A concert for the so-called Messianic Jewish community in Jerusalem two weeks ago turned violent when more than three dozen Jewish and right-wing extremists attacked members of the audience.
For seven hours, about 40 right-wing extremists, so-called hilltop youth from the West Bank and members of the self-styled anti-assimilation group Lehava cursed and screamed, sprayed pepper spray and tossed live frogs at members of the community.
Several eyewitnesses said the police witnesses responded weakly in defense of the concertgoers and organizers. Two people were detained for questioning and released, the case against them was closed and a week later those same protesters were given a permit to stage a demonstration against the gay pride parade in the city.
Messianic Jews, “believers” as they call themselves, are aware that their faith arouses hatred and violence in extremist groups. They stress that as opposed to their public image, most of them are not missionaries. Most were born in Israel, served in the army and live ordinary lives. They say they are careful about revealing their faith to Orthodox Jews, but until this last incident most of them were not exposed to violence because of their faith.
“There’s something about this faith, that when people encounter it, either they want it or they persecute it as much as possible,” says Yael Kalisher, the concert’s producer and a member of the Messianic Jewish community in Israel. Her father, Meno Kalisher, was a leader of the community and for years came under attack by ultra-Orthodox extremists. “It doesn’t surprise me that something like this happened because in the New Testament it says that those who believe in Yeshua,” as they call Jesus, “can expect nonbelievers to respond harshly,” she explains. But even for her, the incident at the concert, which took place at the Clal building in downtown Jerusalem, was extraordinary.
Attempts have been made in recent years to renovate the Clal building, an old commercial and office building on Jaffa Road, where the Messianic community maintains offices, a prayer center, a soup kitchen and a food and clothing distribution center operated by volunteers from the community. The community owns Pavilion Auditorium, a large concert hall in the former Kfir movie theater. The community rents it out as well as using it for its own activities.
Four days before the concert, the building’s security officer warned the organizers that a protest was planned and recommended that they tell the police.
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“We asked whether we should have security guards but the security officer said he had spoken to the police and we had nothing to worry about,” Kalisher said. But right at the beginning of the performance the organizers realized there was something to worry about, when the right-wing activists blocked the doors and cursed people coming in.
The protesters were led by Lehava founder Bentzi Gopstein and Baruch Marzel, an activist in the Kahanist political party Otzma Yehudit. In keeping with Lehava’s tactic of avoiding direct violence, they harassed the concertgoers in every way possible. According to video footage, they blew whistles, sometimes right into the ears of the concertgoers, including children or older people. They spilled water and used pepper spray against young men from the community who were trying to protect the doors.
“I saw a bunch of 12 adults and young men and children standing and shouting and yelling and blowing whistles. ... I saw an older couple whom they physically blocked, cursing and whistling at them. They stuck to people, like a flock of birds, careful not to strike anyone but sticking to people. When people tried to move ahead they said ‘what are you touching me for?’ I don’t want to exaggerate but it was like a pogrom and my grandfather is an Auschwitz survivor,” said Tzuriel Bar-David. At one point one of his three daughters was surrounded by screaming protesters, he said. “She was crying hysterically, I led her to a side door, everybody was hysterical.”
At least two incidents deteriorated into real violence. In one case, when the police wanted to detain one of the protesters they responded violently and in the clash with the police a window broke. In the other case, Gitai Silver, an Israeli who owns a business in the building who came to support the Messianic community, stood in front of the Lehava signs and was punched. He suffered a cut on his ear that required stitches. He filed a police complaint but on Wednesday the police informed him that the case has been closed.
In a third incident a young member of the community, Logan Messer, who had tried to secure the door, said demonstrators threatened him, saying: “Tonight they’ll put you in the ground. He said one of the protesters used pepper spray against him and his friends at least three times. “The police came to us and asked us if we were using pepper spray and I said to them, ‘do you think we sprayed our own faces?’”
Almost all the participants who spoke to Haaretz and the organizers were very critical of the way the police handled the unrest. At first there were only two policemen at the scene; hours after the event began, an additional 15 riot control officers arrived, but even they couldn’t stop the violence.
“I wasn’t afraid,” said Pavilion director, Chad Holland. “But when they come to our place and attack us, we’re in a dangerous situation and we turn to the police and it doesn’t help. I went to the police and filed a complaint and the policeman said: ‘I know, we got a hundred calls that evening.’ They knew what was happening.”
The organizers said the police told them a permit had been issued for the protest. In response to a query from Haaretz, the police said that the building was public space with free access and that no permit was needed.
Holland and other concert organizers said they asked the police numerous times why they didn’t intervene. “The policeman said to me: ‘I don’t see anybody blocking anything.’” The policemen said their officer was giving them their orders and Holland said that when he asked the officer why they weren’t intervening “he didn’t answer.”
When the evening ended, hundreds of people had to be taken hastily out of emergency exits to the parking garage rather than the main exit. There too, protesters were waiting and continued to scream and curse. At that point they also threw live frogs at concertgoers.
In a written response, the Israel Police said it denounces all violence. “At the same time, it acts to preserve public order and allow free speech and protest by any person regardless of his opinions and beliefs. In complete contradiction to the claims, the police were called to restore order at a private event where security is the responsibility of the organizers only. When friction was seen between the parties, the police acted to restore order and allow participants to enter and exit. In one case where the police saw physical violence between two people, they were detained on suspicion of assault, and accused each other. The case was closed for lack of evidence and at the same time, a report was made to the youth probation service because of the involvement of a minor suspect. We stress that this was a demonstration held independently by the organizers in a building where access is public and no police permits is needed.”