Arson’s varied uses
by Eytan Kobre
Am Echad Resources
July 24, 2001
The recent attack on Conservative and Reform institutions in Israel were grievous violations of Jewish law and values. Period.
And yet, some of the comments that followed in their wake provide an object lesson in how the misdeeds of individuals are allowed, and sometimes used, to distort the debate over religious pluralism.
For one thing, the recent attacks are being taken by some as license to convey the message, subtly or otherwise, that many in the Orthodox community side, albeit quietly, with the arsonists. When Conservative leader Rabbi Ehud Bandel says he believes "that in the yeshiva grass roots there are people who are rethinking the situation and are embarrassed," behind the superficially conciliatory words lies the deft, and patently false, insinuation that significant numbers of yeshiva-oriented Orthodox have until now supported the use of violence against his movement – and that many who are not "rethinking the situation" still do.
Conservative Rabbi Reuven Hammer is far less subtle than his colleague. He asserts that there is "absolutely no question that these [attacks] have their roots in the inflammatory… rhetoric attacking the non-Orthodox movements…"
These spokesmen’s statements are disturbing for their supreme certitude. No perpetrators in the recent cases have even been apprehended, and one would think that experiences like the string of black church burnings in the mid-‘90s would have taught us that the "obvious" suspects are sometimes not the true culprits.
Equally disconcerting about these statements is how they seek to tar an entire community of hundreds of thousands of fellow Jews with a broad brush. For a more accurate picture of what the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews think about violence even in the face of incitement, Rabbis Bandel and Hammer might do well to consider an incident at last year’s prayer gathering in Jerusalem, which drew between a quarter and one half million participants. A videotape of the event shows a secular couple, the woman dressed in a way that might have once made a sailor blush, holding hands as they work their way through the massive sea of praying Orthodox men (on a reporter’s dare, the lady later explained.) They were entirely ignored by the huge throng.
But the most painful aspect of the official non-Orthodox reaction to the attack is the attempt to milk it for political mileage by portraying violence against fellow Jews as the unavoidable outgrowth of a sincerely-held rejection of pluralism. Thus, Conservative spokesman Rabbi Jerome Epstein believes that the attacks are "a result of a society that has permitted… an approach to pluralism that is so negative…" The Conservative and Reform mantra equating anti-pluralism and pro-violence has been embraced by the media to the point where even the Jerusalem Post’s rather even-handed editorial on the topic included the claim that the "refusal to recognize other legitimate streams of Judaism creates an atmosphere that may have led to the attack."
Rabbi Hammer claims that "no fervently Orthodox leader has expressed outrage publicly at the vandalism." In fact, Orthodox representatives such as Chief Rabbi Lau, Shas chairman Yair Peretz and Am Echad’s Jonathan Rosenblum, among others, have spoken up loudly and clearly to condemn the arson attack.
Those condemnations, no matter how emphatic, will not satisfy Rabbi Hammer. What he really wants is some concession by the Orthodox that it is the withholding of "legitimacy from non-Orthodox streams in Judaism that lays the foundation for such [attacks]." He insists that Orthodox leaders "set up an appointment to meet with non-Orthodox rabbis immediately" or "pay a visit to the Masorti synagogue."
Such steps, of course, can then be trumpeted as a quasi-acceptance of the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox movements. To use a tragic incident in this way should be unthinkable, but some apparently believe that even a temple torching must be spun in the service of a greater "pluralistic" goal.
And indeed, even after Rabbi Lau took pains to stress that his condemnation of the attack "has no connection to our opinions on the issue of the Judaic streams", the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s story reporting on his remarks was headlined "Faint readings of pluralism detected in reaction to Israel synagogue arson."
But linking the specter of intra-Jewish violence with the conceptually distinct issue of pluralism is simply unfair. It is neither logically nor religiously inconsistent to view the "multi-Judaisms" model as fallacious while, at the same time, unequivocally vilifying those who would use violence against advocates of pluralism.
Supporters and opponents of pluralism in Israel desperately need to find things they can agree upon. Let a resolve to keep the utter rejection of violence against other Jews above the ideological fray be one of them.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's
pool of writers]
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