If by now you haven’t seen the video circulating widely on social media of a woman, Pnina Peri, deriding a man who moments before had been approached by a Chabad emissary, Rabbi Meir Herzl, to don Tefillin, you either aren’t in enough WhatsApp groups or don’t have enough friends on Facebook. You’d be hard pressed to find a video that has gone so viral so quickly. The video was originally posted on Facebook by Gad Kaufman, who uploaded the video with this comment:
“An amazing incident occurred this morning in the Airport, when I was asked politely by a Chabad man, if I wanted to put on tefillin. I replied in the affirmative, and then a woman jumped up with a crazy look and began to curse, harass and disturb!”
He went on to call the woman a “leftist bohemian.” Gad was being kind.
The video can be seen here:
Below is my letter to Dean Bonnie Thornton Dill of the University of Maryland College of Arts and Humanities, where Peri is Visiting Assistant Professor of Israel Studies at the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. Her husband Yoram is the Director.
Re: Social Media Video of Dr. Pnina Peri
Dear Dean Thornton Dill:
In addressing an august institution whose vision, in part, is that students “acquire a nuanced understanding of the world as a place of difference and diversity across time and cultures, through increased participation in study abroad and international internships and other educational programs that promote global awareness,” I would presume that you and your faculty possess a keen and comprehensive understanding of the great struggles that led to the formation of the State of Israel. Among those struggles, arguably paramount among them, is the slaughter of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis during World War 2. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, serving then as the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, announced the formation of the State of Israel. In doing so he declared, “The Nazi Holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, proved anew the urgency of the reestablishment of the Jewish State, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations.”
The Nazi onslaught introduced a level of pain and intense suffering never before seen in a modern, enlightened world. The tactics used to persecute and humiliate Jews knew no boundary. Popular among the rank and file Nazis was to ridicule and taunt Jewish men and women while performing sacred rituals. Men were forced to dance on Torah scrolls, women were raped while forced to lay on Holy Ark covers, and babies were slaughtered before they could be circumcised. The hate-filled passion with which these vile acts were carried out was breathtaking in its intensity and caused unfathomable pain that continues to echo throughout modern Jewry. Indeed, it is the very formation of the State of Israel that serves as a strong deterrent to a repetition of these horrific acts ever again occurring.
Common amusement for Nazi thugs was to ridicule Jewish men during prayer. Jewish men have donned Tefillin for the last 3,330 years, ever since receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. While the significance of Tefillin is complex and nuanced, they have always been perceived as a prized and valuable Mitzvah commandment. Kabbalists have suggested that Tefillin facilitates harmony between man’s intellect and his emotions. There exists a schism between the mind and the heart. All too often emotions control the mind, and the intellect is utilized merely to provide justification, rationalization, and excuses for instinct-based actions. Tefillin facilitates man’s attainment of the unity between mind and heart, intellect and emotion.
In other words, it is the very Mitzvah of Tefillin that prevents the Jew from degrading into the type of person that would ridicule another man simply by virtue of his birthright or for the way he chooses to serve God.
In 1982, the late Professor Elie Wiesel described the dangers he and his fellow prisoners in Auschwitz risked life and limb early every day to don Tefillin. He wrote that prisoners were exposed “to nameless dangers for the sake of not interrupting a millennia-old tradition. I do not understand it. I will never understand whence they derived so much courage and marshaled so much self-denial, even while the world was forsaking them and surrendered them to death.”
In light of the above, and in defense of the Mitzvah of Tefillin itself, I was horrified and sickened to view the video of Dr. Peri taken on May 28th, 2018 in Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, Israel which is now circulating widely on social media. The video can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/9x-5MaCSSEs.
In the video, Dr. Peri is openly mocking two men, one offering Tefillin to another man to wear for a few minutes. Neither man was bothering her, or even recognized her presence until she injected her vitriol into their exchange. Her mockery of the two men is revolting, her laughter nothing less than a cruel and hate-filled imitation of the same laughter Nazis spewed at Jewish men while they performed this sacred act during the War. That this occurred in Israel, a country founded to prevent this very same scorn from ever again raising its ugly and murderous head, tears even deeper at the wounds this repulsive behavior causes. It is a disgraceful display by a self-righteous and bitter woman.
One must question if Dr. Peri would approach a Muslim with the same derision and contempt were he to pray Maghrib before boarding a flight.
Let me to draw your attention to an iconic photograph taken on July 31st, 1940 in Olkusz, Poland. The photograph shows a squad of German policemen heartily laughing precisely in the same way Dr. Peri laughs on the video.
The target of their laughter? Rabbi Moshe Yitzhak Hagerman, whom they had forced to don prayer shawl and a pair of Tefillin that they had clearly defiled. He is seen standing terrified, barefoot, head bowed in prayer next to his brethren prostrate on the ground. Rabbi Hagerman was subsequently deported and then murdered in the Majdanek concentration camp:
It is difficult, if not impossible to believe, considering this revolting mockery, that Dr. Peri could in any way serve as an asset to the University of Maryland community, one dedicated to promoting sensitivity to ethical and aesthetic issues, and the ability to understand and interpret the cultures of the world, past and present. I therefore ask that the University terminate its relationship with Dr. Peri at the earliest opportunity.
Dean Thornton Dill, I am a member of the Jewish community residing in North Miami Beach, Florida. Our community is devoted to tolerance and the acceptance that our way of life is but one among the many that form the mosaic we all live in. I manage an online store, and I spend part of my time volunteering for the southeast region of Chai Lifeline and I am a volunteer dispatcher for an emergency first response unit which serves our community here in Miami-Dade. My wife Carolyn and I are the parents of 6 children and 8 grandchildren, all of whom are raised in the traditions sacred to us, paramount among them, Tefillin.