Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2001 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

To tell the truth

By Jonathan Rosenblum -- THOSE who creep around in the dark whispering about others have a natural aversion to the glare of publicty. So Israeli Reform leader Uri Regev's ire at having been caught describing fervently-Orthodox Jews in Israel as seeking to "get rid of infidels'' in the manner of Islamic fanatics occasions no surprise.

Regev denies having lumped all Orthodox Jews together. Red herring -- no one claimed otherwise. His target were haredim, as the Cleveland Jewish News wrote explicitly. Nor was he accused of calling every fervently-Orthodox Jew a religious zealot bent on violence. Not even every Palestinian supports suicide bombings against Israeli civilians - only 76% do.

Regev, however, intended his audience to associate Israeli haredim with that 76 per cent and with the September 11 terrorists who rammed jumbo jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He began by stating that his remarks were triggered by the terrible events of September 11, and concluded that the lesson of the terrible loss of life is the "necessity to fight religious zealots on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides.''

For years, the Israeli Reform movement has raised money in America by portraying Reform Jews in Israeli as besieged by so-called "ultra-Orthodox" fanatics bent on turning Israel into a theocracy. The highlight of that campaign was Reform's successful lobbying to have Israel listed by the U.S. State Department along with Iraq, Iran, and Algeria as a nation denying religious freedom.

Immediately after quoting from a speech by a Palestinian cleric calling for the faithful to kill all Jews wherever they are found, Regev, in his Cleveland speech, turned to the situation within Israel and told his audience, "In Israel, we have our own religious extremists . . . spreading the venom of religious fundamentalism.''

Cleveland Jewish News reporter Ellen Harris, who both interviewed Regev and quoted his speech at length, had no doubt about his intention: "Regev outlined a chilling parallel between Islamic and Israeli extremists.'' Comparisons of the "ultra-Orthodox" to the Taliban are fast becoming a Reform staple. Regev's colleague David Ariel-Joel, director of the Progressive Movement in Israel, trots it out in Ha'Aretz this week.

Ironically, Regev's own reply to me in the Jerusalem Post is the best refutation of his portrayal of violent haredim bent on driving out the infidels. He can barely find a single instance of physical violence against non-religious Jews by anyone raised and educated within the fervently-Orthodox community. If haredi educational institutions and media spent their time instilling hatred of their fellow Jews, as he charges, such examples should abound.

Of course, Regev's real concern is not with the violent language or even violent actions that are too prevalent in Israel, much of it directed at the haredi population. When one of Israel's leading columnists fantasized about how he would like "to tie the beards of all the weird [haredi politicians] together and set them on fire,'' Regev issued no public protest. Ditto when peace activist and former MK Uri Avineri recommended "storm[ing] Meah Shearim with machine guns and mowing them down,'' or when prize-winning sculptor Yigal Tumarkin expressed understanding for the Nazis whenever he sees a large haredi family. Or when the opening of a National Religious kindergarten in Kfar Sava elicited posters "to exterminate the haredim at birth?'' Or when Orthodox institutions, like the kindergarten in Petach Tikva that was burned to the ground Monday night, are torched or desecrated?

Had he been honest with his Cleveland audience, Regev would have told them that Orthodox institutions in Israel are far more likely to be vandalized than Reform ones. In 1997-98 alone there were 32 instances of Orthodox institutions being set on fire or vandalized and holy books torn, burned, or smeared with excrement.

And certainly Regev's audience heard nothing about the many health care organizations founded by haredi Jews that serve the general Israeli population. That information too would have confused the image Regev sought to create and done nothing to serve Regev's political agenda.

Regev conflates opposition to his religious pluralism agenda in Israel with hatred of non-Orthodox Jews. The president of the Cleveland temple at which Regev spoke writes that he explicitly said some Orthodox Jews "call for greater religious freedom and have openness to non-Orthodox streams.'' Precisely. Those Orthodox Jews who support the pluralist agenda are spared Regev's comparisons to Hamas.

In his Cleveland speech, Regev lumps together vandalism of Reform institutions and Orthodox opposition to recognition of Reform conversions, as if the two have anything to do with one another.

They do not. One can insist that rabbis who deny the binding nature of halacha, Jewish Law, cannot be arbiters of halacha, and still be filled with love for one's fellow Jews. One can maintain that an Israel with 3 or 39 definitions of Judaism (the American and Israeli branches of Reform cannot even agree with one another about who is a Jew) is no longer a Jewish state, without bearing any animus to those who feel differently.

Regev "reveals'' that I oppose his version of religious pluralism and am a critic of the Israeli Supreme Court - hardly news. He is entitled to be grateful to the Supreme Court for advancing his political agenda. But how did I become a hater of Jews by agreeing with Justice Menachem Elon that the rule of the judge is the opposite of the rule of law, or by criticizing the shift in power from elected representatives to an unrepresentative, self-perpetuating, and highly ideological oligarchy as the antithesis of democracy?

Most of my family and friends of longest-standing are non-Orthodox Jews. I resent being told that I hate them. I lecture regularly to groups of non-religious Jews. No doubt many disagree with what I have to say, but I doubt any have ever gone away with the feeling that I loathe them or wish them any harm.

Those most damaged by Regev's remarks, however, will not be the Orthodox but his own constituents. Most Jews in the world can barely pray from a Hebrew siddur, have never read a Rashi on Chumash, or opened up a Talmud. They do not need to be told that they are detested by those whose lives most resemble those of our ancestors over the millennia.

To discover how baseless is the portrait of the hate-filled Orthodox, let any Reform Jew show up on Friday night at an Orthodox shul, and watch how the congregants tumble over one another to invite him home for the Shabbos meal. Unfortunately, due to speeches like Regev's, too few Reform Jews will ever venture in.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Israeli director of Am Echad. He can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2001, Jonathan Rosenblum Distributed by Am Eachad Resources<