Another Tack: Losing proportions

Offensive placards always proliferated in Natorei Karta neighborhoods.

Sarah Honig in front of anti-feminist haredi signs 311 (photo credit: Courtesy: Sarah Honig)
Sarah Honig in front of anti-feminist haredi signs 311
(photo credit: Courtesy: Sarah Honig)
How reassuring: Jerusalem Police commissioner Nisso Shaham has sanctimoniously added his two cents’ worth to the synthetic hullabaloo that gripped specified Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh neighborhoods – the sort to which I and my sort never go. Yet my non-Jerusalemite sort is the loudest in kicking up a righteous fuss about oddities that barely impact our daily lives.
Those of us who remember this country a little further back than the day before yesterday know that given anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox elements habitually sought to stoke the fires of contention. Their counterparts on the leftist fringes of our political patchwork were equally eager to fan the flames. For the latter, it’s politically expedient to ignite culture wars and lump the entire complex gamut of Israel’s observant Jews under the single, all-inclusive epithet of haredim (God-fearing).
The religious zealot who called a female soldier pritzeh (Yiddish for a woman of loose morals) was turned into a sectarian martyr when the prosecution – generally renowned for its languor and lenient plea bargains – charged him with no less than sexual harassment. The outsized photo of the secularist heroine in khaki, posing with self-important indignation, became the obligatory front-page feature for all tabloids.
And this brings us back to Shaham.
Exuding holier-than-thou mannerisms, he appeared before the press and in measured tones – pious eyes all but rolling skyward – wished that “the rabbis would condemn this. The rabbis can put a stop to it all.”
Since plenty of rabbis commented quite unambiguously, this leaves us with a choice of two conclusions about Shaham. Either he’s clueless about the communities under his jurisdiction, or he’s an out-and-out hypocrite. Ignorant or disingenuous, it’s a cheerless bottom line.
NO SINGLE spiritual authority sways the weird and anarchic groupings in Shaham’s bailiwick. These, by tradition, rival each other unrestrainedly. Indeed, most any rabbi’s reproof is sure to trigger in-your-face provocative escalation from his wild-bunch opponents in given diminutive enclaves of Mea She’arim and its Beit Shemesh spillover. It boggles the mind that a Jerusalem Police chief wouldn’t know this (or that he’d pretend not to).
But it takes the cake for Shaham, of all people, to posture as the voice of moderation, appealing for decorum and tolerance. He’s hardly the poster-child for fair play and self-discipline. Have the sands of time truly buried Shaham’s own transgressions? Or does his proven relish for battering political opponents confer immunity upon him?
Enticing though selective amnesia may be, let’s just the same revisit conduct of our capital’s No. 1 law-enforcer. For those who may have forgotten (not too unpredictably, because tendentious scribblers and broadcasters hardly harped on the issue), here’s a brief reminder.
During the 2005 pre-disengagement mass-rally in Kfar Maimon, then-Negev District commander Shaham affected his most macho pose for TV crews, well aware that the commands he barked to young subordinates would be widely broadcast. That suited him perfectly – televised exposure might impress prime minister Ariel Sharon. A hefty professional advancement seemed in the bag.
And so hectored Shaham for all to hear: “I want arrests, and I tell you to use water cannons unconditionally. Don’t call me. Go for the water cannons. I know these haredim. Shit upon them. They should burn. Don’t reassess – use water cannons and clubs. Hit them hard on the lower parts of the body. Work as you know how. I’m an expert in handling these haredim.”
Shaham proceeded to boast before the entire watching nation that he was braver than his own superiors, who had advised him not to charge into Kfar Maimon.
Shaham’s reply: “I’m not some whore who opens her legs and waits for someone to come in. You can bank on my ability to open their [the protesters’] legs. I’ll f**k their mother’s mother. Now go tell your buddies… not just a few beatings. I’m telling you all this to spare you the need to seek authorization.”
Later, under pressure and to avoid greater repercussions than a feeble reprimand, Shaham issued a wan statement of regret, claiming he had been overwrought. That – unsurprisingly – sufficed in 2007 for a three-judge Supreme Court panel to reject petitions against his then-new appointment to the post of Jerusalem deputy police commissioner. The petitioners wondered what the reaction would have been had Shaham’s expletives been directed at Arabs rather than haredim.
But the court condemned the petitioners for “seeking to ostracize a valued police officer because of one slip of the tongue, for which he tendered apology.”
More recently, Shaham was promoted to Jerusalem District commissioner. Why not? It had already been amply established by the highest court in the land that his bias and obscenities were no impediments.
Regardless of our unqualified rejection of gender-exclusion and linked excesses in Jerusalem and its zany environs, we need to keep in mind the excesses of those entrusted to safeguard what we broadly all recognize as justice. It cannot be that one man’s shout of “pritzeh” would outweigh a leading officer of the law aggressively sending his underlings to f**k the haredim’s mothers’ mothers.
MAKING IT worse is that anti-disengagement activists were nothing like Jerusalem’s current headline- generators. But distorting generalizations are the enlightened bon ton. Never mind that the “public enemies” the media reviles obsessively – settlers and Mea She’arim militants – occupy diametrically opposite ends of Israel’s spectrum.
Super-patriot settlers and their supporters are avid, if frustrated, Zionists. The bus-segregationists are passionate anti-Zionists. Way back, the differences among Israel’s religious Jews weren’t deliberately obfuscated, perhaps because in the days of Labor hegemony, it was in nobody’s interest to tar entire communities with the same brush.
We understood that anti-Zionists excoriated renascent Jewish sovereignty because the state’s founders didn’t wait for the Messiah. We realized the Messiah’s apostles mostly hailed from among Mea She’arim’s Natorei Karta segment, whose most fervent fanatic confederates were members of the uncompromising hassidic branch that emerged from the former Hungarian town of Satmar (now Romania’s Satu Mare).
They themselves chronically divide into inimical sub-sects, the most belligerent of which have always caused trouble – from the time they opposed a swimming pool in Jerusalem, to the time their then-leader Moshe Hirsch was appointed by Yasser Arafat as the PA’s “minister for Jewish affairs,” and all the way to the participation of several in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2006 Holocaust-denial fest in Tehran (only to be shunned later even by their own families).
Shaham ought to know that generic rabbis cannot dictate to these cyclically splintering clusters, who confrontationally foment adversity among their nearest and dearest over hairsplitting nuances. They aren’t the greatest danger to our societal fiber because they essentially reside outside our society – to the extent of even refusing any welfare services from the state they abhor.
Offensive placards always proliferated in Natorei Karta neighborhoods, but yesteryear’s mainstream was amused by the exotica and didn’t elevate it to existential-menace proportions.
Proportions are paramount. It’s dangerous to blow things out of all proportion or, conversely, to lose our collective sense of proportion by pooh-poohing vituperative prejudice. Supposed upholders of legality like vulgar Shaham make political hay by self-servingly inflaming communal strife. They do well for themselves out of making things worse for everyone else.