The following column was written in memory of my mother-in-law, Ruth Berger née Gitman, born in 1922 in the German city of Saarlouis, near the border with France. On Purim Eve 1934, she went to a party organized by the Jewish community. It was a traditional affair: They sang Purim songs, ate hamantaschen, read the Book of Esther and shook rattles when Haman’s name was mentioned.
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The next day, the Gestapo was waiting for little Ruth. When she came home from school, she was arrested and interrogated for two days. She was forced to confess that the Purim party was really a celebration of incitement and hatred against Hitler and the Third Reich. Although Ruth kept insisting that the songs were traditional, the interrogators wouldn’t relent, repeatedly threatening that if she didn’t confess, her father would be sent to a concentration camp. The memory of these two days stayed with her, an open wound, for the rest of her life.
That incident occurred before the Holocaust, as that term is commonly and harrowingly understood. I’m relating it here as an example of anti-Semitic persecution based on an outside perspective of Jewish rites which, when viewed like that, may seem barbaric. It might be said that much of the anti-Semitic persecution throughout history was borne from outsiders peeping into what Jews – who appeared to be queer and suspicious creatures – were doing privately during their festivals, birth ceremonies and weddings.
And how did they know that the Jews were hatching evil schemes or, in today’s parlance, were plotting terrorist acts? Well, just take a look: All the Jewish holidays commemorate some bloody act, or call for brutal revenge on their enemies: Circumcision – blood; wedding – breaking a glass (out of hate for the Babylonians and Romans, destroyers of the Temple); Passover – revenge on Pharaoh and the Egyptians; Purim – cannibalism (eating ears); Hanukkah – incitement against the Greeks.
Now, let’s turn to present times and to what the Israeli media has termed the “wedding of hate,” “wedding of knives” or “wedding of blood,” and which has been causing such a stir in recent weeks. Before us we have the same horrible model, where a snooper is dispatched to spy on these strange people and their barbaric customs, and see what they get up to when they get married. The Peeping Tom returns with the hoped-for intelligence: These people really are barbarians – even when they marry, they dance jigs of hatred, incitement and vengeance against their enemies. They must be prosecuted! This evil must be eradicated from among us! The wild weeds must be destroyed!
This imbecilic hysteria is even echoed by leaders of the religious camp, who recognize that they are being presented with an opportunity to join the consensus. They’re also calling for evil to be eradicated. But I, little old me, refuse to forget what my mother-in-law told me, and with my last breath I shout: The barbarians are you, ladies and gentlemen! There’s nothing more barbaric and malicious than staring into what people do privately with their family and friends and laying it bare, outside its ceremonial context. It’s no different than calling the shaking of rattles during Purim terrorism against the Third Reich, or saying that when Jews light candles at Hanukkah – what, didn’t you know? – they’re really making a wish to set your home ablaze and burn you alive.
I have zero sympathy for the radical religious right, but its members have a right to human dignity – just like any other person. And there’s nothing that impinges more on people’s dignity and liberty than violating their privacy and cultivating a sort of organized dread against them. Experience shows that this usually doesn’t end well.
Before we wage battle against the radical right, and its statements and deeds, I think we must first take action in defense of privacy – whose legal boundaries have been completely breached in the smartphone era. I, and many others like me, would have wanted to keep our right to engage in all the world’s strangest customs inside our homes or within our circle of friends, even if this includes terrifying acts like voodoo, stabbing a photograph, declaiming the verse from the Book of Judges where Samson prays for swift revenge against the Philistines, a stormy dance of knives, or burning a Gamal Abdel Nasser effigy on a Lag Ba’omer bonfire – an Israeli custom that was common in my childhood. Fortunately for me, enough time has elapsed since then. Today, it would be considered a hate crime.
Many evil organizations, from the Inquisition to the Gestapo, relied on the masses’ appetite for “transparency” – meaning, uncovering the things people do privately and exposing them as criminals. I look around me with concern as “transparency” is slowly becoming the supreme public virtue, purportedly out of estimable intentions to fight evil. Soon, Israel will be a paradise of transparency, where weddings will be conducted according to the same trigger-happy protocol. Anyone who dares cut his boneless chicken with a knife and sprays gravy on the tablecloth will be taped on a smartphone – and the Shin Bet security service will know just what to do with him.