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It takes a fire

By Reuven Hammer, Ha'aretz OpEd July 2, 2000

When a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue, Ya'ar Ramot, was torched in Jerusalem following the conclusion of the Sabbath on June 24, reactions and condemnations were slow to come. Initial coverage in the press and electronic media was sparse, reaching more appropriate levels only when the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, which was meeting in Jerusalem, made a fuss and went out to the synagogue to identify with it.The prime minister issued a strong statement, as did several other governmental figures. The mayor of Jerusalem came for a visit only on Monday, and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau issued a condemnation without referring to it as a synagogue. A rally was held Monday night at the synagogue and leaders of various streams in Judaism appeared. Missing were the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox sector and representatives of the official Israeli Orthodox rabbinate. On Tuesday, the Knesset held a special discussion on it, as indeed it should have.

Somehow the feeling remains that the general reaction was much more subdued than it has been when synagogues were attacked in California, Russia or Germany. Should it not be exactly the opposite? The outcry here should echo round the world. It is unheard of and inconceivable for Jews to attack a synagogue - even if turns out to have been "only" youngsters or teenagers. Young people take their cues from their elders, from what they hear from their rabbis and teachers. They may go beyond them in taking specific actions, but it is the derogatory remarks and the attitude in their communities that inspires them to believe that a Masorti synagogue is fair game for destruction. And we are by no means certain that it was youngsters who did it.

This is the second time the same synagogue was attacked. The first time, little damage was done and the culprits were not caught. The second time much more extensive damage was done and had the fire not been extinguished quickly, the building, including its Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), would have gone up in flames. Will there be yet a third time before the perpetrators are caught?

We do not yet know who actually threw the rocks and the flaming rags into the building, but there is absolutely no question in my mind that these physical acts have their roots in the inflammatory - that is exactly the right word - rhetoric attacking the non-Orthodox movements that has gone unchecked for so many years. How often have I sat at Knesset debates and listened to MKs from the Haredi parties - Degel Hatorah, Agudah, Shas - attack these movements in language which was not even suitable for barroom brawls. Yelling and screaming, they have proclaimed that we were worse than the Holocaust and equally responsible for destroying the Jewish people. We have been called everything from missionaries to enemies and destroyers of Judaism and falsifiers of the Torah. Few and far between have been the protests against this kind of demagoguery.

This must be fought in the strongest terms. Halfway measures will not suffice. The official local Ramot rabbi should have spoken out and come to the synagogue. The schools should have had special talks in each class teaching about respect for synagogues, etc. In religious schools, rabbis should have given the talks. The Orthodox synagogues in the city should have voiced their anger and condemnation and offered help to replace that which has been damaged. The Ministry of Religious Affairs should have immediately stepped in to offer its assistance.

Could this terrible incident have happened in America? I don't think so. To the best of my knowledge, any such synagogue vandalism in the United States (or Europe for that matter) has always been that of anti-Semites. I know of no Conservative or Reform synagogues torched by other Jews - secular or religious - in the Diaspora. Why? It is the atmosphere in which Israel continues to withhold legitimacy from non-Orthodox streams in Judaism which lays the foundations for such actions. It is the feeling that force is legitimate in this struggle. Synagogue burnings are part of the same mentality that permits attacks on women not dressed modestly enough and stones to be thrown at vehicles on Shabbat.

What is needed is an entire change of attitude in Israel. As long as the government continues, for political reasons, to defend the practices and institutions that declare that movements such as ours are illegitimate, these wars will continue, despite the moderating influences of some modern Orthodox leaders.

During the Ne'eman Commission proceedings, every attempt was made by that committee and by its chairman to persuade the chief rabbis of Israel to meet with the committee which included Conservative (Masorti) and Reform rabbis. They refused to do so. Rabbi Lau wrote a letter in which he outlined what he considered to be the essential beliefs of Judaism and stated that so long as the Reform did not accept these tenets, he would not meet with them. The Masorti Movement responded that we did accept them and asked for an appointment. To this day there has never been a response.

If Rabbi Lau would really like to see to it that no synagogue of whatever denomination is destroyed in Israel again, he would do well to set up an appointment to meet with non-Orthodox rabbis immediately. Better yet, he could pay a visit to the Masorti synagogue to express his shock and dismay.

As of this writing, no Haredi leader has publicly expressed outrage at what has been done. In view of what has happened, it is incumbent upon them to instruct their followers that violence is against the Torah "all of whose paths are peace," that burning synagogues is no way to defend Judaism and that "true scholars of Torah increase peace in the world."

Thirty-five years ago, when stone-throwing and violence erupted in Jerusalem, I heard an Orthodox leader, Rabbi Ezra Tzion Melamed, of blessed memory, tell his congregation in no uncertain words that although they should protest desecration of Shabbat, it was to be done peacefully, "not by throwing stones, not by violence!" I would like to hear Rabbi Ovadia Yosef speak that clearly in this week's post-Sabbath sermon.

Perhaps it takes a fire to rouse religious and political leaders from their apathy. Let us hope that it does not take more than that.

The writer is the vice-president of the International Rabbinical Assembly

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