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Judaism on Edge


A Fanaticism that will only Lead to Peril

June 22nd 2012

Haredi Violence

Is it just me or is there indeed more discord within the Jewish community than in recent times?  Jews proclaim with fervor "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh” that every Jewish soul is responsible for every other.  Yet it seems as if there are more internal challenges now than in recent memory: bitter rivalries that could make instances of persecution by gentiles seem as mere playground brawls. It is hard to imagine that anyone really believes peace and harmony for Israel and Jews worldwide is possible while they violently disagree with one another more than they do with any other people - even the Palestinians.

You need only to look at the huge wasted opportunity and money spent on the so called Asifa (gathering), to enact an Internet ban for religious Jews.  The effort that cost more than $2 million and brought ultra orthodox Jewish men together, mostly by coercion, to hear unscripted and uncoordinated messages about why the Internet was evil.  Rather than demand that people take personal responsibility for one’s actions, the weak leadership would just turn off progress and the future to preserve their failed policies of poor education, abject naivety and searing control that dictates marital prospects, communal acceptance and even much needed financial support.  

Curiously enough, as the Hebrew and Arabic language share common roots, the late Palestinian terrorist leader Yasser Arafat used a similar name for his Palestinian political and military organization in 1958 called Al-Asifa (The Gathering).  In the 1960s and 1970s, it trained terrorist and insurgent groups and began a jihadist movement that has only grown, splintered and become even more global, fanatical and deadly.

I had a client recently who is part of an ultra orthodox community in Brooklyn who said to me after learning that I was raised in a small yeshiva environment and now work in a very secular word, “then you did what I could not do, you got out.”  Even though our communities, families and circumstances were very different, the point was clear.  Some know it is oppressive, but lack the ability, strength or initiative to find a way out of that environment or to work to change the system to restore it to what it was founded for - to preserve what many thought would be lost with integration and especially assimilation, the essence of the religion itself.

What that protective movement grew to become in many, but not all ultra orthodox communities, however, is more reflective of a fiefdom for the few leaders who maintain control though limited education, threats, ostracism, violence and economic pressure.

There are the numerous counts that have been exposed recently of child abuse, sexual deviancy and domestic abuse not only occurring, but being covered up by religious leadership.  In Brooklyn, the five-term District Attorney, Charles Hynes is now marred with the scandal of helping conceal orthodox sexual and domestic abuse suspects and underreport such crimes. Had it not been for the Internet, the parents, children and women would not have found their voices and the beginnings of justice for them and those still unknown. The attempted ban and this are not so unrelated.

On June 21, the NY Times reported that D.A. Hynes office investigated and has now charged four men from the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with trying to coerce an alleged child victim of a suspected molester, also from within the same community, to leave the country immediately and take $500 thousand for her troubles.

We saw the disappointing actions of certain Israeli communities in Bet Shemesh and Me’ah Shearim earlier this year toward fellow Jews who do not share the same level of observance as those who live within them.  They spit on women who they deem to be improperly dressed, stone young women walking to modern Jewish schools, denigrate female soldiers who fight to protect them and their way of life, and even push occupied baby carriages in front of moving buses to prevent co-ed riding.

The lives of helpless children are used as pawns in the fight to mandate fanaticism within Judaism.  What makes that so different than strapping a bomb onto a young child and making him walk into a busy mall to kill in the name of one’s narrow interpretation of God’s will?

In perilous times, communities should come together for strength.  That is too much to ask for here.  There are now advancing movements within European countries to ban ritual slaughter, calling it inhumane.  It would essentially keep kosher meat off the menu for most observant families.  This push comes in a similar time frame as the effort of cities such as San Francisco which was seeking to legislate a ban on ritual circumcision.  No one should think twice about any PR spin – these are, in fact, anti-Semitic efforts to ban Judaism by backdooring laws couched in buzzwords that appeal to the “progressives” such as “humane”, “cruel” and “archaic”.

So, while the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, who also happens to run a major kashrut agency is fighting a serious challenge to kosher slaughter in the Netherlands, some anonymous attackers who openly challenge that rabbi’s client, a major American provider of kosher meat, and the rabbi himself, in a class action suit that contains few facts, and seemingly readily defensible arguments.  If indeed there is a problem with the company’s kosher business, it indeed should be exposed and corrected, but this appears to be more of an internal, personal Jewish disagreement rather than a secular legal one.  This will play out in court, and the challenges will be weighed and decided, but the timing of this suit, when harmony is the better route for the preservation for worldwide Judaism, seems just par for the course being plotted these days

Then, the UJA Federation released a study showing that Judaism is polarizing, with the religious and traditionalists growing and those who practice or believe somewhat less are all but disappearing.  Yet, with that news, the organization is still largely run by the ones who are disappearing - according to their own study – but it makes decisions for the community as a whole; hence, the reason the Celebrate Israel Parade was forced to allow “boycott-Israel” groups to march.

And now that the Moslem Brotherhood just won the elections in Egypt, Israel is facing what it feared all along, a democratically elected and radicalized government opposed to Israel’s existence.  How can Israel hope to achieve a peace, claiming that Israel is a unified Jewish state, when it is indeed as divided as the rest of the Jewish world is from the one another?  Divided so much that the largest annual American event for Israel now promotes the protestors as much as the supporters?

Hope does spring eternal, however, and finally Prime Minister Netanyahu and the members of Knesset in Israel last month formed a huge unity government to ward off new elections when Netanyahu’s coalition with the Charedi parties failed. 

As those communities took more and more from the state and gave less and less back, the ability to keep Netanyahu in power and the rest of the illegitimate financial arrangement going collapsed.  It took the breakdown for the new more eclectic government to be formed, yet most saw the writing on the wall a long time prior.  The price exacted from the ultra religious communities, as it indeed seems to be all over, was too high to manage.  Whether it is divine providence, or just good common sense, the Israelis seemed to finally say enough, and declared it time to really come together for a common good.

We can hope it succeeds, and we hope the lessons learned can be learned by Jewish communities worldwide.  The fanatics among us divide, while all others need to find the common bonds that demonstrate the essence of Judaism so it truly can be preserved.

Juda Engelmayer is a senior vice president of the New York public relations agency, 5WPR

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