The alleged recent beating and torture of young Haim Mizrahi, a store clerk in the ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem, was captured on video and therefore made national newscasts (see Channel 12 video coverage) as well as these pages in the Times of Israel article. But the full story has yet to be told.
The Facts as Reported
The alleged facts of the event as they were reported are chilling: Mr. Mizrahi, a young clerk in a store in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem called Geula, was actually acting as a good citizen. He went out to intervene when he saw a private car damaging other cars as it drove by, as any model citizen would have done. He was merely attempting to get the driver to take responsibility for the damage caused to other vehicles by the reckless driving. As it turned out, the car was filled with plainclothes police officers, who beat Mr. Mizrahi, forced him into the car while continuing to beat his head inside the vehicle. Mr. Mizrahi’s only crime was asking, “Why are you hitting me?” He was taken to the Russian Compound, where his hands and feet were bound with plastic ties, and he was denied access to both his lawyer and a restroom during an entire night of interrogation. He was told, “This is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made.”
Outrage has been immediate. Journalists expressed sympathy for Mr. Mizrahi. The judge before whom Mr. Mizrahi was arraigned was said to have told him – after being shown the videos by his legal counsel — that she herself was shocked and wanted to bring her own lawsuit over his treatment. I have personally been approached by numerous people expressing shock and sympathy with Mr. Mizrahi. The outrage and sympathy are certainly appropriate and laudable.
The Backstory of the Brutality
Yet the brutality Mr. Mizrahi experienced did not come out of nowhere. And the full story is not being told. This incident is being portrayed as something of an isolated incident, an outrage out of context. To hear the reaction of the press, one is reminded of Louis Renault’s famous line uttered in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”
There has to be some level of disingenuousness in this reaction. Because it is an open secret that the ultra-Orthodox (even that term for them is a red herring, denoting some kind of wild fanaticism) are convenient scapegoats for real societal problems. The ultra-Orthodox are the butt of statements in the press and in politics that if said about Jews in general would immediately be condemned as base scapegoating and vile antisemitism. One example that those who remember recent news should not forget: “They should be thrown into a landfill.”
With statements like that – and many others to the effect that the ultra-Orthodox are parasites, corrupt, lazy, and unsavory (because of the recent scandal involving revelations about abusive predators who were outed) – the Israeli media and the Israeli government have demonized the ultra-Orthodox.
Let us be clear: It is not so much the mere statements themselves that are the underlying problem. When angry (either justifiably or otherwise), people sometimes say things that they later regret. Rather, it is that there is in fact an actual feeling of negativity – deeply felt by many people in Israeli society – that is fueled almost exclusively by antisemitic statements like the one quoted above. It is that peculiarly Israeli brand of antisemitism that finds its practical expression in police brutality.
The Perceived Crime of Being Ultra-Orthodox Is the Crime of Being the Unknown Other
If we sift through the mudslinging and accusations being leveled against the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, the basic accusation comes down to this: They are different than we are. Because they are different, because they take their values from the ancient source of the Jewish people, from the Written and Oral Torah itself, they have dared to breathe life into a tradition that many people do not want to survive. To destroy their distinctive way of life is the sometimes stated and sometimes unstated goal of the antisemitic diatribes being cast against them.
Make no mistake: No one would argue that ultra-Orthodox society is perfect. There are imperfections in it, as there are in all human endeavors. There are deeply troubled individuals who hurt others in that society, just as there are such people in other societies – including non-religiously Jewish ones – throughout the world. There are even those – a tiny minority of a few families in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh – who hang out black flags on Yom HaAtzmaut. But for the media to cover these outliers of ultra-Orthodox society as if they are the main event story of what is happening in ultra-Orthodox society is unbalanced and gratuitous coverage that is misleading. It is meant to lend fuel to the fire of the real accusation: They are not like us because they value Torah study and observance of the Torah’s injunctions (or Mitzvot) in ways that we do not value. So we will scapegoat them and tar them with negativity.
This is quite simply the real backstory behind brutality – not just against Mr. Mizrahi but also against Charedim and other Israelis as well. For a government deputy minister to call settlers “subhumans” also falls in the category of vile antisemitic slurs. This kind of dialogue simply should have no place in Jewish and Democratic state, a state that values freedom of thought and of expression and faith that Judaism requires and indeed that a free democracy requires as well.
A Genuine Invitation
If the problem is that ultra-Orthodox are the unknown other, and if there is a natural tendency to despise what we do not know, then the solution would seem to be obvious: Let us meet one another. Genuinely, openly, and freely. These are not empty words but a genuine invitation. As a simple member of the ultra-Orthodox public, I extend an open invitation to meet any individual from any other public who wants to get to know someone from my segment of Israeli society. I can be emailed at the contact information appearing in my author description in this article. And in case anyone doesn’t want to meet me specifically for any reason, I have many friends who would be happy to do the same. Let us meet for coffee, tea, or perhaps even Shabbat. Let us view one another as three-dimensional individuals rather than two-dimensional monsters. And if we can bring ourselves to do so, I am confident that the antipathy engendered by all of the empty stereotypes will be replaced by a genuine familiarity and affection, and as a result, much of the police brutality and much of the media and state stereotyping would simply disappear. We can only gain from this. To stop the demonization means that Israel would become both more democratic and – dare we say it – more Jewish as well.