Fighting extremism: A two-pronged approach

In the last few weeks we’ve seen that words of hate lead to unconscionable violence; being reactive isn’t enough; we must be proactive.

Handshake [Illustrative] (photo credit: INIMAGE)
Handshake [Illustrative]
(photo credit: INIMAGE)
Having traveled the Middle East, Europe and the US, I’ve had my share of “random” security checks. I try to be courteous; I understand the security risks and fears. But this Sunday was the first time that I’ve ever been targeted for being an observant Jew, and it stung.
I heard about the now-famous wedding between Morel Malkah and Mahmoud Mansour via social media, after a friend shared a link to LEHAVA’s call to protest the wedding. LEHAVA is an organization ostensibly dedicated to fighting intermarriage, although its true agenda seems to be promoting hatred of Arab citizens of Israel.
Founder Bentzi Gupstein is unabashed about his bigotry, recently announcing to Israeli Arab news anchor Lucy Aharish that she “doesn’t belong in Israel” because of her ethnicity.
News that an observant Jew, let alone an organization with thousands of supporters, would go to such lengths to ruin the joy of strangers was upsetting. Authorization of the protest by an Israeli judge added insult to injury. With a heavy heart I headed to Rishon Lezion on Sunday to deliver a letter and a modest but heartfelt gift to Morel and Mahmoud, as hundreds of others geared up to vilify their union.
I am an observant Jew. By the standards that I choose to follow, conversion from Judaism is ineffectual. Marriage between Jew and non-Jew is forbidden, and has no effect under Jewish law. But I am also a human being, and I cannot bring myself to deprive others of the happiness that my wife and I enjoy. Two independent, free-thinking adults with love enough to wed is a joy. When that love happens to be between members of Jewish and Arab families, in the midst of war and hatred, its importance is magnified. Perhaps that is why Gupstein and his ilk are so threatened by it.
My inspiration to make aliya came from spending 18 months in Birkat Moshe, the hesder yeshiva in Ma’ale Adumim. The school is national religious; its members generally hold staunchly right-wing political views. The rabbi I spent the most time with, Rav Haim Sabato, taught us many lessons. Unlike other teachers, he strictly avoided politics, with one exception. When I first joined the yeshiva, an upcoming gay pride parade in Jerusalem led to various protests being held to the “abomination of a holy city.” Rav Sabato didn’t focus on the prohibition of homosexuality under Jewish law. He was concerned by news that anti-homosexuality protests allegedly involved farm animals, as a snide comparison to bestiality.
Rav Sabato told us that regardless of the issue at hand and how serious a sin under Jewish law, one must always remember to treat people with dignity and respect, as people. He taught me that the binding creed for interpersonal relations must be one of respect.
These thoughts pounded in my head Sunday night, as I stood at the intersection of Altalena and Lehi streets. A small army of police arrived. They stationed themselves between protesters, mostly religious men, and guests entering the hall. If the fear is assimilation and intermarriage, LEHAVA goes about it wrong. Their stance of intimidation is only likely to push away young Jews. But LEHAVA’s true agenda is racism, not religious sanctity, although its message is shrouded in religious and nationalist rhetoric.
This protest was doubly painful for me – religious Jews using Israeli law to attack others, shouting chants of hate on a day of love, bringing a mob to a wedding. The clincher came when I was approached by a group of uneasy police officers and asked to open my bag, reveal its contents, present identification and answer a series of questions.
The police were highly suspicious, convinced that I belonged on the other side. I understand, but it hurt deeply. To be recognized as a religious Jew, and thus a potential terrorist, was jolting. On my way home I passed crowds of young national- religious boys heading to the protest, their “Kahana was right” shirts and the frenzied look in their eyes striking fear into my heart.
Over the past few years I have built connections with a number of Muslim-American reformers, people fighting extremism within their own communities. Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a former naval surgeon and observant Muslim, is one of the most inspiring such leaders. His constant refrain to separate mosque and state stresses that the ideology of Islamism is a threat to all, that there is a clear evolution from voting in Islamist parties to supporting violent Islamism.
He argues that Muslims themselves are better protected in a secular liberal democracy.
Those messages struck home on Sunday, coalescing with my lessons from yeshiva.
Scenes from the wedding evoked images of protests in Egypt, with Muslim Brotherhood supporters on one side and secularists on the other. There too, religious extremists usurped democratic means for illegitimate purposes.
In Turkey, Erdogan promotes his Islamist agenda and sidelines minorities through “democracy” and support at the ballot box.
Is that where we are headed when a judge deems the protest of a private wedding on racial or religious grounds to be in the public interest, when youth show up in T-shirts proclaiming open hatred for one fifth of our national population? Is this our answer to global anti-Semitism? This ideological fanaticism, hatred and radicalization of youth leads to a path of violent extremism. It is not enough to condemn vicious attacks on Arabs while allowing the underlying ideology to fester and breed. Israelis need to be honest about the problem, and national religious community leaders all the more so. Sermons, speeches or off-hand conversations that conflate or slur all Arabs and Muslims cannot be tolerated – they pollute the youth and lead to death on all sides. We need to educate for peace, not for hate.
The state as well has an obligation, as a liberal democracy, to prevent the abuse of democratic tools to target minorities.
A protest against intermarriage in a public space may be in the public interest; mobs shouting epithets at a private affair is not, regardless of how many police are deployed. Posting a wedding invitation online with a call to “stop the wedding” should lead to charges of incitement, not a court-issued permit to protest. In the last few weeks we’ve seen that words of hate lead to unconscionable violence. Being reactive isn’t enough; we must be proactive. We need a two-pronged approach of communal education and state activism to stop this festering cancer.
The author is an alumnus of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe, NYU (BA) and IDC Herzliya (MA). He made aliya in June 2009 from New York. He is currently completing his IDF service, and lives with his wife and their two dogs in Petah Tikva.