With every passing day, awareness grows that violence has become endemic to Israeli society. Last week, we were left numb by one senseless murder after another: 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.
The names of slain spouses and girlfriends have all blurred by now – too numerous to remember. And the major study of the Israeli school system reveals that exposure to repeated bullying and threats with lethal weapons are a fact of life for many of our schoolchildren.
The highly publicized arson of a Conservative synagogue in Ramot this past Saturday night raises again the question: What has become of us? The sight of scorched Jewish houses of worship arouses powerful memories of Kristallnacht and of thousands of pogroms in the collective Jewish unconscious.
If Jews can kill other Jews as cheaply as some residents of Harlem and Watts dispatch one another, perhaps it should come as no surprise that they can also torch houses of worship as well. But it does.
"Violence, any act of violence," to quote the ultra-Orthodox 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."
It is painful that as an observant Jew I feel that such a denunciation of violence is demanded of me. But, in the current climate, I stand accused.
The media has assumed that the perpetrators are observant Jews. Such assumptions are dangerous. (In this regard, David Bateman, rabbi of the Ya’ar Ramot synagogue, is to be highly commended for cautioning against reading the incident as an expression of the "ultra-Orthodox community" as opposed to "some kind of lunatic fringe.")
Over a decade ago, there was a series of bus stop burnings in Jerusalem. Then too it was assumed that the perpetrators were hareidim offended by the advertisements. Yet when the culprits were caught, they turned out to be secular youths who had found the opportunity for a doubly good "prank."
Three years ago, a Reform nursery school was torched in Mevasseret Zion. Again it was reported as a matter of fact that chareidim were responsible, and the arson became the center piece of a huge Reform fundraising campaign in the United States.
Yet not one bit of evidence linking chareidim 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.
Does that mean that the Ramot arson was not the work of anyone identified with the chareidi community? Only a fool would say so with absolute assurance. True, we have not yet read of a chareidi wife-slayer or murderer. True, chareidi schools are almost violence free. But chareidi society does not exist in a hermetically-sealed bubble protected from the influences of the outside world. It too has its hooligans and riff-raff.
Yet if the arsonist in Ramot turns out to be someone who has gone through the chareidi educational system, it will not be enough to simply dismiss his actions as those of a fringe character. We would still have to ask ourselves whether our children, for whom violence is something foreign, nevertheless understand why the Ramot arson was indefensible.
More importantly, we have to ask ourselves whether our children are ever conscious of our Sages interpretation of the verse in Shema, "You shall love the Lord, Your God, with all your heart:" "You shall make the Lord, your G-d, beloved to your fellow man." Have we placed the imperative of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the Divine Name in our everyday behavior, at the center of the education we provide our young?
A lot of soul-searching is needed, but not just by chareidim. The Ramot arson was not an isolated event. The only thing unique about it was the vast media coverage it generated.
MaNoF, a chareidi information center, has compiled a list of 32 attacks on religious institutions in 1997-98, 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, the French Hill and Neve Yaakov neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Ein Hod, and a government religious school in Tel Aviv; pages of Tanach covered in excrement at the Technion; and mezuzos 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 chareidim.
None of the above incidents made it to the New York Times; indeed only a handful were reported the mainstream Israeli press, even when accompanied by dramatic photos. 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; neither Tommy Lapid nor Uri Regev of the Israel Religious Action Center (Reform) nor the Conservative Movement checked in with condemnations nor did anyone demand that they do so.
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 iota 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.