A Pertinent Priest

No society is responsible for the acts of an extremist and violent minority, but it is certainly responsible for the silence of its leaders in the face of such acts.

A Jerusalem magistrate last week dismissed the indictment of a Greek Orthodox priest who had punched a yeshiva student in the face in Jerusalem's Old City after the student spat near him. The magistrate, Dov Pollock, said it was a custom for extremist ultra-Orthodox Jews to spit when they walked past Christian clergymen.

"Day after day, clergymen endure spitting by members of those fringe groups - a phenomenon intended to treat other religions with contempt," the magistrate wrote in his ruling. "The authorities are not able to eradicate this phenomenon and they don't catch the spitters, even though this phenomenon has been going on for years .... Under such circumstances, an indictment of someone for delivering one punch because someone spat near him - after suffering this humiliation for years while walking around in his clerical robe, with the authorities not responding to his plight - is a substantial contradiction of the principles of justice and judicial fairness." The magistrate therefore dismissed the indictment on grounds that it was in the interest of justice.

The magistrate should be praised for his ruling, but it seems to me that even without the reason that the police have failed to stop this phenomenon, the accused should be acquitted in a case like this. And if Israeli law does not allow such a result, it's worth considering whether we can find a formula that will make it possible. A punch in the face in response to spitting in circumstances like these, when it was clear that the spitting was intended to insult and the insult was part of systematic and continuous ugly persecution, seems to me to be the right act in the right place.

Anyone who thinks differently should ask himself what his response would have been if we were referring to a Jew abroad who had suffered anti-Semitic harassment. Clearly not everything is permissible even in circumstances like these, but I for one am unhappy with any anti-Semite who ever spat at a Jew or "near him," as is the custom in Jerusalem, without getting a punch in the face.

By the same token, if I were to hear that anywhere in this country secular thugs systematically harassed ultra-Orthodox Jews in this way and a person with side-curls and Haredi dress had to suffer such spitting for years, and if one of the victims reacted to the spitting like the priest in Jerusalem, I would say this act was fine. I would certainly not think there was cause for an assault indictment against the man who threw the punch. It could be that the priest's act was not exactly in keeping with the Sermon on the Mount, but there is no doubt that the act fits with Israel's values as a Jewish and democratic state. And that's enough for us.

But where are the Haredi leaders amid these despicable acts that have been going on for years? Why do the rabbis not condemn acts like this, just as they do when they really care, when they really want to denounce something and not keep silent, or in the best case mumble something?

These are rhetorical questions, but they bear repeating. Very often the Haredim complain about what they call "anti-Semitism" by secular society. There is some truth to this. There are indeed cases in which the attitude toward the ultra-Orthodox is reminiscent of anti-Semitism. It's a shame only that, in the eyes of the Haredim, anti-Semitism is always what "they" did to "us" but never what "we" did to "them." No society is responsible for the acts of an extremist and violent minority. But it is certainly responsible for the silence of its leaders in the face of such acts.

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: חרדים אנטישמיים בירושלים