Grapevine, January 29, 2023: The limits of freedom

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 PRESIDENT Isaac Herzog with dignitaries of Belgium’s Jewish community at the Great Synagogue of Europe.  (photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
PRESIDENT Isaac Herzog with dignitaries of Belgium’s Jewish community at the Great Synagogue of Europe.
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

Sweden is known as one of the more liberal countries in the world, with a reputation for upholding human rights and social services – and of course, promoting freedom of expression. The question is, how far should freedom of expression be allowed to go? 

A little more than a week ago, the burning of a Koran by right-wing activists in front of the Turkish embassy enraged the Turkish government, and probably millions of Muslims elsewhere in the world – and rightly so. No one should ever desecrate that which is considered holy by a legitimate religious movement. There is no valid reason for desecrating a Torah, Bible, Koran or any other book considered holy by people of other faiths. 

But now, in response to the burning of the Koran, according to KAN 11 diplomatic and political reporter Gili Cohen, there is a move afoot in Sweden to burn a Torah scroll in front of the Israeli Embassy. Other than human life itself, nothing is more sacred to Jews than a Torah scroll.

The burning, according to Cohen’s report, is in the name of freedom of expression. If Jews were involved in the burning of the Koran, the desire for revenge, though not condoned, can be understood. But if Jews were not involved, what is the real reason for burning a Torah scroll? 

If intention evolves into deed, how will it affect relations between Israel and Sweden? The fact that Cohen reported the proposed desecration on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day evokes the burning of books by the Nazis in 1933, and the prophetic words of Jewish-born poet Heinrich Heine in 1822, when he wrote “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings.” 

 Protesters demonstrate outside the Consulate General of Sweden after Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line, who has Swedish citizenship, burned a copy of the Koran near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 22, 2023.  (credit: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS) Protesters demonstrate outside the Consulate General of Sweden after Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line, who has Swedish citizenship, burned a copy of the Koran near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 22, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS)

That must be prevented anywhere in the world, but particularly in a country that produced people such as Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews in German-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust.

■ THE PEW reports about the high level of assimilation in America, and dire forecasts about the shrinking Jewish population of Europe, somehow evaporate when Israeli dignitaries or well-known entertainers show up. 

That was certainly the case in Brussels on Wednesday evening when President Isaac Herzog stepped into the Great Synagogue of Europe, where he was greeted by Israel’s ambassador to Belgium Idit Rosenzweig Abu, the president of the Consistoire Central Israélite de Belgique, Philippe Markewicz; president of the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Brussels Yves Oschinsky; co-presidents of the Forum of Jewish Organizations in Antwerp, Baroness Regine Sluszny and Philippe Scharf; president of Synagogue Beth Israel, Alain Prync, and other notables.

The synagogue was packed with members of the Brussels and Antwerp Jewish communities who were eager to meet, greet and listen to the president of the State of Israel. Herzog encountered similar scenes elsewhere during his travels, as did his predecessors. These days, assimilation does not necessarily mean leaving the tribe. It means having a foot in each camp and being comfortable in both.

The chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue of Europe and of Brussels, Albert Guigui, together with Cantor Benjamin Muller recited the prayer for the State of Israel, which had been composed by President Herzog’s grandfather, Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, and the choir sang “Am Israel Hai” – the People of Israel Live!

■ IN ADVANCE of Israel’s 75th-anniversary celebrations, the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association (IBCA) is organizing a February 23 visit to the Knesset and Yad Vashem. For most participants, this will be a day trip, since the majority of IBCA members live in Netanya, Herzliya, Ra’anana and Hod Hasharon. 

It will be the organization’s second visit to Jerusalem in less than six months, with the majority of its events held in Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and Herzliya. Participants visiting the Knesset will meet with Yesh Atid MK Moshe Yehuda Tur-Paz, who was born in the US and grew up in Haifa and Jerusalem.

As an IDF Lt.-Col., he served as a paratrooper in a combat unit and was a commander in Operation Defensive Shield. He was also a deputy battalion commander in Operation Cast Lead. In civilian life, he was an educator with a BA in Jewish thought and Bible studies, and an MA in Jewish history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

In 2016, he was the recipient of the Education Ministry’s Outstanding Local Authority Award for Education. He currently serves as a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as well as the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, which means that he’s equipped to speak on many subjects.

Following the visit to the Knesset, IBCA will continue to Yad Vashem for a choice of guided tours that focus on specific aspects of Holocaust history. At a time when antisemitism is again rearing its ugly head, the visit to Yad Vashem will be a chilling reminder of where antisemitism can lead.

Requesting pardon

■ FIVE SOLDIERS from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Netzah Yehuda Battalion, who have been charged with violent altercations with Palestinians, have asked to meet with President Herzog in a bid for a pardon. They are not criminals, they say, but combat soldiers who love the state, and made a mistake in the way they conducted themselves. Some have paid a heavy price for their decision to enlist in the army, in that they have been disowned by their anti-Zionist families and the friends of their youth.

Meanwhile, at the Freemont Hotel, in Austin, Texas, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Nadav Padan, in a closed meeting on haredi recruitment to the IDF said, “Incidents of improper conduct by haredi soldiers in the Netzah Yehuda Battalion are not unusual compared to other battalions. The fact that Netzah Yehuda is being repeatedly condemned – while emphasizing that the soldiers concerned are haredi soldiers – indicates that there is an agenda behind this.”

Until two-and-a-half years ago, Padan served as a general with Central Command and is currently the national director of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, (FIDF in the US).

Speaking at the annual conference of the Israeli-American Council, Padan was responding to a question by journalist Miri Michaeli relating to the Israeli media’s condemnation of haredi soldiers with regard to their violence against Arabs.

“Does anyone know what battalion Elor Azaria was from?” asked Padan. In March 2016, Azaria shot and killed an already neutralized Palestinian terrorist, and was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He was released after nine months.

There is hardly ever any mention of his battalion in the many news items about him, yet whenever a Netzah Yehuda soldier does something untoward, it is almost invariably noted in the media that he belongs to a haredi battalion. 

On the one hand, many Israeli politicians over the years have tried to cancel legislation that exempts haredim from military service, and on the other, when haredim defy their families and their rabbis and join the IDF, they are ridiculed and condemned.

■ THERE’S AN old Jewish saying that probably exists in different versions among other population groups: If everyone stood in a circle and put their problems in the middle in order to exchange them for any others they thought they could cope with, everyone would take back their own. 

The truth is that similar problems exist in almost every country. For instance, in the UK, there is a dispute over raising the pension age from 66 to 68, which many fear will plunge thousands of senior citizens into poverty.

Pressure is being put on Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt to cut taxes because households have paid an average of £821 more in taxes over the past fiscal year than in the previous year. 

Due to the cost-of-living crisis, people are struggling to put food on the table, and there is a nationwide teachers’ strike in the offing, because teachers want a wage rise. There are also problems relating to asylum seekers. 

Sound familiar? Very much like Israel. The difference is that in England, more people are affected.

■ LAST WEEK’S emergency meeting in Tel Aviv by KAN staffers, representatives of commercial media outlets, and others who are involved in Israel’s film and television industries who are worried that the present government will close down public broadcasting, was not unlike a similar meeting some seven years ago. 

People made stirring speeches then, and later in the Knesset, and were supported by some legislators – but not enough. This time, hundreds of people blocked the White City’s Kaplan Street. 

At present, the situation looks like history repeating itself. Hopefully, there will be enough legislators who realize the importance of public broadcasting. If they don’t, they should make a point of listening at 7 p.m. on weekdays to Dr. Gili Tamir’s program “You deserve it.”

Tamir is a social worker who has made it her life’s work to help people who are ignorant of labor and social welfare laws, or who have struck the brick wall of bureaucracy. Working with only one assistant by the name of Ronit, who is no less dedicated than Tamir herself, Tamir is a walking Wikipedia on Israel’s social welfare laws and their nuances. 

She receives on-air telephone calls from listeners who have a diverse variety of problems. Many listeners shower her with compliments, saying how much they’ve learned from her. 

Most of the time she’s helpful beyond belief – but she can’t play poker. When she’s fed up with a nudnik, her impatience is reflected in her tone of voice. But when she feels that someone is the victim of social injustice or bureaucratic bungling, she not only offers advice, but takes up the case herself, and goes to the rescue with guns blazing.