A new terrorist threat has now been identified emerging from the rubble of the World Trade Center: it is "fundamentalist" Jews. At least that's the message presented by Uri Regev, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, in a recent lecture in a Reform temple in Cleveland.
The lesson to be learned from the September 11 loss of human life, he concluded, is the need to band together to fight both Muslim and Jewish religious zealots. Earlier in his speech, he identified the Jewish religious zealots he had in mind: the haredim, who have distorted Torah to provide license "to get rid of infidels."
Get it: haredim kill people. They are no different than the Islamic terrorists who flew jumbo jets into the World Trade Center or Palestinian suicide bombers. They all seek to drive out the infidels.
Regev's equation of Orthodox Jews and radical Islamists is despicable. My only response is that of Joseph Welch, chief counsel to the US army, to Senator Joseph McCarthy: "Sir, have you no sense of decency left?"
Within 15 minutes of the first jumbo jet crashing into the World Trade Center, between 80 to 100 Hatzoloh volunteers - Orthodox and haredi Jews who are on call 24 hours a day and receive no reimbursement of any kind for their services - were on the scene evacuating people. By 10:00 a.m. 200 volunteers and 24 ambulances were at the World Trade Center, treating the injured and evacuating the area.
When the south tower collapsed, most of the Hatzoloh volunteers were standing directly in the line of the falling debris. One took cover near a firetruck. He felt a firefighter fall on top of him. When the black cloud passed, he realized that the firefighter had been decapitated by falling glass.
Another volunteer received a 50-stitch gash in his head.
A photo in Business Week showed a long-bearded Hatzoloh volunteer, his tzitzit (ritual fringes) hanging out from under his orange Hatzoloh vest, holding up a dazed fireman and leading him from the scene.
In all, Hatzoloh lost 10 vehicles, including two fully equipped ambulances. A number of volunteers had to be hospitalized, and many more bentched gomel (offered the traditional thanksgiving prayer).
Does Regev really see no difference between the "fundamentalists" risking their lives to save others outside the WTC and those responsible for the deaths of more than 5,000 people inside?
Regev also played typically fast and loose with the truth before his Cleveland audience. He spoke of "fervently religious Jews" setting fire to Conservative and Reform synagogues and institutions. In doing so, he repeated the libel used by Reform fundraisers in the United States for years. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised on the claim that "haredim" torched a Reform nursery school in Mevaseret Zion four years ago, despite the absence of a scintilla of evidence to support that charge.
The "ultra-Orthodox" arsonists of a Conservative synagogue in Ramot in the summer of 2000 turned out to be two young men wearing Nike T-shirts and with long prison records - hardly the typical haredi garb or educational background.
REGEV did not tell his audience that Orthodox institutions are far more likely to be vandalized than non-Orthodox. In 1997-98 alone, there were 32 such incidents in which syngogues were set on fire, holy books torn, burned or smeared with excrement, and swastikas spray-painted on the outside. Not once did Regev issue a public condemnation. Not once did he speak of secular "fundamentalism," and we can be sure that he did not compare the perpetrators of these acts to Osama bin Laden in Cleveland.
We can also be sure that Regev did not mention in Cleveland that virtually every major private medical organization in Israel serving the general population - such as Yad Sarah, Ezer Mitzion, Ezra L'Marpeh, Zichron Menachem, Kav L'Chaim, Magen L'Choleh - was founded by haredi Jews.
I would also bet that Regev's audience did not hear how haredi Jews frequently outnumber secular Jews at dialogue groups designed to bring religious and non-religious together. In short, they did not hear anything that would have given the lie to the portrait of hate-filled haredim bent on eradicating infidels.
Regev's calculated demagoguery reflects an ugly aspect of Israeli life: the exploitation of tragedy for narrow partisan gain. We witnessed this again last week at the Knesset memorial services for those killed in the Sibir Airlines disaster. Shinui Knesset member Victor Brailovksy, whose own cause as a Prisoner of Zion was actively championed by Orthodox Jews in America at great personal cost and risk to themselves used the occasion to criticize the Chaplaincy Corps for not having searched for bodies on Shabbat, even though there was absolutely no chance of finding anyone alive.
Interestingly, neither he nor Yossi Sarid, who used the occasion to attack the Chief Rabbinate, saw fit to condemn the city of Tel Aviv for going ahead with its Love Day bacchanal on the very day that so many Jews were killed.
Sure, Regev has his issues. He favors civil marriage, the dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate, the end of Israel as a Jewish state, or what is the same thing, the recognition of any credo promulgated by any group of Jews as Judaism. These are all legitimate issues that have been debated before and will be debated again. But to advance his political agenda by stirring up hatred for one's fellow Jews and comparing them to the murderers of thousands is unconscionable.
Regev could learn a lesson from David Bateman, rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in Ramot, victimized by arson last year. Bateman could have gone to America on a widely publicized speaking tour describing how his synagogue had been torched by the haredim and pleading for funds to stand up to the haredi menace. He would have become an instant celebrity and returned laden with enough money to build a palace.
Instead Bateman cautioned the media - wisely, as it turned out - against making any assumptions about the perpetrators, and issued a statement that the act should not be considered an expression of the ultra-Orthodox but, at most, that of "some kind of lunatic fringe." That night he convened a gathering outside his synagogue attended by Jews across the religious spectrum from ultra-Orthodox to secular to express their revulsion.
The Jewish world today desperately needs more Batemans.