The Curse of Violent Extremism

“Let the greatest Rabbis in the Jewish world go to Bet Shemesh. Let each walk a little second grader to school. Let their rebbetzins hold a girl’s hand and say, “Come my dear, don’t be afraid, I will walk you to school.” Let them, our Gedolim, our Torah giants, look in the face of the Chasidim yelling “Nazi” at little girls and Jewish policemen and tell them to be silent.”

Rabbi Shaul Robinson, Senior Rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue, New York, writing in voiceoflss (The voices of Lincoln Square Synagogue); emphasis by the author:

I want to address the terrible scenes we have seen in Israel this past week – indeed these past years. Horrifying scenes of violence, of extremism. The nauseating sight of grown men, extremists, shouting, hitting, spitting at and chasing school girls. And all of the other problems that we have become so used to – of violence, and extremism, from a small (very small) section of the Ultra Orthodox community.

… The recent events concern the opening of Orot, a Dati Leumi (Modern Orthodox) girls school in Bet Shemesh. Bet Shemesh used to be a poor, mainly Sephardic town in Israel. Over the years it has greatly expanded, attracting many Anglo immigrants, to the town itself and to the surrounding area of Ramat Bet Shemesh. Parts of the new neighborhoods are designated Charedi, and many people from Jerusalem, some of them members of extreme, anti-zionist Chasidic sects have moved to Bet Shemesh. And they have sought to impose their standards and way of life on the surrounding neighborhoods.

For years now we have been reading about violence by members of this community – attacking a Yom Haatzamaut (Independence Day) concert in a park, pelting eggs at the participants, threatening people with violence, and so on.

The new school is situated not in, but close to, a Charedi neighborhood. When it opened in September violent demonstrations began. These have continued, on and off, through this week, which have seen young girls afraid to walk to school. There have been shouts of “pritzus” (immodesty) and “prostitute” at girls.

The Modern Orthodox community – many of them olim (immigrants), many of them people like us, who have followed the dream of going to live in Israel to live religious lives – has, quite simply, had enough of this. The issue has now attracted major media attention, not just in Israel, but also throughout the world.

It is a Chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) of major proportions.

Much hostility has been addressed at the fanatics, but some also at of the wider Charedi population.

But that is a problem that the leaders of that community have to address. Yes, of course, it is true that, at least in America, rabbinic organizations, including the Ultra-Orthodox Agudah have condemned these violent thugs – not to do so is unthinkable. We are talking about the worst sort of violence, in the name of religion, directed at little girls. It’s inexcusable.

But press releases in America – and in Israel, where, sadly, it has been more muted – don’t begin to address the real problem.

These people are fanatics, they are extremists, criminals – call them what you like – but they are a product of Orthodox Judaism and we have to take ownership of the problem. As well as the fact that parts of the Orthodox world are spinning out of control – growing more extreme, more insane, day by day.

… And that the people that dressed their children up in concentration camp clothes and claiming they are the victims of a new Holocaust (a sight that sickens us to the core) are not part of Orthodoxy?

These weeks, the rabbinic leadership of the Orthodox world has rushed to distance itself from these attacks. (I suppose we have to be grateful to The New York Times for ensuring that something was said.) However, the main response is that these people are but a tiny bunch of fanatics who represent no one.

But that is inadequate, because they have supporters.

In every online article or blog about these incidents, a significant percentage of people will write in support of the extremists, saying things like – “these Modern Orthodox girls dress like sluts – they have it coming to them.” Or “if they want to dress like this – let them move to Tel Aviv” – forgetting that Bet Shemesh is not a Charedi town and this school is not in a Charedi neighborhood. Why should they move?

Moreover, it’s not enough simply to disassociate from just the demonstrators. The violence may be limited – but what leads to the violence – a rising tide of extremism – is taking over the Jewish world.

… When did the laws of modesty (which are important laws) mean that you cannot print a picture of women in a newspaper? (It recently emerged that the Jerusalem municipality had adopted a policy of not printing pictures of women in any advertisements for fear of offending the Ultra-Orthodox community.)

Jewish life in this day is undergoing a tragic disfigurement – more extreme, more strict. All sense of moderation, of tradition, is being pushed out.

The fact is that the Orthodox world is being overtaken by extremism. And that the leaders of that world are reluctant, or unable, to speak up.

But speak up they must. For too much is at stake.

… So what must be done?

First of all, we must ask for those who proclaim themselves the leaders of the religious world, here and in Israel, to condemn this. The rabbis, the roshei yeshiva, the rebbes.

Condemnation is not a press release.

A few weeks ago Rabbi Riskin wrote a powerful op-ed piece in Haaretz condemning the extremists in the settler movement who had attacked an army base. He wrote “You did not throw stones at me, and still you have mortally wounded me.” Let one Rebbe, one Gadol, write such an article, in Haaretz.

People will say: “It’s beneath their dignity”. But the Gemara tells us: Kol makom she’yesh chilul Hashem, ein cholkin kavod l’rav – there is no kavod (honor) when chilul Hashem is in question.

For decades, we in the Modern Orthodox world have been challenged: “where are your Gedolim, where are your leaders? After all, we Ultra Orthodox do nothing without our Torah leaders.”

Now is the time for leadership.

Let the greatest Rabbis in the Jewish world go to Bet Shemesh. Let each walk a little second grader to school. Let their rebbetzins hold a girl’s hand and say, “Come my dear, don’t be afraid, I will walk you to school.” Let them, our Gedolim, our Torah giants, look in the face of the Chasidim yelling “Nazi” at little girls and Jewish policemen and tell them to be silent.

Show your love for kal yisarel! (The people of Israel)

That’s condemnation – not a press release – but tochacha, rebuke.

If your interpretation of the laws of modesty mean that you don’t want to sit on a bus with a women, then get off and walk.

Don’t push an entire gender to the back – and don’t impose that with threats of violence and spitting (as has been happening recently).