When Jews Abuse Jews

I was recently riveted by some footage on social media of a besuited young man at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, sauntering in front of the camera while ostentatiously wiping his nose on a page torn from a Reform prayer book. Apparently parties of Reform and Conservative Jews worshipping at the so-called egalitarian section of the Wall, which allows men and women to pray side by side, are regularly being subjected to vile abuse by gangs of ultra-Orthodox youngsters.

Police patrolling the area took no action other than to remonstrate mildly with the perpetrators as if they were merely high spirited spectators at a sports event. The victims had no recourse to the protection of the law and were left to shield their vulnerable friends and relatives, including children, from the abuse and then manage the traumatic aftermath as best they could. A notable backdrop to this phenomenon has been the deafening silence of the elders of the Orthodox community, implying a tacit condoning of the actions of their younger co-religionists.

No other country with democratic pretensions would countenance repeated and predictable attacks on a group of worshippers by a mob. Living in the United Kingdom, I am too far removed from Israeli politics to have an intimate understanding of the power structures which have given licence to such orchestrated Jewish hooliganism. I can, however, offer a view on the psychology behind the abuse, which is universal.

The word which insistently comes to mind when I search for an explanation is ‘contempt’. The OED defines contempt as the feeling that a person is worthless or beneath consideration, which I simply translate as ‘looking down on another person or group’. My impression is that Orthodox Jewry, despite protestations to the contrary, looks down on Jews of other religious or spiritual persuasions as inferior beings and that there is a slippery slope from that position to one of hatred and violence.

The analogy can be extended beyond Jewish internecine conflict. Contempt can be traced to extreme dislike of anyone whose ways, appearance or beliefs differ from one’s own, and this dislike stems from fear. In the words of Shakespeare, “That which we fear, we come to hate”. Canny populist leaders and demagogues cultivate the art of stoking fear and anger, which, given a nurturing climate, can turn to violence. The sort of bullying we are witnessing at the Western Wall is a form of violence untrammelled by civil law and apparently sanctioned by religious law.

Israel prides itself on its status as a democracy. It was a country born in defiance, and I share its sense of pride in all that it has achieved. At the same time I am aware that pride has a habit of turning into arrogance, and I am alarmed by the country’s growing intolerance of difference and its disregard for human rights. A bleak view of the future is that religious law is in the ascendant and that the values which a democratic society holds dear are being eroded by a tyranny which effectively humours the perpetrators of violence. When I was a child, the Western Wall was referred to as the Wailing Wall. I can hear it wailing right now.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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