The night Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a young Religious Zionist yeshiva and law student, I was off to Ben Gurion airport. I was flying to America raising funds for the open, tolerant institution of higher Jewish learning that I’d made aliyah with my family to head only half a year before.
That Saturday night after Shabbat, I hurriedly packed my luggage, immediately fell asleep in the taxi, and then ran to the strangely silent El Al ticket counter. Getting my boarding papers, I rushed to the gate, still unaware of what had happened. My sense that something was terribly wrong was heightened by a clearly anguished, tall airport employee pushing a wagon of heavy bags, and crazedly screaming over and over as he passed down the aisle: tzrichim lihitbayesh! – we must be ashamed! And as he barely scraped by me, he added: “For this and for all that led to this, we must be ashamed!”
Once aboard, I found out about our shame. And what preceded it. Later, in the USA, at every Orthodox school, synagogue, or organization I spoke at, at least one person would interrupt the shiur (Talmud lesson) with: “It’s so terrible what happened to the prime minister, but to what extent would you say he was to blame?” I was continually shocked by that softcore violent probe, a second assassination of sorts.
Returning to Israel, a week later, I found that many of my Orthodox colleagues were eager to suggest answers to Rabin’s “blame,” mixed in with conspiracy theories of the wildest and the most debased sorts. I figured then that contemporary Orthodoxy was not a religion that understood the responsibility to own up, which is the start of teshuvah – repentance. Indeed, real teshuvah, the “we must be ashamed” plaint of that stevedore, was not going to really kick in. It never did.
Presently, we are back in a “we must be ashamed” moment, for what is happening and what can happen, God forbid. The delegitimizing of the leadership of the new government is wild, unhinged, and violent. The norms of civilized behavior are trampled on, with only a wink and nod accompanying claims by the accusers and denouncers that they were never advocating real violence. But when rabbis and political hacks unabashedly and loudly proclaim that the new government is illegal, un-Jewish and evil, we know what they mean.
For these vicious religious Zionist mischief-makers, Arab Israeli citizens are to be provoked through insult, spit and denunciations, as the Israeli flag is marched through Arab neighborhoods. Why should Arab residents not believe the marchers who insinuate that the next step will be violent and merciless? Do they hear the calls of Orthodox rabbis reining in the mob and their leaders who are these rabbis’ students and followers? They do not hear the calls for tolerance and peace because they are not being made. The rabbis present themselves as fomenting trouble and preaching essential superiority and disdain of their fellow monotheists.
On our street, which we share with Arab families, I have a neighbor. We are not close, but we share information, news and views. We see each other as “reasonable.” Last night, he had two questions for me. The first I thought was a jab: “Don’t your rabbis have any respect for a prime minister who wears a kippah – or maybe it’s too small?” I could not respond. Then he asked: “If your religious people tear up the prayer books of the Women (of the Wall), do you have a plan to do the same to our Holy Quran?” He was serious, and the only answer I could give was “No! We only do this to each other.” He thought that was “reasonable.” Silently, to myself, I concluded, “We Orthodox better start being ashamed.”
I would be remiss if I did not finish the story of the conversation. A gust of wind – spirit? – picked up my straw hat, doing cartwheels, off the edge of the Tayelet/Promenade – toward hillside oblivion. At the last minute, my neighbor’s 10-year-old grandson, pedaling furiously on his bicycle, snatched it in mid-air and, doing a triumphant wheelie, delivered it safely back to me with a smile. “See?” my neighbor said more somberly, “There is hope.”