The human spirit: Town-square test of democracy in Jerusalem

My blood boils, but as a believer in democracy, I know I should be able to accept divergent ideas

Hala bread (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hala bread
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I’m out buying halla on a Friday morning. Right behind me in line stands Natan Sharansky. “I have to tell you,” I say in Hebrew. “All these decades after demonstrating for Soviet Jewry I still get a thrill to run into you, like me, just buying halla.”
He takes spelt. I take whole wheat with raisins – a touch of America.
The raisin halla at the Colchester Bakery in Colchester, Connecticut, wasn’t whole wheat, of course. Who in Connecticut knew of whole wheat back then? Customers came from afar to buy delicious fresh bread which seemed nutritious enough, baked crisp in the wood-burning brick oven. The owners weren’t Jewish but the bakery was kosher.
Its greatest recognition came each St. Patrick’s Day when a green Russian pumpernickel was delivered to the State Capitol in Hartford.
It was to the Capitol in Hartford that we marched in 1967 to let Soviet Jews go, my first demonstration. We marchers were members of Jewish youth groups forming a high school coalition. I never experienced an antisemitic incident in my life in Connecticut, and our Connecticut senators Thomas Dodd and Abraham Ribicoff became strong advocates of the struggle to free Soviet Jewry.
Still, it wasn’t an everyday occurrence: Jewish teens with signs marching down Capitol Avenue. As the president of Con- necticut Young Judaea, I read Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” in English translation. “No monument stands over Babi Yar./A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone./I am afraid./Today, I am as old/As the entire Jewish race itself” (translated by Benjamin Okopnik).
In fact, I was 17, and didn’t know anyone called Yevgeny or anyone who could recite the poem in Russian. Today, I know both. Thanks to the success of the long campaign of what Sharansky’s jailer disparagingly called a movement of “students and housewives,” a million Soviet Jews moved to Israel. I’ve also visited the memorial at Babi Yar.
DEMONSTRATIONS ARE an important part of democracy. I remind myself of that as I drive from Hadassah-University Medical Center on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus to the one in Ein Kerem on August 2 with two demonstrations going on.
One is the latest in a series of protests by the so-called Jerusalem Faction. It is a splinter group representing about 15% of the Lithuanian, non-hassidic extreme religious population in our city. Allegedly protesting the forced registration of yeshiva students for military service in the Israel Defense Forces, their notoriously violent demonstrations are part of an internal power struggle within the Lithuanian yeshiva world.
On the car radio the police are announcing which roads are closed. An on-the-scene radio reporter hands the mike to a demonstrator. He’s screaming. “It’s better to go to jail than to serve in the IDF.”
My blood boils. I see these men as shirkers and hypocrites. Rather than modeling the decorum mandated by a Torah education, rather than showing their adherence to the study hall by using their time on the streets to argue a talmudic question, they throw rocks, set fires and overturn garbage cans. They are known for flinging dirty diapers – a revolting and unsubtle reminder of the large families that translate into greater political power in a democracy. Rather than volunteering to risk their lives, they want others – my own officer sons, now in their 40s, are still doing reserve duty – to protect them. They antagonize the public against Torah values.
My blood boils, but as a believer in democracy, I know I should be able to accept divergent ideas. Hard as it is for me to accept, these demonstrators actually tell us that the sun rises and sets each morning because of Divine approval of their lifestyles.
A LARGER demonstration is the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance, an annual event since 2002. Here, too, the subject of the demonstration isn’t ex- actly what it started out to be. A recognition of varied gender orientation is now an outcry against intolerance in general.
Hanging over this demonstration are two incidents of stabbing by the same fanatic perpetrator in religious clothing (can’t call him “religious”). Three years ago he murdered 16-year-old demonstrator Shira Banki. More than 20,000 Israelis show up, many protesting the violence, expressing anger at what appears to be government pandering to clerics, and most recently, objecting to a new law that discriminates against men who want to have children via a surrogate. In this country, where in vitro fertilization is covered by the health funds for the first two children, where there are more children per family than anywhere else in the Western world, straight and gay Jerusalem citizens are irritated by the denial of rights to have an Israeli family.
Other citizens are, of course, irritated by the gay pride parade taking place in Jerusalem. There’s a counterdemonstration.
My drive lengthens as other roads are closed but I don’t really mind. On Mount Scopus I was interviewing student volunteers, a Jew from Texas and a Muslim from Idaho, who spent their summer vacations pushing wheelchairs and disinfecting heart monitors and loving it. The doctor I need to interview in Ein Kerem works late.
In addition to his daily responsibilities in the pediatric emergency room, he’s answering medical questions in a WhatsApp group for Yazidi doctors and nurses in Iraq, a group in which Israeli experts help them diagnose and treat the persecuted minority. They, of course, have to keep secret their lifesaving ties with Israel.
I’m thinking of the finger-pointing by Israel critics abroad claiming that our democratic institutions are in decline and that we need foreign countries to support our minorities. And I’m thinking of Sharansky’s town-square test for democracy.
The Jewish refusenik, who spent nine years in prison for challenging the Soviet Union, proposed a threshold test for a free society in his book The Case for Democracy, published in 2004: “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a ‘fear society’ has finally won their freedom.”
I wonder how he feels about the demonstrations. Next time I see him in the bakery, I’ll ask. 
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.