Extremism in Israel, whether manifested in deed or through rhetoric, should be a source of grave concern to decent Israelis who care about the future direction of their country.
In recent days, vandals have desecrated the Church of the Multiplication, near the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, while a United Torah Judaism parliamentarian has compared that disgusting crime to efforts by Women of the Wall to hold prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, a Shas Party member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet has bitterly attacked Reform Judaism.
These depressing events underscore the clear and present dangers that face Israel domestically. Israel is a Western liberal democracy in a region of autocracy, totalitarianism and Islamic radicalism. Yet Israel, like all other nations, is plagued by racism, ethnocentrism and intolerance of religious pluralism.
These noxious weeds disfigure Israeli society.
The arson attack on the Catholic church at Tabgha, currently being investigated as a possible hate crime, is but the latest example of the ills that beset Israel in its 67th year of existence.
In recent years, more than 50 attacks against Christian institutions in Israel have been recorded. Mosques in the West Bank have also been the target of arsonists. As well, olive groves owned by Palestinian Arabs have been uprooted.
The assailants, when caught, have always turned out to be Jewish extremists associated with the settlement movement in the West Bank. This is hardly surprising. An alarming number of settlers, animated by a toxic blend of extreme right-wing nationalism and messianism, will do virtually anything to eradicate their real or imagined enemies.
It’s gratifying that Israeli leaders were quick to unequivocably condemn the desecration of the church, a major tourist attraction for Christian pilgrims. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described it as “an attack on the very fabric of life in our country, where people of different faiths seek to live together in harmony and mutual tolerance and respect.” Echoing Rivlin’s comments, Netanyahu called it “an attack on us all,” strongly suggesting that such assaults undermine Israel.
Yet shortly after Rivlin and Netanyahu issued their statements, Yisrael Eichler, a member of United Torah Judaism, had the audacity to declare that Women of the Wall prayer services at the Western Wall are “no less dangerous” than the arson attack against the church.
Going one step further, Eichler claimed that women who have smuggled Torah scrolls into the women’s section of the Western Wall are “liable to cause hate crimes.”
Eichler’s analogy is incredible and preposterous, but what can one expect of a representative of a haredi party?
The problem is that Eichler is no ordinary citizen foaming at the mouth. He’s a member of one of Israel’s most important institutions, and his party is in Netanyahu’s coalition.
The same holds true for David Azoulay, who’s not only an MK representing the Shas Party, but the minister of religious affairs. During a meeting in which the Women of the Wall was discussed, Azoulay reportedly said that Reform Jews — who tend to support the legitimate activities and aspirations of Women of the Wall — are “a disaster for the people of Israel.”
Azoulay’s mean-spirited and libellous comments, of course, are in keeping with the narrow worldview of Shas, a Sephardi Orthodox party. Nonetheless, as the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism correctly pointed out in a press release, his verbal onslaught is completely unacceptable, upsetting as it does “the feelings of millions of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora and seriously endangering the relationship of the Jewish community in the Diaspora with the State of Israel.”
In response to Azoulay’s volley, Netanyahu said he “seriously disagrees” with it. Netanyahu was right to issue this disclaimer, but at the end of the day, words are only words. Azoulay still sits in Netanyahu’s cabinet, as do members of United Torah Judaism. That’s what really counts in the final analysis.
The dark forces of Muslim fundamentalism have launched a campaign to destroy the Jewish state, but in Israel, Jewish reactionaries opposed to a live-and-let-live philosophy are already eating away at its foundations.