Ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders: Stop teaching hate - opinion

The young zealots at the Kotel (some were as young as 12) are the products of the schools and communities that raised them. We should call this what it is: a form of antisemitism.

 HAREDI PROTESTORS scuffle with police as the Women of the Wall movement holds Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall, in March. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
HAREDI PROTESTORS scuffle with police as the Women of the Wall movement holds Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall, in March.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Anti-Jewish hate is on the rise across the globe, but there is a virulent strand being generated in Israel by the Orthodox establishment directed against Reform and Conservative Jews. Last Thursday morning, after harassing Women of the Wall in the women’s section of the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, dozens of ultra-Orthodox extremists brazenly disrupted bar and bat mitzvah services at the egalitarian plaza of the Western Wall.

They shouted over the prayers, calling the worshipers Nazis, Christians, and animals, blowing whistles and ripping up prayer books, according to eyewitnesses. Unbelievably, a young ultra-Orthodox man was filmed as he ripped a page out of a prayer book and then wiped his nose with it while smirking. Jewish tradition has a name for such sinful behavior; it’s called hillul Hashem or a desecration of God’s name. Evidently, some Orthodox Jews have been taught that this commandment is suspended if the object of a person’s hate is a Reform or Conservative Jew.

As if that weren’t enough, the police did little to stop this horrifying drama. Imagine if such an attack happened in the northern, non-egalitarian Kotel to Orthodox men. Picture a group of Orthodox men davening the morning shacharit prayers only to have a mob of thugs taunting them with hate filled chants, ripping their siddurim to shreds. How long would it take for swarms of police to arrive? 60 seconds? But when it’s just non-Orthodox Jews praying in the secluded egalitarian prayer space and the perpetrators are Orthodox, then nothing need be done.

In the face of such attacks, most Orthodox leaders stay silent while others easily dismiss those who perpetrated last Thursday’s disgusting display as “a small band of hooligans.” But a more accurate explanation would be that these young zealots were simply reflecting the views they have learned from Israel’s chief rabbis and Orthodox politicians. Remember when Shlomo Amar, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, said that “Reform Jews are like Holocaust deniers?”

“Reform Jews are like Holocaust deniers.”

Shlomo Amar

Or what about Yisrael Eichler, an MK from the haredi United Torah Judaism bloc, who called liberal Jews a “small mafia” and “enemies of the Jewish religion?” There’s a category for these types of comments; it’s called incitement. And as we Jews know all too well, hateful words often lead to violent acts. The young zealots at the Kotel (some were as young as 12) are the products of the schools and communities that raised them. We should call this what it is: a form of antisemitism.

On June 11, at the Western Wall, 39 Women of the Wall prayer books were grabbed, torn up, and destroyed.  (credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)On June 11, at the Western Wall, 39 Women of the Wall prayer books were grabbed, torn up, and destroyed. (credit: WOMEN OF THE WALL)

Demonizing non-Orthodox Jews

Recently the Zionist National Institutions JAFI, WZO, and KKL-JNF have been tainted by official acts of demonization of non-Orthodox Jews. Earlier in March, for Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet, over 1,000 ultra-Orthodox girls were bussed to the Kotel funded by the ultra-orthodox faction of the WZO to disrupt the prayers of Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox streams.

RATHER THAN building a more interconnected Jewish people, these factions are committed to demonizing the liberal Judaism of a growing segment of Israelis and the majority of world Jewry. We saw the recent outcry from Haredi parties in response to the incoming JAFI head, Doron Almog, for merely appearing at our Reform Movement convening. We must not tolerate this intimidation and demonization.

And for those Orthodox institutions that claim not to purvey hate, I would ask if they actively teach respect for all members of the Jewish people? In our Reform Movement schools, camps, and congregations, we teach that we are responsible and connected to all Jews; even the ones who don’t practice Judaism the way we do. Peoplehood matters greatly to us, but evidently too many Orthodox schools haven’t gotten that memo.

We, Reform and liberal Jews, are tired of empty appeals to the ideal of Jewish unity. Slogans will not move us closer to experiencing a deep sense of shared destiny. At present, the Orthodox establishment wields enormous power and privilege which denies fundamental rights to the majority of Jewish Israelis who are non-Orthodox, and alienates the millions of non-Orthodox Jews around the world.

I just returned from a week in Israel leading 80 of our top North American Reform lay leaders. We were so inspired by the growth and flourishing of our Israeli Reform Movement with over 50 congregations planted throughout the land. We joined the Israeli Reform Movement’s Biennial convention with over 1,300 Israeli leaders and congregants at Kibbutz Shefayim. In spite of the hate and inequality Reform Jews experience, we will not be deterred.

Israel is embarking on yet another election campaign one that will likely be nastier, more demonizing than the last four. For the sake of our global Jewish people, it is time to establish some bright red lines as to how we relate to our Jewish siblings. And the State of Israel is not a spectator in this. We ask our Israeli siblings not to lecture us about how to fight anti-Jewish hate in North America when it’s allowed to spread in Israel against us.

As we approach the 17th of Tammuz, when the walls of ancient Jerusalem were breached leading to the destruction of the Second Temple, we should reflect that when ultra-Orthodox Jews spewed hate against other Jews coming to celebrate arriving at the age of mitzvot last week they did so in full view of the stones that fell when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, which the rabbis attributed to sinat chinam, baseless hatred, among the Jews.

That archeological warning, visible from the egalitarian section of the Kotel, serves as a stern reminder of what happens when internal Jewish hatred goes unchecked. Rather than pious sermons about Jewish unity, let’s build a pluralistic Jewish future everywhere but most especially in our beloved Jewish State.

The writer is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.