Rabbi Daniel Korobkin leads one of Canada’s largest Orthodox synagogues: Beth Avraham Yoseph, known as The BAYT, in Thornhill, Ont.
In recent weeks, he has been regularly leading prayers for the victims of the escalating violence and terror attacks between Palestinians and Israelis. They come against the backdrop of growing worldwide condemnation—even by some Canadian Jewish leaders and groups—of the current plans by Israel’s new right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu to reform the Supreme Court, possibly roll back civil rights for LGBTQ citizens, the Arab population in the West Bank and non-Orthodox Jewish residents.
Rabbi Korobkin has decided to speak out publicly against Israel’s vocal critics here at home. He says the country will sort itself out in due course and do the right thing, as healthy democracies do. But all the protests and negativity from the Diaspora just helps those who wish to delegitimize the State of Israel.
He joins The CJN Daily ahead of Tuesday’s special meeting called by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto to seek the advice of prominent rabbis and Jewish schools on forming a community strategy in response to events in Israel.
What we talked about
- Read about the NIF and JSpace poll in The CJN
- Watch Rabbi Daniel Korobkin’s sermon on the BAYT YouTube channel
- What Montreal-born Likud MK Dan Illouz thinks about his government’s agenda: ’Not an attack on democracy’ on The CJN Daily
American woman protester: We’re here protesting and saying, first of all, ‘Shame on Israel Bonds, shame on Smotrich, shame on those who are attending this conference, who are giving sanctions to these right-wing extremist ideas within Jewish tradition.
Ellin Bessner: That’s what it sounded like in Washington. D.C. on Sunday, as some Jewish groups protested outside the hotel where Israel’s Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich, was speaking at an event for Israel Bonds. Smotrich is the extremist member of Israel’s right-wing ruling coalition, and he’s been in the news lately for declaring that Israel should wipe out the Palestinian town of Huwara. Two weeks ago, Palestinian gunmen killed two Yeshiva students –brothers– in Huwara, in their car as it sat in traffic north of Jerusalem. What happened next is being called a pogrom, as groups of Jewish settlers attacked and burned cars and homes in Huwara, and one Palestinian man was killed afterwards.
Smotrich’s remarks sparked an outcry although he’s since walked back his words. But it’s certainly not the first time that he’s ignited outrage with his policies. He’s proudly anti-gay: he once called gay people “beasts”, and he’s told Arabs it’s a shame Ben-Gurion didn’t throw them all out of Israel.
Now, the political situation in Israel has also prompted condemnation in recent weeks here at home, from prominent Canadian Jewish leaders ranging from philanthropist Charles Bronfman, to some Supreme Court justices and lawyers, to Canada’s Special Envoy on Holocaust Remembrance and antisemitism Irwin Kotler. They’re all worried about the new Netanyahu government’s plans to significantly roll back the Supreme Court’s powers to let them overrule laws that would violate Israel’s founding principles. And last week, a new poll released by J Space Canada and the New Israel Fund of Canada found a majority of Canadian Jews, 59%, think the new government is moving in the wrong direction. So, the concerns have now come to a head and prompted Toronto’s UJA Federation to convene a private roundtable meeting later today. And they’ve invited some prominent local rabbis and the heads of Jewish schools to “help UJA think through a community strategy in response to events in Israel.”
While right now the opposition seems louder, there are those who feel all this public criticism is bad for Israel.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin: There is a constant unrelenting effort by so many people worldwide to do whatever they can to erode world confidence in Israel. And unfortunately, even some Jews, even within the State of Israel, are contributing to that erosion. And we have to work hard to do whatever we can to bolster world confidence in Israel.
Ellin Bessner: I’m Ellin Bessner, and this is what Jewish Canada sounds like for Tuesday, March the 14th, 2023. Welcome to the CJN Daily, a podcast of the Canadian Jewish news sponsored by Metropia.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is the spiritual leader of one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in Canada, the Beth Abraham Yosef Congregation in Thornhill, Ontario, or BAYT as it’s known, with over 800 families. Until now, he’s kept out of the polemics about Israel. But this past Saturday, he felt he had to speak out in his Sabbath sermon. It’s also on YouTube, and we’ve put the link to it in our show notes.
Korobkin will be here to explain why people should support Israel and not criticize her in public unless they move there. That’s coming up right after this message.
Ellin Bessner: Rabbi Korobkin joins us now from his office in Thornhill.
Korobkin: Thank you, Ellin. Nice to be here.
Ellin: Well, it’s good to talk to you. I was made aware that you spoke about the situation in Israel, the protests, on the weekend at your Shul, and I’d like to unpack a little bit about, first of all, what you’ve been hearing from your congregation as they watched the situation with the new government in the protests.
Korobkin: To be honest, it hasn’t been a major topic of conversation in my congregation. I know that some people are concerned, but I think that the vast majority of my congregation is as Zionistic as ever. We have a very long-term vision in our Zionism because as religious Zionists, we believe that the founding of the State of Israel in the 20th century put us on a trajectory that we’re continuing to be on. in an upward motion, towards some kind of really eschatological [eds. Note: apocalyptic] future that bodes well for the Jewish people and for the world. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re going in a linear path. It could be that we’re going to take one step back for every two steps that we take forward. But I think there’s general optimism within my congregation about the State of Israel, despite the challenges that we’re currently seeing.
Ellin: Why did you feel that it was important to weigh in on it this past Shabbat?
Korobkin: I felt it was important. I didn’t know whether I was going to speak about it this Shabbat or another Shabbat, but I felt that I should really address it before the holiday season. My reason is because I’ve noted that a number of very high-profile Canadian Jews, especially members of the Supreme Court, Irwin Cotler and other individuals have been vocal in their criticism of Israel. And I just wanted to express to my congregation that I thought that that was quite unfortunate. We sometimes get caught up in the wave of propaganda that is anti-Israel. We recognize that part of the antisemitism that is circulating in the world today is because the world sees the Jewish people as a very, very successful startup nation. And there’s a certain amount of perhaps envy or jealousy, and people are waiting for us to fail.
And so, there’s a tendency to amplify all of the warts and defects within the Israeli democracy, the Israeli country, the nation. And unfortunately, people jump on the bandwagon too quickly without taking the time to carefully analyze both sides and to really be a little bit more circumspect about the long-term goals and what is really anticipated to happen in the long run.
Ellin: So what dangers do you see? You said that there’s worldwide waiting for the Jewish State to fall, and then, of course, the secondary impact is increased antisemitism, right? Is that another impact you’re worried about as well?
Korobkin: I’m worried first and foremost, for the welfare of the State of Israel. When the State of Israel is strong, it means that we have a sanctuary, we have a place that is our own country.
Ellin: For many people, hearing statements such as when one of the members of the Knesset says ‘We should wipe out Huwara’ after the pogrom that happened, does not help things. Even though he apologized afterwards, like five days later
Korobkin: (Smotrich)completely walked it back. And Israeli politicians, unfortunately, sometimes put their mouth and gear before their minds are engaged, before fully recognizing the ramifications. Some non-Israeli politicians do the same thing, even Canadian politicians, of course. But does that mean that this man is a racist? No. It means that he was filled with rage over the unrelenting continuing acts of terror that are going on, on a weekly basis. One just this past Thursday night, where three innocent men going to a wedding in Tel Aviv were all shot, two in the head, and are in critical condition. And I am so saddened to have to get up every Shabbat during services when we make the Mi She Berach, when we make the prayer for the sick and to announce ‘There’s been another terror attack in Israel. Let’s please include in our prayers when we make the prayer for the sick all those who have been injured in Israel this past week.’ We didn’t have to do that a couple of years ago, or even last year, or perhaps even last month, but unfortunately, it’s now becoming routine. And if you were living under that kind of constant pressure, under that constant barrage of attack, who knows what you or I would say as a response to if we knew where the attackers were coming from? Of course, it was an impetuous thing to say. It had consequences, very negative consequences. And we have to make sure that we hold our politicians, all of our politicians, responsible for statements they make. But that said, that does not mean that Israel or its politicians currently in power are racist.
Ellin: Well, I think there are a lot of people would disagree with you about some of them who have been convicted of incitement of hate and other things. But I want to focus more on the rabbinical clergy side. I’m aware that other congregations, other flavors of Judaism perhaps, have more progressive views on things and have been speaking about their concerns about the ethics and the morals of the State of Israel. And even weighing in publicly, like you said, some big leaders. I wonder if there’s sort of a majority or consensus. Do you know from your colleagues what people are feeling?
Korobkin: I don’t know that there’s consensus. I am sure that this, just like any other issue facing the Jewish community, there is very rarely ever consensus. The only time we get consensus is when there’s a war in Israel and we all come out to support Israel. And even then, sometimes you don’t get full consensus from, sometimes, on the far left. So, I won’t presume to know what the voice of Canadian Jewry is, just like I wouldn’t know what the voice of American Jewry is. I don’t think there’s ever going to be consensus on this issue. I think the one thing that we can find consensus on is that we all want to support the State of Israel and make it a healthier, more productive state, one that achieves peace in our time and that is able to bring equal rights to all of its citizens and come to some kind of peaceful deal with its neighbors. The question is, what is that going to look like and what is the price that we’re going to have to pay in order for that to happen?
Ellin: I’m aware that there’s going to be a meeting in the next couple of days of rabbis from the city of Toronto with UJA Federation. What was the reason that this meeting is being held? Do you know?
Korobkin: I don’t know. I just know that I received an invitation to have a roundtable discussion with the clergy and the GTA to really just discuss this issue. I think that the leaders at the UJA agent, like you mentioned, Ellin, this is going on probably nationwide and worldwide, that community leaders, especially those who are in charge of federations, are facing pressure from their donor base, who are telling them that ‘I don’t want my dollars to go to Israel because I do not agree with current political policy.’ I think that’s unfortunate. As Dennis Prager, if I can quote him, once said, ‘I don’t support governments, I support the State of Israel.’ And there are going to be governments that I agree more with, and there are going to be governments that I disagree more with. But that should not affect the level of support that a person gives to Israel. There are humanitarian needs in Israel today. The support that the UJA shows for Israel has nothing to do with Israeli politics in a particular government, and we should continue our support unconditionally for the State of Israel.
Ellin: And does it disturb you or were you aware at all of a recent poll that came out last week from two groups, J Space and New Israel Fund through EKOS research about people in Canada’s Jewish community are, mostly, the majority are against what the direction the new Israeli government is taking. Are you aware of that?
Korobkin: I was not aware, but the two organizations that you mentioned do not have a good track record of being a good mouthpiece for supporting the State of Israel. So that wouldn’t surprise me. And I have no idea what metrics they used and how they took that poll, but I would not rely on that poll. I would want to see a more centrist, perhaps neutral or unbiased organization taking a poll before I passed any judgment.
Ellin: Has anybody in the community said to you,’ I’m not going to Israel because of _____ or I canceled my trip because of _____? Or have you heard about these things at all?
Korobkin: No. In my congregation, people are traveling to Israel as frequently as ever. It’s important to understand I signed more Aliyah letters during COVID during the two and a half years of COVID than I signed in the prior ten years. People from my community have made Aliyah in droves because of COVID. It really accelerated that process. People’s children made Aliyah in droves. And that number, I believe, is going to continue. People will continue to make Aliyah from Thornhill and from other communities in the GTA and from other places in North America. And we view these terrorist attacks and the current challenges in the government as blips on the radar. These are things that you live with. These are aggravations that every Israeli has to deal with. But I think that we’re over inflating the nature of the chaos that’s taking place in Israel. I don’t think it’s nearly as chaotic as people think.
Ellin: With 900,000 people participating in rallies every weekend for ten weeks in a row, do you find that maybe IS some kind of, it’s not chaos, but it is something? I
Korobkin: I think what you’re seeing is democracy that is healthy at work. I would be very proud of that. What that indicates is that when it comes time around for the next election, the people who are the source of this protest will be eliminated from government. That’s how democracies work, and a healthy democracy allows for healthy protest.
Ellin: Okay. Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wanted to get across from your Devar Torah, that we should focus on, maybe a particular line in there?
Korobkin: I guess the one thing that I wanted to get across to my congregation is that we should continue our vocal support of Israel. If you want to be a critic, an outspoken critic of Israel, make Aliyah. That’s where you belong. If you’re living in Chutz La’Aretz (outside of Israel) and you’re not living with the daily pressures of terror, attacks and people landing in the hospital and in the morgue, then please refrain from your criticism. It’s not appropriate, it’s not helpful. And the last thing that I would say is that we have to have confidence that Israel is a healthy democracy. It will sort things out. And with enough support from worldwide Jewry, Israeli democracy will adjust itself to doing the right thing. And for those who are just wringing their hands and fearing the worst, try not to be filled with so much angst about your own people. Jews are very good at being anxious about ourselves, about our Mispacha (family). Try not to do that in public. We are an anxious people, but let’s have a little confidence. God chose us, for goodness sake. He didn’t choose us because we’re failures. He chose us because he has confidence in us. We should have the same confidence in ourselves that even when we make mistakes, we’ll eventually get it right.
Ellin: You talked in your speech about the Golden Calf.
Korobkin: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. That was Moses’ argument to God: give the Jewish people a break. I know when we mess up, we’re a stiff-necked people and we’re prone to making real mistakes and sometimes really big mistakes. But give us a chance. We can fix it. We can rectify ourselves and we can adjust and make corrections when we need to. And that’s what world Jewry should have confidence in, is that just like Moses prayed on behalf of the Jews after the Golden Calf, we should realize that even when we make a Golden Calf, we will get it right. We will atone, we will adjust, and we’ll move forward in a very positive way.
Ellin: For its part, CIJA, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, has until now been taking a measured and nuanced approach to the situation in Israel. They’ve been meeting in person in Israel several times recently with Israeli leaders and opposition politicians. Soon, though, CIJA will do more than just issue written statements and work behind the scenes. There are plans to hold a national town hall, although details aren’t available yet.
And that’s what Jewish Canada sounds like. for this episode of The CJN Daily, sponsored by Metropia: Integrity, Community, Quality and Customer Care.
And today’s listener shout out goes to: Randy Mendelson in Toronto.
And we’ll end the episode with how the Israeli situation with Bezalel Smotrich prompted condemnation last week even in the House of Commons in Ottawa. From the NDP’s London MP, Lindsay Mathyssen. And then from the Liberal party’s parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, Maninder Sidhu,
Speaker of the House: Member for London, Fanshawe:
Mathyssen: Ministers in Israel are celebrating horrifying attacks on Palestinian civilians, engaging in dehumanization, threatening democratic institutions and calling for violations of international law. And thousands of Israelis are on the ground right now protesting the actions and rhetoric of their government. Here, J Space Canada is asking the government to take a firm stance against these comments and actions. It’s not enough to merely condemn his remarks. The government must listen to this group. Will this government ensure that no Canadian officials legitimize extremists like Smotrich or Ben Gvir by meeting with them?
Speaker of the House: The Honorable Parliamentary Secretary,
Maninder Sidhu: Madame Speaker. We are appalled by the reprehensible comments made by Minister Smotrich. We unequivocally condemn these remarks. We stand firmly against all incitements to violence and condemn all acts of violence and terrorism. Those responsible must be held accountable and measures must be applied equally and consistently. We call on Israeli officials to denounce these comments. We call for an immediate de-escalation of tensions to restore calm. Our thoughts are with all those affected by the recent violence. Thank you, Madam Speaker.
The CJN Daily is written and hosted by Ellin Bessner (@ebessner on Twitter). Zachary Kauffman is the producer. Michael Fraiman is the executive producer. Our theme music is by Dov Beck-Levine. Our title sponsor is Metropia. We’re a member of The CJN Podcast Network. To subscribe to this podcast, please watch this video. Donate to The CJN and receive a charitable tax receipt by clicking here.