The ultra-Orthodox Must Tackle Their Extremists

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis must leverage their unique status to ostracize the community's violent hooligans - but every Jew must also take personal responsibility to change from within.

When I explained to an ultra-Orthodox colleague in Jerusalem that his rabbis needed to help shut down religious extremists, I clearly touched a raw nerve. Our dialogue rapidly degraded into shouting. But while the debate remains unresolved, it actually illuminated a lesson with particular relevance for this High Holy Day season.

Why was I so adamant about rabbinic intervention? There are a small number of fanatics spoiling the image of the ultra-Orthodox and fueling bitter friction with other communities in Israel. Take any recent example of clashes like these and you find a similar model repeating itself again and again. In Bet Shemesh when protests over segregated bus lines or the location of a modern-Orthodox school turned violent it was a handful of hooligans who caused the trouble while a majority of ultra-Orthodox moderates stood by silently. Or more recently at the Western Wall, thousands of ultra-Orthodox women turned up to peacefully voice their opposition to the creation of a mixed prayer section. But a handful of ultra-Orthodox men stole the show when they attacked  a group of activists from Women of the Wall. Again, the acts of a few tarnished an entire community’s reputation - and it’s time things changed from within.

For the sake of the ultra-Orthodox community’s own identity, integrity, ability to build trust with outsiders, and to improve the horrific PR challenge they face, ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities must use their influence to help their people. First and foremost, they must ostracize violent behavior and the individuals who perpetrate it, even if they are ultra-Orthodox themselves.

Why is it the role of ultra-Orthodox rabbis? In a sub-society where rabbinic leadership is the highest possible human authority, we need their active voice to restore justice. In a culture that seeks spiritual endorsement we need their disapproval of acts and attitudes that shame the Jewish faith. This is not a question of lowering the stature of the sages, but engaging them in one of our generation’s greatest challenges.

While I and many others think this is a reasonable position, many ultra-Orthodox colleagues passionately disagree. And these friends were insulted, claiming that controlling extremists is the role of Israel's police and their spiritual leadership should not be involved in this realm. Even more, they argued that postulating such an idea was evidence of gross ignorance – lack of understanding how things work in their sector. “Change must come from the bottom-up," they continued, “it must happen slowly, and from within the community.”

So am I completely out of touch or were my ultra-Orthodox friends excessively defensive?

On the one hand they are correct. Change must happen slowly. Especially in their ultra-traditionalist community where any form of rapid change would be doomed from the start. And bottom-up change will lay the necessary foundations for long-term health.

On the other hand, we need more haste – especially for those sitting outside the walls of ultra-Orthodox life. Friction is heating up between our communities and the stereotyping, finger-pointing and even incitement has reached an alarming level. Without icons standing up to change the tone of this caustic debate we could be in for serious unrest in Israel.

But perhaps there is an element of truth in my ultra-Orthodox friends’ argument that has particular relevance to this time of year. As they and I agreed, change must come from within. It is just as true for the ultra-Orthodox tackling their extremists as it is for the process of self-improvement that millions of Jews are facing at this very moment.

In these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we seek to uproot the misdeeds of our past, ostracize troublesome traits, and plan for a better year ahead. It is always easier to point elsewhere and hope our leaders, mentors or environment could create the change for us. But change must come from within. We must tackle those demons within ourselves, by ourselves, and lay foundations for a better year ahead.

I still believe that leadership should help shape and inspire their people. And I still believe that ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership has a moral responsibility to protect the dignity and values of their society, and ours. But ultimately each of us needs to begin this process at home. There is no better time than now to remember that first we must begin by changing the one person we actually can control, and that is ourselves.

Let's silence our inner extremists and work toward a more cohesive nation. An Israel made up of citizens committed to a shared future and wellbeing will hopefully make the year ahead one of true peace between citizens. And with enough momentum we may even bring our leaders on side.

Yoni Sherizen is a director of Gesher, a Jerusalem-based NGO devoted to bridging the differences between Israelis and strengthening a shared Jewish identity.   

Oren Nahshon