The suburbs of New York City include a number of sizeable, middle-class Orthodox communities in Northern New Jersey and on Long Island. I suspect that much of America would be stunned by the following story coming out of one of those Orthodox Jewish burbs:
A relatively new Orthodox congregation in the community, bought a private home in the neighborhood where many of the congregants reside. The intent was to turn the residence into a synagogue. Unfortunately, only after buying and taking possession of the house did the congregation learn that town zoning laws would not permit a private home on such a residential street to be utilized as a house or worship. The town threatened to evict the congregants if they began holding formal religious services there.
In the days that followed, members of the congregation in protest, torched a popular church in the town and spray painted the word, “Price Tag” on the scorched walls.
On the main shopping street of the middle class suburb, members of the congregation broke store windows, destroyed a police cruiser and two trucks that were making deliveries to area stores.
Local police made a number of arrests and discovered caches of assault rifles in the homes of many of those arrested.
The above story is of course fiction; it didn’t really happen in any America suburb. But it is a factual description of the behavior of some youthful right-wing
extremists in Israel who in recent weeks have destroyed mosques, burned police cars and rioted in Jerusalem to protest their eviction from an illegal settlement in the West Bank.
Well over half a million Orthodox Jews reside in the 5 boroughs of New York City. Many of them, are “haredi,” rigidly Orthodox (e.g. Hasidim, Agudath Israel of America types, etc.). Would you be surprised to turn on NBC’s national Nightly News show one evening and learn that Orthodox Jews in New York were blocking city buses and subways as part of organized effort to require separate seating for men and women on all public transportation?
But this is exactly what is going on in Israel. Haredim in Jerusalem are demanding separate seating on buses and on the city’s new light rail train line. Not only are they demanding separate seating for the sexes, but they are insisting that advertising on all public transportation not include pictures of women, even modestly dressed.
Last week, a haredi man boarded an Egged Bus going from Ashdod to Jerusalem. Sitting in the front of the bus, was a modestly dressed woman, Tanya Rosenblit. The man demanded that she sit in the back of the bus. She refused. The man got on his cell phone and in a matter of minutes the bus was
surrounded by haredi men screaming about modesty and separation of the sexes. The arrival of the police didn’t help. Rather than tell the man he had no legal ground to make such a demand, they asked Tanya, for the sake of peace, to move to the back of the bus. The courageous woman refused. The 30 minute stand-off ended when the haredi man gave up and got off the bus.
Can you imagine the Hasidic community of Monsey, N.Y. or Williamsburg, Brooklyn stoning a Jewish book store because it carried prayer books and Bibles in English? But that is exactly what happened to Manny’s Bookstore in the Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem. The rioters claimed that English books, even sacred ones, attracted “undesirable” people to the neighborhood.
How are we to understand the seemingly extreme, unreasonable, demanding, violent behavior of so many Jews in Israel?
As a social worker and life-long student of human behavior, I submit that the escalating violent behavior of religious and right-wing extremists in Israel is not
dissimilar from the behavior of abusive spouses. Ask any friend or a relative of a man or woman who has been convicted of physically abusing his/her spouse and you will probably be told that they never had a clue that he/she was capable of such things.
Marriage is often defined as the joining of two lives. It takes a certain level of emotional maturity for a person to enter into such profound, interpersonal commitment. Any couple who has enjoyed a long-term, happy relationship will tell you that the secret to such relationships is mutual respect and compromise.
So what happens to a marriage that includes an individual who doesn’t really like or respect him/herself, let alone the spouse? What happens to a marriage that includes a person who feels threatened by having to share power and make compromises everyday?
Regrettably, the desire to dominate a relationship through intimidation and violence provides the emotionally immature person with an easy and satisfying strategy for survival. After all, no one really feels threatened or vulnerable in a state of rage. Incredulous rage is nothing less than a false sense of empowerment.
The Jews living in the Diaspora understand that they are just one segment of the larger communities in which they live. Most Diaspora Jews understand that they can’t reshape the world around them to accommodate emotional and cultural preferences. We in the Diaspora make numerous compromises with the “larger” world in which we live everyday. Apparently, some of our sisters and brothers in Israel don’t understand why they should have to make religious, cultural or political compromises with people they deem as less religious or less patriotic than themselves.
In short, some very unsophisticated, provincial Jews are experiencing the contradictory emotions of feeling empowered by living in a Jewish state while simultaneously feeling threatened by a pluralistic society in which there is a diversity in beliefs, politics and lifestyle.
For the record let’s acknowledge the remarkable accommodations Israel affords haredim and political, right-wing zealots:
Well over half a million Israelis now live beyond Israel’s 1967 borders in “legal” settlements on the West Bank. If you want to be a courageous settler staking a claim for the Jewish State on in the “territories” there are lots of legal Jewish communities to live in on the West Bank.
The synagogues of haredim are in large part, built and paid for by the State; the salaries of most rabbis are covered by the government’s Ministry of Religion. Israel provides free religious education to almost every flavor or Orthodoxy there is. Tens of thousands of haredi men are excused from required military service every year and provided with a living-stipend so they can dedicate their lives to the study of Torah and making babies.
The violence plaguing Israel at this time must not be tolerated or treated as a social aberration that requires mediation and compromise. Like the emotionally infantile wife-beater who wants to bully and violate his victim, those inclined to burn mosques, burn books, demand that their cultural and religious standards be practiced by all should, upon breaking the law, be treated as nothing less than common criminals.
A person who is not mature enough to handle an intimate relationship with another human being, is not obligated to remain married. Likewise, a Jewish person who lacks the emotional maturity to handle living in a democratic, pluralistic Jewish State is not obligated to remain there. But like sharing ones life with another person, such people should not be under any delusions that he or she has a right to control the lives and behavior of others.