Who Is Responsible For Extremism?
I know that many people are sick of my posting about the Bet Shemesh elections. But it will be over on Tuesday. Meanwhile, there is a tragedy of historic significance occurring. The infamous extremism of Bet Shemesh - the usage of hateful language and violent actions - used to be found only in the Sikrikim of Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet. As of this election, it is found amongst many of the regular charedim of Ramat Bet Shemesh Aleph. Consider the following email that was sent to local mailing list:
At 13:50 on Friday, my wife was passing the RBS Alef shopping center, where she saw scores of religious boys (she estimates over a hundred) pelting Mr. Eli Cohen with papers and hounding him into a hasty retreat into a nearby car. There were numerous adults watching this incident, and apparently none of them saw it as their business to
This spontaneous outpouring of sina’ah has deeply shocked me. It wasn’t that these lovable 10 year olds are disillusioned with Mr. Cohen’s plans for urban development, or even have any idea who this person is. It was just a pure, spontaneous outpouring of hatred. It seems to balance quite well as the flip-side of the barbed-wire imagery from last week’s Chadash.
PLEASE, for the sake of our city, let’s ask our politicians where they think this hatred comes from, and what they are going to do to see to it that it is wiped off the face of our city BEFORE these overenthusiastic 10 year olds turn into a next generation of 20 year
Here is a letter written by a friend of mine, Rabbi David Bar-Cohn - a very upbeat, positive person - about the situation:
WHAT NO CHAREDI JEW SHOULD EXCUSE ABUTBUL FOR
Last week, Mayor Moshe Abutbul put out a Q&A pamphlet in English addressing questions about his leadership over the past five years. Emblazoned on the first page is the phrase "No Holds Barred," referring presumably to the tough questions he was prepared to field. But to me the phrase evokes something else – namely, the way his own campaign was conducted, where at notable times indeed zero holds were barred – where the rules of common decency were flouted, where the Torah he set himself up as representing was degraded beyond measure.
I want to cite just one section of this pamphlet to make a larger point. In the section called "Promoting Peace and Tolerance," addressing the Orot Banot debacle/tragedy, Moshe Abutbul states that he couldn't stop the violence because he has no sway over the police, because his "message of sensibility and peace was drowned out by the media circus", and that really it wasn't his problem – it is former mayor Vaknin who's to blame for placing the school where it is. I could go on, but his main point is that he claims to have handled the situation to the best of his ability. The problem however, is that even if that were the case, it's abundantly clear that the best of his ability wasn't nearly good enough. It was a situation that should have been stopped immediately, and it was allowed to go on – day after horrendous day. And in my opinion "dayeinu" – that resounding failure alone is reason enough to bring someone else in to take over the job.
Just to briefly address one point about the media... While the media may be partly to blame for fueling anti-charedi sentiment, it's not to blame for the daily intimidation and heckling of little girls on their way to school, nor does it absolve leaders (civic or rabbinic) of their responsibility to stop such public abuse of children in its tracks. Extremist behavior and the media's reaction to it are two separate issues – and if any charedi leader had the discernment to differentiate between these two things, and the courage to leave the safety of his beis midrash and put his own body between the thugs and the girls, not only would this have helped to stop a terrible wrong, but I believe it would have also gone a long way toward dispelling negative generalizations against "all charedim", which was the biggest concern of mainstream charedi leaders at the time – or at least the concern they were far and away the most vocal about.
To spend one's energies chastising the whistle-blowers rather than the "whistle-blown" – which Abutbul essentially does in this interview, and which his weekly newspaper "Chadash" did ad nauseum at the time, is a classic victim-blaming tactic – the mark of institutionalized corruption. It's a desire to defend "one's own" rather than defend "what's right", something which should be unthinkable for any Torah Jew.
I understand that there's a lot which is not under Moshe Abutbul's control. Neither he nor the vast majority of decent, law-abiding charedi citizens are directly to blame for the actions of "Sikrikim" – any more than normal, decent Yehuda-Shomron residents are directly to blame for "Price Tag" extremism. However, what I saw in this election campaign, and which is under Moshe Abutbul's control, and which he cannot (at least in any kind of good conscience) make similar excuses about, is the appallingly hateful rhetoric that was used on his behalf. This is rhetoric which was only a half-step up from the language of the Sikrikim themselves.
To be sure, I've also heard all too many hateful statements in recent weeks and months made by individuals against Abutbul and against charedim in general. It's loathsome and inexcusable, and it shows that no one – not even a person committed to "fighting the good fight" – is immune to becoming extreme. But there's extreme and then there's extremist. There's an individual online being a hothead, and then there's an organized campaign putting out the actual offending propaganda. There's hate being fomented in the name of politics, and then there's hate being shamelessly peddled to the religious masses in the name of Torah.
To the Abutbul campaign and supporters:You want to consider yourselves separate from thugs who yell out "Nazi" at non-charedim (like the thugs who showed up at the Abutbul campaign event a few nights ago)? Then why do you use images clearly evocative of the Holocaust in ads against your opponent?
You're up in arms at the media for unfairly demonizing charedim? Then why do you have cars going around town blurting out "Avinu malkeinu, hafer atzas oyveinu!" You refer to Eli Cohen with a phrase typically reserved for the likes of Ahmadinejad, and you think this is fair, acceptable? Did you think no one would notice?You speak in such "sensible" language in your Q&A directed to English-speakers, using terms like "congeniality" and "diverse populations," while the rabbinic pronouncement says "chas v'shalom" that anyone should vote for a "non-charedi" and that anyone who does so is a poresh min hatzibbur?
I can forgive the Abutbul campaign for negative campaigning and ripping down signs, just like I forgive the Eli Cohen campaign for doing the same. I can even forgive Abutbul for some of the terrible mistakes he made over the past five years (if he'd only own up to those mistakes and ask for forgiveness). But what I have a harder time forgiving is the shameless peddling of hate and paranoia on the part of his campaign and supporters.
Abutbul campaign – I hold you responsible for nurturing the extremism of the Sikrikim by echoing their very rhetoric. I hold you responsible for the fact that kids at your recent rally were stomping on an Eli Cohen poster gleefully yelling "shegetz". (Israeli and English-speaking kids alike, by the way.) I hold you responsible should any extremist unrest take place in the wake of an Eli Cohen victory. I hold you responsible for helping to make extremism mainstream.
And this is where I have to turn to my decent, moderate charedi friends of U.S./Anglo origin and say: "We're not in Kansas anymore". This isn't charedi America where everyone's concern is "middos" and "menschlichkeit" and "ehrlichkeit". Don't let the soft, reasonable words and happy songs coming out of the English/sanitized side of the Abutbul mouthpiece make you blind to – or brush off – the hateful, over-the-top extremist rhetoric coming out from the other side.
Moshe Abutbul himself is a decent guy. No, he won't be getting my vote, but I recognize that being a public servant is a very tough job that involves tremendous personal sacrifice, and I thank him for it. You want to vote for him? Fine – I have no problem with that. But my friends, if this campaign didn't wake you up to the fact that the Israeli charedi world does not represent the same values you prized in chutz la'aretz – that it plays by a very different set of rules, wherein ahavat Yisrael and menschlichkeit are casually thrown under the "Mehadrin bus" for a few votes... If you're willing to just shrug off the inexcusable anti-Torah, anti-Jewish, anti-everything-you-believe-in rhetoric used in – and by – the Abutbul campaign... If you don't speak up to your Rav, to your kids' schools, to your local charedi media, to Abutbul himself, that you identify as charedi but cannot and will not accept this kind of garbage, then you might want to ask yourself the questions: "What am I actually participating in, identifying with? What am I inducting my children into? If silence is consent, am I – in my own small way – being an accessory to extremism?"
Because come Wednesday morning, no matter who wins, we all have to live with each other. And I worry that because of the hysteria-laced, seemingly "Torah-endorsed" vitriolic propaganda used in this campaign, it's going to be that much harder to do. So I beg everyone: Stand up to extremist rhetoric wherever you see it – call it what it is, expose it, and demand that it stop. Don't look at it as "just a few kooks" or "someone else's problem". No, the "kooks" are now mainstream. The extremism appears in the same publication as your Rav's d'var Torah. It's aided and abetted by people who make excuses for such language, who instead of looking inward and doing cheshbon hanefesh, point their finger at others who are "just as guilty", who say it's "none of my business", who justify the rhetoric as an "eis la'asos", who refuse to speak out on the grounds that it will "play into the hands of the anti-charedi media" – or other such rationalization. Is this really the Torah you know and love?
Then there's the jaded approach: "Eh, it's Israel – you have to play dirty." I don't know about you, but the only reason I'm here in Israel and living a committed life of Torah is out of idealism at what Torah and Am Yisrael stand for. And if I can't stand up and demand the bare minimum of what I came here to do... If it's OK when basic decency and "v'ahavta l'rei'echa kamocha" simply go out the window as soon as it becomes politically expedient, in order to win a local election... If we're willing to sit there while rhetoric which degrades the Torah is dressed up with Torah language no less, with the rubber stamp of Torah sages (and if that's not a page out of Orwell I'm not sure what is!) – and then all we can say is, "Yeah it's bad, but that's the way the game is played here," then I'm afraid it doesn't particularly bode well for the whole project – for us and our supposed "idealism."
If we don't demand more of our leadership, our rebbeim, our local media, the society we affiliate with – more of ourselves, then everyone will have lost this election. On the other hand, if we take this moment as an opportunity for clarity, to wake up to what's going on around us, and to muster the courage to call out extremist rhetoric even when it comes from "our side" – if we can work together to protect the ideals we know to be the very foundation of our lives and of Torah, and demand no less, then no matter what happens on Tuesday – we all win.