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Rabbis Condemn School's Plan to Honor Shamir : Judaism: They call him a former terrorist incapable of concessions for peace. A backer of the award dismisses the critics as an 'undistinguished' group.

November 14, 1991|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Graduates of a rabbinical seminary that is scheduled to award an honorary doctorate this weekend to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Los Angeles have denounced him as a former terrorist incapable of making even the smallest concessions for peace.

In a letter to the president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 32 rabbis from Judaism's Reform movement said they are aghast at the decision by their alma mater, which "dishonors itself, American Reform Jewry, and all who take seriously the command to pursue justice, establish peace and love the stranger as ourselves."

But Reform Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, whose Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air will be the site of Sunday's ceremony, dismissed the signers as a mostly "undistinguished" group representing "the extreme left." He said the ceremony is taking place at his temple because the local campus of Cincinnati-based Hebrew Union College lacks an auditorium large enough.

Zeldin defended Shamir as a man who has stood up for liberal Judaism against the strictly observant Orthodox establishment in Israel, where Reform Judaism is virtually unknown.

He also said that Shamir, despite his tough public posture, is willing to negotiate with the Arabs on all points except an independent Palestinian state and the division of Jerusalem.

"He is intimately acquainted with the positions and institutions of Reform Jewry, and if he were a religious Jew, he would no doubt position himself with what Reform Judaism stands for," Zeldin said.

Signers of the letter, however, recalled Shamir's background as the "former leader of the terrorist Stern Gang," which fought against British rule and was blamed for the assassination of a United Nations mediator in the late 1940s. The signers criticized him for opposing the Camp David accords that led to peace with Egypt.

They also blasted him for fostering Jewish settlements on territory claimed by neighboring Arab countries, and accused him of making "cynical deals with religious zealots and extremist politicians" while ignoring the needs of Russian immigrants.

The signers include several prominent rabbis who declined to put their names to the open version of the letter, which is scheduled to be published this weekend in the Jewish Journal, a weekly newspaper.

They preferred to make their point privately to Hebrew Union College President Alfred Gottschalk, said one signer, the director of a community service organization. Gottschalk, who is scheduled to fly to Los Angeles on Friday to present Shamir with the honorary degree, was not available for comment.

The 18 whose names were made public include Rabbis Sanford Ragins and Leo I. Beerman of the Leo Baeck Temple in Bel-Air, along with the leaders of smaller congregations from Orange County to Bakersfield.

Acknowledging that Shamir appeared with Arab leaders in Madrid last month, Ragins said that the decision to give him an honorary degree was made well before the convening of the Middle East peace conference.

"If they had waited six months and something came out of the peace process, I and my colleagues would have been leading the cheering section, but that hasn't happened and this is premature at best," he said.

The Reform movement, one of three major Jewish denominations, claims the allegiance of 42% of 3.25 million religiously affiliated American Jews, according to a recent survey by the Council of Jewish Federations.

Shamir is scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles on Friday. His itinerary includes meetings with political supporters and an address at an open meeting at Sinai Temple in Westwood on Sunday night.

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