Viewpoint: Perverse intolerance

This isn’t about Israel’s image in the world; it’s about the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state.

Lady blows a shofar flash 90 521 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Lady blows a shofar flash 90 521
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
As a community relations director for a Jewish federation, one of my most important responsibilities is interpreting developments in Israel for the local media, elected officials, Christian leaders, and even members of the Jewish community. This responsibility often entails defending – or at least rationalizing – Israeli government policies or putting into proper context actions taken by the Israeli military.
Thus, I’ve explained to Presbyterian pastors why Israel erected a security barrier, which they had viewed only as a “separation wall” imposing hardships on thousands of Palestinians. I’ve provided a newspaper editor with some necessary context for Israel’s deportation of illegal African immigrants, a situation that presents the Jewish state with a complex moral dilemma. Lately, I’ve been explaining to some of my fellow Jews on the Left why Israel opposes unilateral Palestinian efforts to gain observer status at the United Nations, even as it supports a two-state solution.
But there’s something perverse going on in Israel that, frankly, as an American Jew, I cannot explain, let alone justify.
In mid-August, police arrested four Jewish women and interrogated them for several hours before bringing them before the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. Their offense? Wearing prayer shawls while praying at the Western Wall. But not just any prayer shawls. No, these women had the chutzpa to wear the traditional black-and-white tallitot worn by Orthodox men, which, from the perspective of the authorities, constitutes an illegal act and a direct affront to religious sensibilities. The court banned the women from the Western Wall plaza for 50 days! This was hardly the first time such an arrest had been made. Two months earlier, another woman was detained by police for wearing a men’s-style tallit at the Wall. In that instance, the police were present during a service for the new month and even filmed it.
Wearing a traditional tallit isn’t the only “crime” that has prompted the arrest of women at the Western Wall. Two years ago, Anat Hoffman, head of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and a former Jerusalem council member, was arrested for carrying a Torah in the Western Wall plaza. According to witnesses, Hoffman was merely holding the Torah as her group walked from the plaza to Robinson’s Arch, a portion of the Wall designated for non-Orthodox and women’s prayer groups. The police tried to grab the Torah from her, then, failing that, arrested her.
What are American Jews, observing these incidents from afar, to make of this? To be sure, if a Jew were arrested for wearing a tallit or carrying a Torah in any other country, there would be an outcry from Jewish groups across the religious spectrum. But precisely because these injustices have occurred in the Jewish state, we should be even more outraged than if these arrests were taking place, say, in an Islamic country.
At a time when the delegitimizers are increasingly portraying Israel as undemocratic, these incidents provide them with plenty of fodder. Yet, for me, this isn’t about Israel’s image in the world; it’s about the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state.
The nation-state of the Jewish people cannot be a place where one of its citizens can be taken into custody for carrying a Torah. It cannot be a place where the police and the courts get involved in matters of individual religious expression, determining, for example, the proper color of a prayer shawl. It cannot be a state where government leaders remain deafeningly silent when women or non-Orthodox Jews holding prayer services near the Western Wall are subjected to physical and verbal abuse by haredi men or when the state-funded Chief Rabbis, who are ostensibly ambassadors for Judaism to the rest of the world, disparage a segment of the Jewish people.
What the Jewish state ought to be is a place where all streams of Judaism are validated and treated equally – and where tolerance and communal harmony are recognized as fundamental Jewish values.
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon.