox Rabbis surely knows.''
He added that to make an accusation of heresy ``in the current highly charged atmosphere is to incite unwittingly some unbalanced young fundamentalist either in Israel or America to carry out the letter of the law.''
MINA, Saudi Arabia
Fires driven by high winds tore through a sprawling, overcrowded tent city yesterday, trapping and killing pilgrims gathered for a sacred Islamic ritual. The official death toll was 217, but witnesses said at least 300 people died.
Saudi Arabian officials said more than 1,290 pilgrims were injured in the fire, which witnesses said was caused by exploding canisters of cooking gas.
Most of the dead were Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, many of them elderly, witnesses said. Some were trampled to death as pilgrims fled the fire on the plain outside the holy city of Mecca. ``Men panicked and ran in every direction,'' one Indian pilgrim said.
Helicopters dropped water from above while civil-defence workers used firetruck hoses on the flames.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were stranded after the fire destroyed an estimated 70,000 tents, which the pilgrims use for shelter in the final days of the hajj, or pilgrimage. Officials from Mecca and nearby Jiddah and Taif rushed to the scene, handing out tents and supplies.
Prince Majid bin Abdul Aziz, the royal family's representative in Mecca, ordered that new tents be provided to all pilgrims affected by the fire, Saudi television reported.
King Fahd, the Saudi monarch, expressed his sorrow for the victims and their relatives and friends. ``I ask that God gives them patience to cope,'' he was quoted by the Saudi Press Agency as saying.
In New York, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed ``great sadness'' over the death of the pilgrims.
The fire erupted shortly before noon as Muslims gathered for the hajj were beginning to move to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon in the seventh century.
Less than an hour before the fire began yesterday, security forces had thrown up a cordon around the entire plain, closing it to new arrivals to prevent further overcrowding, witnesses said.
Fanned by winds of nearly 65 kilometres an hour, the fire swept across the plain and quickly spread through the crowded camp.
``There was chaos everywhere,'' a newspaper reporter said. ``Panic spread through the camps as fast as the fire.''
The injured were carried away on stretchers and in people's arms, while others wearing white robes for the pilgrimage fled along smoke-filled alleys between the tents.
Witnesses said they saw hundreds of bodies. Saudi newspaper reporters who visited the site said at least 300 people had died, most of them trampled in the pandemonium.
Three hundred fire engines helped battle the blaze, which was brought under control in about three hours.
Hours later, a cloud of smoke visible kilometres away still hung over the encampment.
By the afternoon, as temperatures soared to 40 degrees, the desert plain was a scene of devastation. Pilgrims wandered amid the smouldering remains of tents. Many appeared lost as they searched for relatives or friends, witnesses said.
Clean-up operations were launched quickly, with workers sweeping away the charred remains of hundreds of air conditioners, mattresses and burned pages of the Koran. Some of the tents were reinforced with wood and equipped with such amenities as air conditioners and stoves.
Pakistan's government set up a 24-hour emergency telephone number to field calls from pilgrims' relatives. India planned to send a senior official from New Delhi to make sure Indians received assistance, United News of India said.
Every Muslim who can afford it must perform the pilgrimage once in a lifetime. Every year, the hajj brings together one of the largest groups of people in a single place anywhere in the world. Two million Muslims will stand together on Mount Arafat in prayer today in the climax of the pilgrimage to Muslim holy sites.
Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars upgrading hajj facilities to ensure the comfort and safety of the pilgrims. The government takes deep pride in its ability to maintain order during the gathering and has created a special cabinet portfolio for running hajj affairs.
But the ritual has often been overshadowed by tragedies and disturbances stemming from political rivalries.
The hajj has been the scene of several recent tragedies, including the deaths of 1,426 people in a 1990 stampede.
Two years ago, a fire started by a gas stove in Mina destroyed scores of tents, but no casualties were reported.
In 1994, 270 pilgrims, most of them Indonesian, were killed in a stampede as worshippers surged toward a cavern for the symbolic ritual of ``stoning the devil.''
In 1987, 402 people, mostly Iranian pilgrims, were killed and 649 wounded in Mecca when Saudi security forces clashed with Iranians staging anti-U.S. demonstrations.
Iranians insist on holding the demonstrations every year, defying a Saudi ban. Iran said it had staged the protest Sunday in Mecca. There were no reports of violence.
Dec. 4, 1979: Fighting erupts after Sunni Muslim extremists take over Grand Mosque in Mecca. Seventy-five of the extremists and scores of Saudi troops are killed.
Aug. 3, 1980: Pakistani airplane carrying hundreds of pilgrims catches fire soon after takeoff from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, for Riyadh. The aircraft breaks apart during an emergency landing, killing 301 people. The fire apparently began after a passenger lit a kerosene stove to brew tea.
July 31, 1987: 402 people, mostly Iranian pilgrims, are killed and 649 wounded in Mecca when security forces clash with Iranians staging an anti- U.S. demonstration.
July 9, 1989: Two bombs explode in Mecca, killing one pilgrim and wounding 16. Saudis blame Iranian-inspired terrorists.
July 2, 1990: 1,426 pilgrims, many of them Malaysians, Indonesians and Pakistanis, are killed in a stampede in pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.
March 21, 1991: 92 Senegalese Muslim troops, part of U.S.-led coalition in Persian Gulf war, and a six-man Saudi crew are killed when Saudi aircraft crashes in northwestern Saudi Arabia. The soldiers were returning to base after an off-season pilgrimage to Mecca.
May 23, 1994: A stampede in Mecca kills 270 pilgrims, most of them Indonesians, as worshippers surge toward a cavern for symbolic ritual of ``stoning the devil.'' - AP
SAUDIS TRY TO IDENTIFY 217 HAJJ BODIES: From PATRICK COCKBURN (Wednesday) trying to identify the bodies of 217 Muslim pilgrims burned to death in the fire which engulfed their tent city as they attended the Hajj pilgrimage. A further 1,290 people are known to have suffered injuries as the flames, fanned by the wind, spread rapidly through the 70,000 tents pitched on the plain of Mina outside the holy city of Mecca. Diplomats said the number of casualties, mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, might rise. ``All our efforts to get an idea of the number of the dead are in vain,'' said one foreign envoy. ``Hospital staff are not authorised to speak and the Saudi authorities are not sharing new information with the embassies or the press.''
Mohammed Hamad Ansari, the Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said that the number of Indian victims might eventually total 100. He said: ``It's hard to say because the bodies were charred in the fire and we cannot identify them except from a missing persons list.'' Some 12 Pakistanis have been identified out of 30 who are thought to have died.
In the remains of the Mina encampment trucks were beginning yesterday to cart away burned out wreckage of everything from charred water bottles to refrigerators, air conditioners - the temperature is 104 F - and buses which which were caught by the fire as strong winds spread the flames. The cause of the blaze is being attributed to an exploding gas cylinder, often used for cooking food and making coffee and tea by many of the two million Hajj pilgrims.
The Hajj, taking part in which is one of the five pillars of Islam, reached its high point yesterday as pilgrims, clothed in white, walked to Mount Arafat where the Prophet Mohammed is reputed to have preached his last sermon. Pilgrims, many carrying multi-coloured umbrellas, chanted: ``I have answered your call, God, there is no God but you.'' Behind them new tents are being erected to replaced those detroyed in the blaze. The Eid al-Adha feast at the end of the Hajj is celebrated by Muslims today.
The level of casualties is still below that of 1990 when a stampede in a tunnel between Mina and Mecca led to 1,400 people being crushed to death. In 1987 400 people, mostly Iranians, were killed in clashes with Saudi security. In 1994 another 270 people were crushed to death in a stampede. Saudi Arabia says that it has spent $18.6bn in the last ten years on improving facilities for those attending the Hajj.
The Saudi authorities say that their problems stem from the failure of Muslim countries to keep to a quota system agreed in 1988 by the Organisation of the Islamic Countries. Under this a country is allowed one pilgrim performing the Hajj for every 1,000 Muslims in its population. Thus Iran is limited to 60,000 pilgrims. However, in the past, almost half the two million pilgrims have been from Saudi Arabia itself. Some pilgrims were reported to have given up the Hajj because of the disaster, but said they would return next year.
^(Distributed by New York Times Special Features)@
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