Arson in Ramot
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Baltimore Jewish Times
July 14, 2000
The highly publicized arson of a Conservative synagogue in suburban Jerusalem two weeks ago was merely the culmination of a numbing week. It began with a series of senseless murders: a toddler bludgeoned for disturbing the viewing of a TV soccer match, a man stabbed to death in a dispute over a beach chair, and another beaten to death over right of way on the highway.
Israelis were left asking one another: What has become of us if Jews kill other Jews as cheaply as residents of America's worst slums dispatch one another?
A major study of the Israeli school system published the same week revealed that the endemic violence starts early: Exposure to repeated bullying and threats with lethal weapons are a fact of life for many Israeli schoolchildren.
But even following such a week, the sight of a torched Jewish house of worship in Ramot still had the power to shock, for it aroused in our collective unconscious memories of Kristallnacht and thousands of other pogroms over the centuries.
The media assumed that the perpetrators of the synagogue arson are Haredi, or fervently Orthodox, Jews.
Such assumptions are dangerous.
Over a decade ago, there was a series of bus stop burnings in Jerusalem. Then too it was assumed that the perpetrators were Haredi Jews offended by the advertisements. Yet when the culprits were caught, they turned out to be secular youths.
Three years ago, a Reform nursery school was torched in Mevasseret Zion. Again it was reported as a matter of fact that the Haredim were responsible, and the arson became the centerpiece of a huge Reform fund-raising campaign in the United States.
Yet not one bit of evidence linking Haredi Jews to the crime was ever found. That arson was as likely the outgrowth of a long simmering dispute between poorer, veteran residents of Mevasseret and newly arrived, upscale Anglos.
That does not mean, of course, that the perpetrators could not have been from the Haredi community. Though that community is largely free of the most egregious violence of Israeli society, it does not exist in a hermetically sealed bubble unaffected by the outside world. It too has its riffraff.
And if the arsonist turns out to be someone who has gone through the Haredi educational system, it will not be enough to simply dismiss his actions as those of a fringe character. The community would still have to ask itself whether even those members for whom violence is personally foreign nevertheless understand why the Ramot arson was so repugnant.
"Violence, any act of violence," to quote the Haredi daily Yated Neeman's editorial on the subject, "must be condemned publicly with all the means at our disposal. When violence becomes a tool, there is no stopping it and no telling where it will end. ... We condemn the arson without qualification."
Unfortunately the Ramot arson was not an isolated event. The only thing unique about it was the vast media coverage it generated.
Less than a month ago, two Orthodox synagogues were trashed and gutted in another Jerusalem neighborhood. In 1997-98, there were 32 attacks on Orthodox institutions, many of them involving arson and damage in excess of that suffered by the Ramot synagogue.
Orthodox synagogues were torched in the Gilo and Ramot neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Neve Rotem; Torah scrolls and holy books burned or torn in shuls in Rosh Ha'ayin, Neve Rotem, Yaffa, Chazor, Ein Hod, Jerusalem, and a government religious school in Tel Aviv; pages of Tanach covered in excrement at the Technion; and mezuzot ripped down from shuls in Kiryat Gat and Haifa. Shuls were defaced with crosses and swastikas, and other anti-Semitic and anti-religious graffiti. During the same period, there were 39 physical attacks on Haredim.
The prime minister issued no statements; the head of the Jewish Agency did not come to tour the sites of the vandalism or conduct meetings there as a show of solidarity. There were no calls for national soul-searching.
The media showed no interest in Orthodox as victims. That would not have served anyone's political agenda.
None of this, of course, makes the arson attack in Ramot one bit less contemptible. But the pious denunciations would carry far more weight if they came from those who treat similar actions with equal seriousness regardless of the identity of the victim.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Pluralism
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