Paul Alster
Israel-based print and broadcast journalist

Losing my religion

When my parents chose to have my bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue instead of the usual Orthodox shul, the first question that greeted me from friends was, “Which of your parents isn’t Jewish?”

They appeared en masse to be baffled when I assured them that both my parents were Jewish, my family on both sides has been Jewish for as long as is possible to determine, and indeed my grandpa’s forebears were rabbis in Lithuania and Russia under the old family name of Altschuler. The reaction to our “crossing the divide” engendered some quirky, shoulder-shrugging responses from some, whilst others stunned us all by refusing to attend my bar mitzvah and go into “that place where they speak some English during the service” and where — horror of horrors — men actually sit next to women!

My family (yes, it was a family decision) chose to attend Reform synagogue, feeling that it related better to us in this modern world; that it allowed us to understand what we were saying, instead of repeating parrot-fashion words in Hebrew that we didn’t understand; and that it was a fairer reflection of family values, seating us together to enjoy the Shabbat service as one — not divided, segregated, or kept apart as is the tradition in Orthodox shuls.

I make the above points not in any way to undermine the belief of those from the Orthodox Jewish community, be they Ashkenazi or Sephardi, for I strongly defend the right of everyone to believe what they want and approach religion in whatever way they feel suits them best. I only wish that all sides would display tolerance and understanding of the differences within our religion, let alone attempt to find common ground with those from other religions who surround this tiny land of ours.

In the last 48 hours we have seen the return to the “battlefield” of the Haredim in Jerusalem, protesting yet again the opening of the Karta car park near the Old City. The hatred displayed in the eyes of the fur-hatted protesters, who on the holiest (and hottest) day of the week, on the Shabbat that for them is is supposed to be all about prayer and quiet reflection, chose to engage in pitch battles, beat up policemen (and women) and any secular-looking passers-by, and make life a misery for locals and tourists of the area, is quite appalling.

They openly flout the law and act in thuggish mob violence that, if perpetrated by modern Orthodox or secular Jews, Christian, or Arabs, would certainly result in mass arrests and convictions. It appears however that the law is not applied equally in such circumstances as the authorities are fearful of provoking an even stronger backlash from this racist section of the Haredi community.

It seems that Israel is becoming beholden to this intolerant growing minority, many of whom choose not to acknowledge the legitimacy of the State of Israel, choose not to work, choose not to serve in the army, pay no taxes, but claim a disproportionately high percentage of social benefits and handouts in order to support their very large families, paid for by the rest of the Israeli society that they abhor. Many amongst them do not respect the law of the land and choose instead to answer only to their rabbi in matters of right and wrong. Put in other terms this sounds only a step short of anarchy.

These protesters –whose behaviour (I am assured) reflects a minority of Haredim – serve to further alienate people from both sides of the religious spectrum within Judaism. It forces secular or moderately observant Jews to become more anti-Haredi and take entrenched positions against the religious section of Israeli society, in much the same way the religious do against the secularists.

Then today we read of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi hitting out at the recent decision to allow Reform and Conservative rabbis to receive state funding in the same way that Orthodox rabbis do, although the new funding will come from the Culture Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry, thereby in no way diluting the funding that the Orthodox communities currently receive.

But that isn’t good enough (it would seem) to pacify those who are not prepared to tolerate a different perspective on our religion. They are furious, and want to stir up a hornets nest. They’re prepared to wage war on the subject in a bid to stop assimilation. Isn’t it the case however that their intolerant actions serve only to drive as many, if not more Jews away from the religion than they purport to ‘save’?

Where will it all lead? Are we on the slippery slope towards an internal religious war in Israel, our own version of the Sunni/Shia conflicts that have marred Islam for so long, or the Catholic/Protestant divide that has caused chasms in Christianity for hundreds of years? Radicals might suggest that maybe it would be better for us all if we abandoned religion altogether and stopped trying to judge our brethren by the perspective they take on their religion as human beings blessed with freedom of thought and expression; a utopian vision, but surely wholly unrealistic.

When I reflect on the events of the last couple of days I can only speak of my own personal disillusionment at what I see religion doing to so many amongst us. Yes, of course, there are many good people with religious conviction who do tolerate and do accept other strands of opinion. But their voice is now becoming increasingly drowned out by those who believe that their interpretation of God’s word is beyond question, who have effectively hijacked Judaism, and believe they can do and say whatever they like to whoever they wish – with God’s blessing.


About the Author
Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist with a special interest in the Israel/Palestinian conflict and Middle East politics. He is a regular contributor to a variety of international news websites including The Jerusalem Report, and was formerly's main Middle East correspondent. He can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster or at