When MKs, ministers and prominent (state-funded) rabbis call us Reform Jews ‘dogs’ and ‘idolaters’ and face no sanction, who’s surprised their devotees now attack our synagogues and threaten our leaders?
Today in Israel one of our Reform synagogues was vandalized. The members of Kehillat Ra’anan in Ra’anana woke up to graffiti and a knife left by their door. In addition to these criminals’ hateful words, they made death threats against Rabbi Rick Jacobs (president of the Union for Reform Judaism), Rabbi Gilad Kariv (president of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism), and myself. The motivation may seem clear at first. Someone saw a symbol of Reform Judaism and they decided to lash out at it. However, the significance of this act of vandalism and the threats of violence are much more serious than even the crime itself.
The words they wrote on the wall of the synagogue, and the people they chose to single out, show that these individuals are taking their inspiration from a long lineup of Israeli leaders who have been delegitimizing Reform Jews for years. These include members of Knesset, ministers and prominent (state-funded) rabbis. When they call us “dogs,” “idolaters” and worse, there is no reason to be surprised that their devotees feel justified in these types of attacks.
The graffiti also tells us why they decided to attack now. For decades, we have been fighting for our place at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall. A year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall to create a third and equal section at the Kotel for egalitarian prayer. Jewish religious extremists feel that any compromise with us is a call to action, and their leaders have made it clear time after time what that action should be by referring to their fellow Jews in sub-human terms.
These agents of intolerance are emboldened every day that the government drags its feet in implementing the Kotel compromise. They understand that by committing these acts of violence they threaten the stability of the governing coalition, and that alone will keep the plan from being realized. I do not know how long Netanyahu can continue to tell liberal Jewish leaders one thing and his coalition partners something else.
I believe that the hands that graffitied the walls of Kehillat Ra’anan and left a knife by its door were young hands. Those hands committed a crime and should face justice for that action. However, the words that compelled those hands to reach out in hate are also accountable for the day’s crime. The rabbis who teach them that Israel’s democracy is second to the laws of Abraham, and that anyone whose worldview differs from their own is an enemy, also shoulder a share of the blame. Those rabbis should come to the synagogue today and visit children in the kindergarten and assure them that they will not be harmed. Tell them that what happened today was not a Jewish act and does not represent Jewish values.
Also sharing in the blame today are the voices that have remained silent. These lost youths with their paint cans, masks, and knives learn as much from their rabbis’ words as from their political leaders’ silence. Netanyahu never misses an opportunity to condemn these actions after they take place, but he does nothing to stop those voices from yelling at the top of their lungs from his own coalition. When ministers in his government and members of his own party incite hate against Reform Jews (and Arabs, asylum seekers, LGBTQ Israelis and others) and he does nothing, that gives them all the permission they need to continue.
Although this only happened a few hours ago (as I write), I have to admit that it has affected me deeply. I have seen a lot of people confront me in anger. I have had chairs, rocks, spit, and many other things thrown at me by fellow Jews. I have never lost my resolve to continue doing what I believe is right, but the idea that someone would want to kill me over a difference of religious practice is really beyond comprehension. I look at my fellow Israelis with love and hope, but this morning, while I was using a kitchen knife to make my breakfast, I paused for a moment and looked at that potential weapon in a whole new light.
Today many good people, both young and old, are cleaning those walls of graffiti. The words will be gone, but the problem will remain. There needs to be accountability for public figures who incite to violence. The government needs to implement the Kotel plan immediately so we can begin the process of moving past decades of religious coercion. Finally, we all have an obligation to teach through our words and our actions that Israeli society has room for all of us and that there is more than one way to be a Jew.
Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and chairperson of Women of the Wall. Reprinted from Ha’aretz with thanks