Opinion |

The Land Where Jews Don’t Have Freedom of Worship

Yizhar Hess
Yizhar Hess
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A clash at the Western Wall between Reform and ultra-Orthodox Jews, November 16, 2017.
A clash at the Western Wall between Reform and ultra-Orthodox Jews.Credit: Noam Revkin-Fenton
Yizhar Hess
Yizhar Hess

What turns an antisemitic incident into an antisemitic incident? Let’s say that a group of hooligans were to surround a group of Jewish worshippers while they were reading the Torah. And the hooligans were to stand around them, cursing, humiliating them, spitting and making remarks demeaning the identity of the Jews and their leaders.

And let’s say other hooligans were to blow deafening whistles in the closest proximity possible to the shocked and frightened faces of the Jews – only to prevent them from continuing to pray. What would you say? Is or isn’t that an antisemitic incident?

I assume that’s what the American special envoy on antisemitism, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, had in mind. She had come to Israel to accompany President Joe Biden to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. And she saw fit immediately upon her arrival to express profound shock at an incident at the Western Wall earlier in the month in which ultra-Orthodox youth attacked non-Orthodox families who were holding a bar and bat mitzvah celebration for their children.

In private discussions, Lipstadt had some harsh things to say, and on Twitter, she specifically tweeted that if such an incident had taken place anywhere else in the world, it would have been described as antisemitic. Lipstadt was simply describing what she saw.

The video footage from the egalitarian section of the Wall in which dozens of ultra-Orthodox hooligans are seen attacking the four families left her in shock. The young men tore the male and female worshippers’ prayer books, used whistles to drown out their prayers, surrounded the families and danced around them mockingly and violently.

Prof. Lipstadt is a famous prizewinning historian – one of the world’s leading researchers of antisemitism and a courageous and determined woman. Her academic field has taught her that bad things happen when good people remain silent, and she is not in her current position to remain silent.

She isn’t silent when Jews are discriminated against or humiliated due to their origin, religion or culture in any other corner of the universe. Is it conceivable that she would keep quiet in Israel of all places, in the nation-state of the Jewish people, when a hate crime is committed against Jews?

Lipstadt’s words, as well as the tough decision made by the Jewish Agency’s board of trustees to protect non-Orthodox worshippers at the Wall, indicate that sometimes a single incident – even if there have been more serious ones – is one too many.

Every Jewish family in Israel or the Diaspora whose son or daughter has celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah, is familiar with the experience in the months preceding it: the excitement, the tension, the study of the cantillation marks representing the chanting patterns. Then there’s the courage to read the cantillation marks and the words together in front of their parents, and then in front of their grandparents, followed by another hug.

And of course, concern that their voice itself, which is changing at that age, could suddenly decide to do whatever it wants at just that moment. We can imagine the feelings of the children whose ceremony was interrupted and desecrated in that way.

It’s difficult to assess how that trauma will be etched in their minds for the rest of their lives or how it will affect their attitude towards Israel – the country that their parents had insisted was the only place where they would celebrate their important moment – the moment in which they become Jews with equal rights in their community and among their people. Even the irony of the assertion of this last sentence in its real significance has been exhausted.

Prime Minster Yair Lapid mentioned the issue when asked about it on his short recent visit to Paris. He condemned the violent incident, and said the following: “Israel is the only country in the world in which the Jews don’t have freedom of worship.”

How accurate a statement. Without sanctimoniousness and without cutting corners. Right on target. The truth is that I have heard that statement from Lapid more than once, and I have no doubt that he believes it and is genuinely attempting to put an end to this upsetting absurdity.

There is no Western country in which Jews don’t enjoy freedom of religion, other than Israel. There is a need for a cabinet resolution – not legislation, just a cabinet resolution – to move a single step forward toward unraveling this entanglement, at least on the issue of the Western Wall.

So here’s what the resolution should say: “The cabinet has decided to revoke Resolution No. 2785 of June 25, 2017.” That’s the resolution that suspended the pluralism plan for the Western Wall that had been approved by the cabinet just a year and a half earlier. Benjamin Netanyahu was the prime minister both at the time of its adoption and when it was frozen.

Now, on his own watch, Lapid can pass the new resolution.

Yitzhar Hess is acting chairman of the World Zionist Organization.

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