message to all American Jews, or at least the 80-90 percent of you who are affiliated with the Reform and Conservative congregations: You're not Jewish. So says the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, which encompasses 600 synagogues in North America. To call yourselves Jewish is a "brazen usurpation" of Judaism, its history, heritage, tradition and future, the organization says.
This is not just an opinion. When the Orthodox rabbis formally issue the declaration at a news conference next Monday, it will, they claim, have the force of Jewish law. The Orthodox rabbis see themselves as the sole repositories of law, justice, morality and rules of day-to-day living for Jews.
And not just in America. In fact, what they really have their eyes on is Israel, where the besieged government of Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to push through a law that would codify the exclusivist, intolerant view of the ultra-Orthodox, according to which you can only be a Jew if your mother is Jewish or you have been converted under strict Orthodox rules. All non-Orthodox rabbis henceforth would be banned from performing marriages, burials and conversions.
That legislation was part of the price Netanyahu and his Likud cohorts agreed to pay in return for getting the ultra-Orthodox to support the formation of the Likud-led coalition government. Without them, Netanyahu would not have been able to drive a coach and horses through the Middle East peace process and return the region to the brink of all-out war.
While most of the rest of the world -- and a great many Israelis -- are appalled, America's ultra-Orthodox rabbis think this is all a wonderful idea and have weighed in loudly in favor of the legislation. They have never had much patience with peace or the Palestinians, or with any Jew who wants to drive an automobile on the Sabbath. They do not share the founding vision of the Jewish state: that it is a home for Jews of all stripes.
But then, neither do their kindred spirits in Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox, in the United States and Israel, have far more in common with their turbaned colleagues in Tehran, Kabul and the Gaza Strip than with the vast majority of people for whom they purport to devise laws. They are doctrinaire zealots with an appetite for inquisition every bit as strong as the fundamentalist mullahs and the Christian Coalition. They loathe democracy and dream of theocracy. They are also the ultimate hypocrites: They have not lifted a finger to defend the Jewish state -- their ultra-Orthodox "beliefs" excuse them from army service in Israel. The most extreme among them do not even believe in the validity of Israel's existence.
And these are the people who are going to tell a paratrooper from Tel Aviv or a Holocaust researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation or the beloved son or daughter of a "mixed" marriage whether he or she is Jewish or not? No anti-Semite, Aryan Brother or Ayatollah could have dreamed up a better means of eliminating the race.
Six hundred or so rabbis out of an estimated American Jewish population of 5.8 million may not seem like a lot. They do not speak for many American Jews who consider themselves Orthodox. But then their opposite numbers in Israel were little more than an isolated group of nuts a few years ago. Now they are close to running the affairs of state.
And Jews, perhaps more than any other people, should know the perils of underestimating extremism, of whatever stripe, in their midst.