Think Again: Mayor Abutbul – say no to extremism

Mutuality is not just a basic moral intuition; it is a fundamental principle of the Torah.

Children on first day of school 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Children on first day of school 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In September 1998, a two-room school opened up in Tzoran – a residential community of 1,500 young families, nestled among the agricultural settlements east of Netanya – for 25 six- and seven-year-olds. When they arrived in school that first day, the children were confronted by a chanting mob of 60 adults, some of whom had tied attack dogs to the school gates. Despite the heat, the principal had no choice but to close the windows, as curses and stones rained down on the school.
The same scene was repeated every morning for the first few months of the school’s existence, and the premises were defaced and repeatedly vandalized over the course of the year. The demonstrators’ purpose was to terrorize little children by forcing them to run a daily gauntlet of verbal abuse and physical menace.
The confrontation in Tzoran was not widely reported in the Israeli press, certainly not compared to the efforts by a group of religious extremists to prevent the opening of a national religious girls’ school in Beit Shemesh last week on a plot long designated for the school and lying adjacent to both haredi and national religious neighborhoods.
But Tzoran has a lot to do with why I am so strongly opposed to the vandalism, taunts and threats used to prevent the Beit Shemesh girls’ school from opening. The small school in Tzoran, you see, was haredi-run, and I wrote in these pages at the time strongly condemning the demonstrators there.
Mutual respect for the rights of others is the necessary basis for any democratic society. Mutuality is not just a basic moral intuition; it is a fundamental principle of the Torah. Hillel taught: That which is hateful to you do not do to others. One cannot with consistency condemn the demonstrators in Tzoran and turn a blind eye to the extremists in Beit Shemesh.
BUT I have an even more fundamental objection to these extremists: They distort the Torah and make it something ugly. They would exercise a territorial imperative – that we establish the rules wherever we live and adjacent thereto – that is more in tune with Islam. Islam is a religion of conquest, which divides the world into territory it has conquered, or dar al- Islam – in which Shari’a, Islamic law, must be imposed – and territory not yet conquered.
Judaism, by contrast, was never a religion of conquest outside of Eretz Yisrael, and Jews have never viewed territorial conquest as the primary sign of Divine favor. More fundamentally, Jewish law recognizes the legitimacy of parallel legal systems, as expressed in the famous Talmud statement “dina d’malchuta dina” – the civil law of the country is the law.
Last week, I found myself praying Minha in Kiryat Sanz in Netanya, prior to spending a few hours at the separate beach across the road. Kiryat Sanz is a largely self-contained neighborhood of Klausenberger Hassidim, though the late Klausenberger Rebbe insisted from the beginning that there be a Sephardi community within it. Laniado Hospital, which the rebbe built, lies at the edge of the neighborhood.
While in Kiryat Sanz, I noticed one or two women in decidedly non-hassidic dress walking through the neighborhood. No one paid them any attention.
Just to make sure that my powers of observation were not waning, I called a doctor friend who lives there, and he told me a story of rabbi who once spent his summer vacation in the neighborhood.
After a week, he complained to the Klausenberger Rebbe, of blessed memory, that he was shocked by the presence of immodestly dressed women there.
The rebbe replied, “That’s amazing. I’ve been here over 10 years, and I never saw anything like that.”
My friend then told me another story that captures the ahavat Yisrael – the love for one’s fellow Jew – that the Rebbe made the animating value of his community, along with devotion to Torah study.
Once, the rebbe heard that some hassidim had shouted, “Shabbes!” at seaside bathers. He ordered them to cease and desist forever.
“Nobody ever came closer to Torah because someone shouted at them,” he said. “Open your windows and sing Shabbos zemiros [songs] at the top of your lungs. That might have a positive effect.”
How do I know that the relations between Kiryat Sanz and secular residents of Netanya are normative Torah behavior, and threats by a handful of newly arrived, self-proclaimed “zealots” in Beit Shemesh to their national religious neighbors that they’d better remove their TVs or else, are not? Because the Klausenberger Rebbe was a universally recognized giant of Torah scholarship, while the “zealots” listen to no rabbinic authority. Rabbi Aharon Feldman, today the head of Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, once told me how, 30 years ago, he and a group of some of Jerusalem’s most distinguished younger talmidei hachamim tried to convince a group of kids throwing stones on the Ramot Road on Shabbat to stop. The kids just laughed at them.
And my conclusion is confirmed by the dozens of places around the country where haredim live harmoniously with secular neighbors – in mixed cities like Petah Tikva, in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood with its large group of Stoliner Hassidim, or Arad with its large population of Gerrer Hassidim.
Unfortunately harmony never garners media attention, perhaps because it does not further anti-haredi propaganda.
JEWS, UNLIKE Muslims, have a millennia-long history of living as a despised minority. Minority status has imbued us with some prudential values. Satmar Hassidim in Williamsburg, for instance, do not post dress code advisories in the elevators of buildings they share with Puerto Ricans.
Despite its rapid growth – or perhaps because of it – the haredi population in Israel today is highly vulnerable.
Secular Israelis fear haredi domination, just as many of those of native European stock fear the loss of their cultural patrimony to rapidly growing Muslim populations. And fear triggers backlashes.
That has certainly happened in Europe in response to the growing number of Muslim neighborhoods that are “no-go” zones for the police, the assaults and worse on European women who do not conform to Muslim dress codes, and the retention of Islamic customs, like honor killings, even when they contravene the criminal law. The leaders of Germany, France and Britain have all declared multiculturalism a failure. Anti-immigration parties are ascendant, and a number of countries have enacted restrictions on Muslim dress. Some observers warn that the blood of native European and Muslim immigrant combatants will flow in Europe’s streets.
Haredim in Israel cannot afford such a backlash.
And nothing will do more to trigger one than assertions of territorial sovereignty by those who profess to believe that we are still living in galut (exile).
Contrary to what the protesters on Rothschild Boulevard may think, for instance, the haredi community suffers from a critical housing shortage.
Haredim will have to move, many to mostly secular cities (which I view as largely positive development for a number of reasons). But many mayors have actively fought to prevent haredim from moving to their cities, in part motivated by fears that once haredim become a critical mass, they will demand that streets be closed on Shabbat and the like.
EVEN THE danger they represent to the larger haredi public is not, however, the greatest threat posed by the small group of “zealots.” I spoke last week to one of the veteran leaders of the Eda Haredit and a resident of Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood for more than 70 years, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim. Ironically this outspoken opponent of violence was one of the prime movers behind the move of thousands of former Mea She’arim residents to Beit Shemesh, among them the group of “zealots” in question. “I envisioned them teaching Torah to their neighbors,” Rabbi Pappenheim told me.
In the course of the conversation, he shared the view of his teacher Rabbi Tzvi Yosef Dushinsky, the late chief rabbi of the Eda, that the coming of the Messiah only requires some spiritual arousal from below, not that every Jew first become Torah observant.
The latter is God’s business, not ours, and will only happen after the Messiah’s arrival, Rabbi Dushinsky taught.
Anyone who makes the Torah ugly in the eyes of the broader public, in that view, is doing nothing less than stymieing the redemptive process itself.
I DON’T expect the “zealots” to be convinced by anything I write. They don’t listen to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv; why would they listen to me? But I do expect the haredi mayor of Beit Shemesh to take a strong stand that violence will not be allowed to establish facts on the grounds and that all the city’s residents will be treated fairly and equally. Doing so will constitute a powerful statement that the haredi public understands the requirement of mutual respect and tolerance in a diverse society, and allow us to maintain the moral upper hand when we demand fair treatment in places like Tzoran.