Radicals In The Ranks

For all the political divides in Western society the one thing we all agree upon is our mutual resentment of the radicalism that defines many Middle Eastern countries. We look with disdain upon men who treat women as second class. We mock governments that mete out anachronistic justice. We detest those that regard democracy as the poison pill of the devil. Apartheid has become a dirty word. And yet, I wonder to what extent much of the same is creeping into our own Jewish society.

Having just spent a week in Israel there were two stories making the rounds at dinner tables and daily headlines in the press. The first was about a man who had spit on an Orthodox eight-year-old girl for immodest dress and another man arrested for calling a female Jewish soldier a “whore” for refusing to move to the back of a bus. Both these men have been described as “Haredi.” This is typically taken to mean ultra-Orthodox. I take umbrage to that definition. I think of myself as ultra-Orthodox but believe these “Haredi” men to be a disgrace to Jewish society. When boarding an El Al flight back to the UK I was stopped by a stranger who proceeded to ask me my opinion on the recent hoopla. It was as if my black hat makes me one of ‘them’ and I needed to justify ‘my people’s’ actions. At best that’s gross naïveté, tantamount to racial profiling. I and most of my ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters believe in ‘live and let live’ while these men are no different to the radicals in Iran or the fundamentalists in Afghanistan that we’ve come to hear so much about.

To be sure, the comparison is not wholly justified. The foul-mouthed man was arrested, in other places he would have been applauded. The Israeli government is democratic after all and thankfully the law of the land prevails. What Israel must remain alert to however is when the middle begins to feel safe enough to accept some of the so-called radical thinking by ideas move to the middle and a new edge is created

To be sure, there is extremism on the left as well. There are plenty of secularists in Israel who loath anyone remotely religious, just because. They may not spit on Orthodox Jews or call them whores, but at the core they too are guilty of the same. Extremism is so easy. Youve got your position, and thats it. It doesnt take much thought. And when you go far enough to the right you meet the same idiots coming around the left.

I’ve often pondered the contemporary significance of the third of the Ten Commandments: “Do not take My name in vain.” Religion does not engender anarchy, as some might argue. It is people’s subjective interpretation of religion that causes discord. Maimonides states that if a pious individual acts in a way that the general population would consider inappropriate, this person is performing achilul Hashem (lit. desecration of G-dliness). That’s taking G-d’s name in vain.

I maintain that everyone is entitled to embrace whatever standards they want within their own lives and it is not for anyone else to criticise that. If “Haredim” want to maintain their own dress code, have men and women walk on opposite sides of the street and sit separately on busses, then that remains their prerogative. It is when they try to impose their standards on others that it becomes difficult – nay, impossible to differentiate between them and other radicals that we are all so quick to condemn.

Which begs one final question: indeed is the voice of condemnation? are the Jewish leaders, the so-called “Torah giants” who should be publically decrying this repugnant behaviour precisely so that people don’t make the mistake of tarring all black hats with the same brush? If this is, as it is justifiably argued, a fringe group, then that can only be made obvious with vocal protestation. There could be no greater kiddush Hashem (lit. sanctification of G-d’s name) to counterbalance the chilul Hashem. In the words of King Solomon: “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.”

I’ve challenged Islamic leaders in televised debates as to why they were not more outspoken against the extremism evident within their faith. Many might interpret the very silence as agreement, I argued. I now put this same challenge to our own Jewish leadership, lest the quiet might be perceived as concurrence and it will remain difficult to differentiate between them and others as well.