Bittersweet Israel: August 2015

I am writing this memoir in late August, a few days after we returned from Israel. As you know, Rahel and I are both Israeli citizens. We own an apartment in Israel. We vote in Israeli elections. We pay taxes in Israel. We have both performed service in Israel. In short, we love Israel and have always been proud to be Israelis traveling only on our Israeli passports. Until now.

With the one exception of seeing our lifelong friends of 63 years and of being re-united after more than 30 years with a dear cousin in Ramat Aviv, this visit was frustrating and painful. Never since I first came to Israel in 1951 have I witnessed such terror and such blatant racism, not alone on the part of Arabs but increasingly on the part of misguided Israeli Jews… mainly ultra-orthodox Jewish youth.

We lament the almost daily stabbings of Israeli soldiers by Arabs in the Jerusalem area. We decry the stabbing murder of a young innocent 16 year old girl by a haredi ultra-orthodox Jewish fanatic who had been released from prison for a similar murder only a few days earlier. And we mourn the tragic murder of an 18 month old Arab baby boy, burned to death alive, by fanatical ultra-orthodox Jewish youth who threw a Molotov cocktail bomb into the house causing the instant death of the infant and later his father, seriously wounding the burned mother and a four-year old child. We are ashamed of the haredi ultra-orthodox Jews who clapped hands in joy at this atrocious murder based not upon political reasons but solely for racial hatred.

Among the suspects is 23 year old Meir Ettinger, grandson of the terrorist rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the out-lawed Kach anti-Arab party, who was disbarred from serving in the Knesset and who was later assassinated. His grandson was led away in chains and shackles by the Israeli police. The young assailant appeared in court full of broad smiles and showed no remorse, only satisfaction of the crime. He was proud of his actions. So too were the gang of youthful Jewish terrorists who set fire to Christianity’s oldest church in Israel, the Church of the Multiplication of Fishes and Loaves in Tabgha, in northern Israel, where it is written that Jesus performed miracles. Hundreds of Christian holy books were burned in the destructive fire. When arrested, the haredi criminals proudly declared that their yeshiva rabbis had encouraged them to “rid our land of idolators”.

The Israeli public has been outraged by these shameful acts of racial hatred. Our President Rivlin and our Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned the criminal acts and paid personal visits of condolence to the church authorities and the families of the murdered. If an Arab had burned a Jewish child to death he would receive a life-term imprisonment. Regrettably, Israel does not have the death penalty. Not so is the case for Jewish extremists. One can count on the fingers how many (how few) years in prison they will receive.

The Israel of today has become a racist society. Liberal and secular Jews against ultra-orthodox Jews, ultra-orthodox Jews against modern orthodox Jews, halachic Jews against Conservative and Reform Jews, Jews against Arabs, Arabs against Jews, Muslims against Christians.
Newspapers daily print stories of stabbings, murders, rape and terrorist activities mainly by Arabs and too often by Jews. Today’s Israel is not the Israel of my youth. It is not the Israel I remember from the past 63 years. It is not the Israel where our teachers taught tolerance, morality and ethics. It is now the Israel where a former President sits in jail for the rape of several women, where a former Prime Minister has been indicted and sentenced to 8 years in prison for bribery and embezzlementis, where brave and courageous modern Orthodox rabbis have united to defy the injustices of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate which has prevented the halachic conversion of almost one-half million Russians who claim Jewish ancestry. It is the Israel where 100,000 gay and lesbian Jews can freely and rightly march in the annual Tel-Aviv Gay Pride Parade but regrettably where 10,000 marched on the streets of holy Jerusalem, offending the religious sensitivities of religious Jews, Muslims and Christians who share life in Jerusalem.

Politics and religious views are co-mingled into a mixture of love and hate. In my 63 years of life in Israel, I have not seen nor heard so much discord and hatred, Jew against fellow Jew.

This return visit home to Israel is filled with bittersweet memories of a beautiful Israel that once was a place where people could leave their doors and windows unlocked while they sipped on coffee or tea at one of the many cafes on Dizengoff Street. It is now a country where people have locked themselves in.

The bitter quarrels between the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the more liberal Orthodox rabbis is immoral and offensive It is a senseless hatred reminiscent of the 17th century hatred between the followers of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov. Those who adhered to the traditional teachings of the Vilna Gaon despised those who became chassidim, who prayed through song and dance on mountain tops and nearby streams seeing God in all nature rather than those who swayed back and forth over tractates of Talmud in the yeshivot and shtiebels of eastern Europe. That senseless hatred lasted for more than one hundred years. The unworthy quarrels of today’s ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel against those more liberal Orthodox rabbis, those whom we call Modern Orthodox and with whom we are familiar, is senseless and saddening. It will prevent the hopes for which we daily pray: the rebuilding of our Holy Temple and the return of a Davidic dynasty to the throne

I am reminded of a horrible story recounted in the Talmud, Gittin 56. It tells of a wealthy man who wanted to make a big party for his many friends. He gave invitations to one of his servants to deliver. But by an error, one invitation was delivered to a bitter enemy of the host, a man named Kamtza, instead of to the intended invitee, a man named Bar Kamtza. On the eve of the party, Kamtza appears at the home of the host who, upon seeing him, demands that he be thrown out. Kamtza acknowledges that an error has been made but pleads to his host not to shame him publicly and he offers to pay one-half the cost of the party. The host refuses the offer and demands that Kamtza be thrown out. Kamtza then agrees to pay the entire cost of the party if the host would not publicly humiliate him. Again, the host refuses the offer and demands the eviction of Kamtza. Many rabbis witnessed the events but said nothing and did nothing. Kamtza was publicly disgraced. He made his way to the Roman authorities and informed them that the Jews were plotting a revolt against Rome. Rome sent its legions into Jerusalem and in the year 70 of the common era they burned the Holy Temple, destroyed Jerusalem, and exiled the Jews. All because of the senseless hatred between two men and a mistakenly sent party invitation to Kamtza instead of to Bar Kamtza.
The sinat chinam…hatred which is bitter and meaningless… has been going on since the independence of the State of Israel in 1948. For too many years it was tolerated with closed eyes. But now it has grown into a terrible sickness. Brilliant Orthodox rabbis who are liberal in their theological decisions are ridiculed and humiliated by others who rebel against modernity and Western thought.
This senseless hatred can, God forbid, lead to the destruction of our Zionist homeland and can fuel our enemies in their wanton dreams of putting an end to our hopes of a rebuilt Jewish nation.

As there once was an ultimate peace between the Chassidic followers of the Baal Shem Tov and the mitnagdim of the Vilna Gaon, I pray for a reconciliation between the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox. May it be Hashem’s Divine Will that there be an end to sinat chinam…to senseless hatred between brethren.

Events in Israel pain me deeply. I cannot return in my heart or my mind to my Israel of 63 years ago. But nevertheless I long for it.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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