The shofar blowers

The tendency to cave in to the bullying techniques of religious radicals has its roots in the Israeli judiciary.

Jew blows shofar at Kotel 390 (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Jew blows shofar at Kotel 390
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
At first glance, a recent Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court decision appeared reasonable enough. Police officers should be allowed the discretion to prohibit certain public acts because they could lead to disruption of public order and violence. Sometimes, argued Judge Shirley Renner, an individual’s right to expression must be subordinated to public order and security.
US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s example of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater comes to mind. However, Renner was referring to a much more benign act: the blowing of a shofar. She ruled that police can, when they see fit, forbid Jewish worshipers from blowing the shofar because doing so might incense Muslims and lead to violence.
The specific case dates back to Rosh Hashana 2006 at the Kotel Hakatan, literally the “small wall.”
The Kotel Hakatan, located in the Old City of Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter, is one of the northern sections of the Western Wall. Since it is located closer to that portion of the destroyed Temple known as the Holy of Holies, for many – including a contingent of rabbis from all streams of Orthodoxy – it is considered as sacred if not more so than the Western Wall Plaza where most Jewish prayers are held.
On the second day of Rosh Hashana, which fell in 2006 during Ramadan, police ordered Eliyahu Kleiman, a young yeshiva student, to stop blowing the shofar. Kleiman, who was in the middle of prayers, did not respond and continued to blow. Police then dragged him away from the area and detained him for questioning.
Apparently out of a desire to adhere to a measure of political correctness, Renner refrained from using terms such as “Islamic extremists” or “Muslim zealots” to describe those who might feel offended by the blowing of a shofar. Instead, she referred vaguely to the potential for “disturbances” and “disruption of order.”
The tendency to cave in to the bullying techniques of religious radicals has its roots in the Israeli judiciary.
In May 2003, the High Court of Justice, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the Women of the Wall could not pray out loud at the Western Wall. The court based its argument on the premise that the women’s prayer endangered public order.
Although they did not phrase it quite this way, the justices, including the then-president of the Supreme Court Aharon Barak, argued that the presence of the Women of the Wall whipped the haredi public – both male and female – into a wildly ecstatic, uncontrollable rage that would lead to rioting. The State of Israel, meanwhile, helpless in the face of this unbridled frenzy of zealotry, could not guarantee the safety of the women or of the wider public. Therefore, the Women of the Wall, for their own good, had to be consigned to an alternative site, Robinson’s Arch, near but separated from the Western Wall. (The women refused to relocate to the Kotel Hakatan because it is located in the Muslim Quarter.)
In both cases the court decisions are problematic. First, they encourage extremism. If every time Muslims or haredim use violence to get what they want – namely restrictions on the religious freedoms of their foes – they will be encouraged to stage additional riots to exact more gains. The irrationality of some Muslims, haredim and other religious fanatics should not be accommodated and rewarded. Police and the courts should make it clear that blowing a shofar or praying out loud are not forms of incitement, but simple acts of faith that must be tolerated.
Also, the rulings by Renner and Barak are based on a “blame-the-victim” reasoning. The assumption is that a Jewish woman who dares to pray at the Western Wall in an unorthodox way or a Jewish man who blows a shofar in a Muslim-populated area is asking for trouble. Would the courts or the police make the same argument in the case of a scantily dressed woman who was raped or a West Bank settler who was killed in a terrorist attack? The clear message that the Israeli law enforcement authorities and courts should send out is that violence of any kind is an illegitimate form of protest. Instead, a different message altogether is being relayed.
Bullies are being accommodated because they resort to violence while those who don’t have seen their religious freedoms infringed. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn is that irrational behavior and intimidation pay.