As we approach the Jewish New Year, traditionally a time for reflection on our deeds, what we mean by the Jewish nature of the state of Israel is on the scales. Last night I attended a “Tag Meir”(“Spreading the Light”) event at the Benedictine Monastery in Latrun, a solidarity visit in response to the despicable desecration of the monastery by “Price Tag” Jewish extremists. Important as it undoubtedly is to express support for those targeted, and despite the moral imperative I feel to express public outrage at these abominations, it also feels increasingly futile as a response to the fear and hatred of the Other that is sweeping across Israel.
When I give talks and lectures about interreligious relations in Israel, I talk of the legacy of fear created by years of living with violent conflict. I still believe this to be true. However, looking back over the last year, it seems as though there are deeper roots that we must uncover and face. Let’s remind ourselves of some of the uglier expressions of that fear that have garnered attention over the last year (not including many attacks on Palestinians):
- We currently have 21 Eritreans huddled between the Israeli and Egyptian border fences, who Interior Minister Eli Yishai refuses to allow into the country
- Neighbors attack the audience at the screening of a movie about 10 years of Gay Pride marches
- Ultra-Orthodox schools refuse to allow girls from Mizrachi backgrounds to study with their precious Ashkenazi princesses
- Orthodox schools refuse to admit Ethiopian students
- Numerous attacks on asylum seekers and migrant workers
- Not only are women relegated to the back of some buses, and women have been removed from billboards in Jerusalem (and Egged has now decided that rather than show women on the buses they will not allow any images of either men or women), but even the cartoon drawing of a woman has been removed from salt packages, so that god forbid a Haredi man shouldn’t get any ideas
- Women are arrested at the Western Wall for wearing prayer shawls – the only place in the entire world where wearing a prayer shawl is supposedly a criminal offence
I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list – no doubt there are all sorts of examples I have forgotten about or that are yet to be revealed – but it’s certainly enough to give us pause for thought. And sadly, almost all of these expressions of fear are particularly prevalent in Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox circles – and often given religious authority by so-called Rabbis.
If this is the Judaism of the Jewish state, I want no part of it. It is time to stop being tolerant of racism, sexism and all-round bigotry under the guise of religion. Whether it’s tradition or not, it’s wrong and it’s time to put an end to it. We can no longer kid ourselves that it’s just a few ‘stray weeds’ – it’s not, it’s taken root, deep root, in the very foundations of the state and in the heart of government. My dream of a Jewish state is a state that espouses the liberal, pluralist values I hold dear, a state based on enlightened ideals of “love thy neighbor” and social justice. If I have to decide between democracy and Jewish bigotry, I know what I choose. We must act now before we are forced to make the choice.