What Will It Take? The Fight for Religious Pluralism in Israel

Just a day or two ago, a young Israeli woman named Noa Raz, a product of the Masorti movement and its NOAM youth program, was physically assaulted by a Haredi Jew in the Central Bus Station in Beer Sheva.

Were the story to stop there it would be bad enough, but it gets worse.

Why was Noa assaulted? Because the Haredi Jew, a man, saw the marks left by her tefillin straps that morning. Noa prays with tefillin in the morning, as do many women in the Conservative and Masorti movements. That was her “provocation.”

When the ultra-Orthodox Jew saw the tefillin marks, he was so filled with religious rage that he literally assaulted Noa, grabbing and kicking her.

Luckily, she was able to extricate herself from his grip and run to a safer place. But this incident has taken the fight for religious pluralism and tolerance in Israel to a completely different level.

What we’re talking about now is not just equal rights, or equity in government funding. This is now about the basic responsibility of a state to guarantee the safety of its citizens, and to insure that its culture does not become one of lawlessness. Israel is perilously close to lawlessness, at least in regard to Haredi Jews feeling that violence against Jews who are different from them is not only understandable, but also warranted.

It was only a few weeks ago that Haredi men threw chairs over the mehitza at the Kotel, disrupting a Rosh Hodesh prayer service of the Women of the Wall and endangering its members. Evidently, their very presence in traditional prayer shawls was so inflammatory to these men’s Haredi sensitivities that they responded with violence. What happened at the bus station in Beer Sheva was not all that different, except for the fact that there was no mehitza separating the attacker and the attackee. The man asked the woman if the marks on her arm were indeed from tefillin, and when she said yes, he attacked. No chair throwing, but actual grabbing and kicking.

Unbelievable, right? Well, this really happened, so while it may be hard to believe, it’s true, and has been reported as such in the news in Israel.

The sad truth is that it’s really not unbelievable at all.

Some will remember the horrible incident of a few years back, when the members of a Masorti minyan, men and women, were spit upon in the plaza near the Kotel, and had garbage thrown at them, because they had the nerve to have a prayer service of men and women together. What sticks in my mind from that episode was a quote attributed to one of the Haredi Jews who threw garbage. When asked why he had done so, and what was the provocation, he replied, “Their very existence is a provocation.”

I remember reading that quote and thinking to myself that it sounded familiar, but for all the wrong reasons. Hitler said that about the Jews- about us. Our very existence was a provocation, and he used that line of reasoning to justify and rationalize any and all violence and discrimination against Jews. If someone’s very existence is a provocation, then al bets are off…

Israel has already lost a Prime Minister to the extremism of its religious right, yet it seems not to have internalized the systemic danger to Israeli society of its failure to root out and punish those who would conduct themselves in an unlawful (not to mention obnoxious) manner because of religious belief. Do we really need to think all that hard in order to conjure up just how badly scenarios rooted in religious intolerance can play out? I live in New York, and I don’t need to be reminded.

Israel has known more than its share of undeserved, unprovoked violence, and it has tasted the bitter pill of senseless hatred. There can be no excuse for failing to deal with this kind of behavior in a forceful and very public way.

The time has come for Israel to stand up and say, “This kind of conduct will not be tolerated here.” A lot of Jews, and lovers of Israel, are watching. Political considerations cannot be an excuse. Our very existence must never be referred to as a provocation, and a justification of violence against us. Beersheva in 2010 is not Berlin in 1938. How pathetic to even have to say that…

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

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About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.