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September 1, 2015 / 17 Elul, 5775
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Orthodox and Israeli: When the Two Don’t Mix

Aaron Klein is Jerusalem bureau chief for WorldNetDaily, co-host of ABC Radio’s national John Bachelor Show, and he appears throughout the week on other U.S. radio programs. Jewish Press readers know him best for his weekly Quick Takes column.

Two weeks ago Aaron and I drove to the scene after an Arab suicide bomber blew himself up in a shawarma restaurant near downtown Tel Aviv’s old central bus station. As we neared a police checkpoint blocking the entrance to the scene, Aaron took off his yarmulke and told me it would be best if I, with my black hat and beard, got out of the car and walked the short distance to the place so the police at the checkpoint would allow his car to pass without incident.

I did as he requested. Aaron flashed his press credentials and drove through the checkpoint without being stopped or questioned. At the bomb site Aaron kept his yarmulke off until he was able to get through makeshift barricades set up by the police.

On our return trip Aaron told me that if you wear a kippa in Israel, many don’t consider you a legitimate journalist. He went on to describe what brought him, an Orthodox Jew, to habitually remove his yarmulke at checkpoints and other hot spots in the Jewish state:

Several months before the Gaza evacuation, WorldNetDaily rented part of a house in Gush Katif and I went there regularly. Three weeks before the actual withdrawal the area was declared a closed military zone. Only documented residents and credentialed reporters were allowed in and out after passing through a series of intensive military checkpoints.

When I first started commuting to the area after the roadblocks were established I had on my yarmulke, as usual. I drive a Land Rover, a car commonly used by reporters here, and mine is clearly marked as a reporter’s vehicle. I had a lot of trouble getting in even after I presented soldiers with my press credentials. On several occasions I had to put a representative from Israel’s Government Press Office on the phone with a senior officer at a given checkpoint just to prove I was indeed a reporter and not a settler or Jewish protester. Imagine having to do this at four or five checkpoints in a row.

At first I didn’t realize why I had to go through this kind of hassle every time. Then one time I experimented. I took off my yarmulke as I approached a roadblock near Gaza. I was driving the same car as always and flashed the same press card. I wasn’t stopped at all. I kept the yarmulke off for the next few checkpoints and did not have any problems getting past. Many times they didn’t even look at my press card. They just saw I was driving a reporter’s car and looked the part. I tried again later with my yarmulke and indeed I had trouble.

Throughout the many protest rallies prior to the Gaza withdrawal, like the major three-day protest march that settled in Kfar Maimon, I noticed that when I was walking alongside the protesters, almost all of whom were religious, I often was treated poorly and yelled at. For example, on the first day of the protest after the marchers breached police lines and continued toward Gaza, I had my yarmulke on. I was shoved and grabbed by officers even after I flashed my credentials. In several cases the police held me back and wouldn’t let me get pst certain areas. But once I took my yarmulke off, I had no problems.

The latest such incident was last week when evacuation forces massed in Hebron. I was driving toward the city with a host from Israel National Radio. We both had our yarmulkes on. When we passed an area with troops we had some problems getting through. As we approached a second manned zone I said to my friend, I’m not going through this again; I’m taking my yarmulke off. He did the same and we had no problems. He told me of cases in which bearded, yarmulke-wearing reporters from his media outlet, Arutz Sheva, had trouble getting into areas.

So now most of the time I don’t even bother. I just take my yarmulke off at all checkpoints even though sometimes, perhaps at the checkpoint at the Tel Aviv bombing, it may not be entirely necessary.

People might argue that I am giving in; that I should fight it every time. But for me it is extremely important to get to these places for my job. I have been privileged with the opportunity to report news accurately to millions of people every day. I’d rather get to the areas so that I can report and people can read what is really going on and not what CNN is reporting. I don’t have the time to put up a fight at every checkpoint because I look religious.

Ironically, while Klein has had issues reporting as a religious Jew in Israeli-controlled territory, he had the opposite problem when interviewing a leader of a group sworn to Israel’s destruction.

“The first time I interviewed Hamas chief Mahmoud al-Zahar,” says Klein, “I did not bring my yarmulke. I wanted to get out alive. But during the course of our conversation I ended up talking about my Orthodox Judaism. Al-Zahar asked why I didn’t wear a yarmulke to meet him. I told him I’d been afraid to. He said he was insulted. He claimed he was a religious Muslim who only had a problem with the state of Israel and not with Judaism. He lectured me about not forsaking my religion or denying my Jewish identity. He said the next time we meet I had better be wearing my yarmulke. Since then I have interviewed him a number of times. Whenever we speak by phone or when he joins me on the radio, he first jokingly inquires as to whether I am wearing my yarmulke.”

Asked to explain the institutionalized anti-religious practices he’s encountered, Aaron replied, “It’s the new nature of the cultural war in Israel. The great divide used to be the so-called right wing versus the so-called left wing. Essentially, whether or not to give up land to the Palestinians. Now the mask is coming off and the real battle is starting to be waged openly – religious nationalism versus anti-religious post-Zionism.

“More simply, is Israel supposed to be a Jewish state based on religious ideals or will it be a state like all others that just happens to be comprised mostly of Jews? At its core, it is what all the land withdrawals and proposed land withdrawals are about, and it’s what my ‘yarmulke problems’ are about. That is the fight I am witnessing here. The victor will determine the future of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Klein hardly is the first Orthodox Jew to discover that sometimes it’s difficult being a religious Jew in the Jewish state. An Israel Broadcasting Authority crew traveling toward Kfar Maimon to cover the events surrounding the March to Gaza last summer was stopped en route by police for a routine inspection. One crew member, an Orthodox man wearing a yarmulke, was instructed to step out of the vehicle. Questioned about the purpose of his presence, he explained that he was a member of the film crew. He displayed his Government Press Office press credentials, but police continued to suspect his motives for traveling to Kfar Maimon.

It was only due to the intervention of co-workers that he was permitted to return to the vehicle and continue to Kfar Maimon.

This phenomenon works the other way as well. Yoram Ettinger, the veteran Israeli diplomat, is not religious and does not wear a yarmulke. He recounts how his political view can confuse those who equate a right-of-center position on specific issues with religious orthodoxy.

“One Shabbat prior to the Gaza disengagement,” he says, “I was driving over to visit a member of my family when I was stopped at a red light by a police officer and told to roll down my window. The officer asked whose car I was driving. I told him it was mine and wondered why he would even suspect otherwise. The officer said, ‘I saw a bumper sticker against disengagement on the back of your car and that does not conform with the secular community.’ “

Ken Burgess is a well-known musician from England who converted to Judaism some 20 years ago. He got the shock of his life when he witnessed how far the average secular Israeli Jew is from his heritage and tradition. To Ken Burgess, a convert, this was especially agonizing.

Burgess had been working with the biggest record company in Israel and had helped to significantly boost their annual sales. “One day,” he recalls, “after I had become Orthodox, I walked into the office with a kippa on my head. I was told that if I wanted to continue working with them I would have to remove it. This was so shocking to me. I could not understand how a Jew in the Holy Land could tell me not to wear a kippa.

Dr. Arnold Seid is a surgeon from Santa Monica, California, who came to Israel last week to attend the annual Herzliya Conference on security. He says he “was struck by the fact that in this Herzliya conference with thousands of people in the hall including professors, academics, military men and politicians, maybe two percent had on yarmulkes.”

He continues: “Friday night and Shabbat morning I went down to the synagogue in the hotel and found that with hundreds of Jews gathered to discuss the future of the Jewish state, we didn’t have a minyan. I have been to Israel enough times to understand that Herzliya is not exactly the center of Torah learning, but nonetheless I was astonished that there would be this degree of secularism.

“More surprising yet, when I asked at the front desk if there was a nearby minyan, they had no idea. Surely if a traveler in Paris or Buenos Aires or Rome on Sunday morning were to ask at the front desk of a large hotel where to find a church, an answer would be forthcoming.

“I would think that at a meeting of this importance they would want the religious or at least some diversity across the board. There was only one kippa-wearing presenter from Judea and Samaria but the rest were almost exclusively left-wingers or Arabs. It’s not a lack, but a virtual absence, of spirituality. There were no prayers over wine or over bread. Absolutely a lack of Jewishness.”

Rabbi Joseph Gerlitzky, the Chabad shaliach in Tel Aviv, relates the following story:

One Friday night as my family began our Shabbos meal, a neighbor from across the street stopped by and told us he had just returned from a year in Thailand. During that time, he said, he had spent every Shabbos at the Chabad House in Bangkok. He had regards for us from a member of our family who was active in that Chabad House.

When my wife told him he could spend Shabbos with us just as he’d done with Chabad in Thailand, he replied, “No, no – I only make Kiddush outside of Israel, not here.”

That reminded me of an old story about the Chassidic Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine some 300 years ago. Before he left Europe, he made up with his yetzer hara (evil inclination) that it would remain behind and not follow him to Israel. But shortly after his arrival in Israel, he discovered his yetzer hara in the Holy Land. When Rabbi Mendel protested that they’d made an agreement, the yetzer hara responded: “But I didn’t follow you! In Ukraine you spoke with my agents; Israel is my headquarters, and this is where I myself dwell.”

An item that appeared in the Israeli press during Passover two years ago shocked even many of Israel’s most secular citizens. An incarcerated Hamas terrorist observed his Israeli guard eating bread. When he asked the guard why he wasn’t eating matzah, the guard laughed and said that as an enlightened, modern man, he wasn’t bound by silly old traditions. The terrorist then assured his fellow inmates, “We will win after all. We respect and love our past, so we have a future, and we will win!”

In a 1959 letter to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote:

It was once fashionable in certain circles to suggest that the Jewish religion and religious observances are necessary for those living in the Diaspora – as a shield against assimilation. But for those who can find another “antidote” in the place of religion, particularly for those living in Eretz Israel, within their own society, where the atmosphere, language, etc. (apparently) serve as ample assurances, the Jewish religion was superfluous – what need had they to burden themselves with all its minutiae in their daily life? But the trend of developments in Eretz Israel in the last seven or eight years has increasingly emphasized the opposite view: That however vital the need for religion amongst Diaspora Jewry, it is needed even more for the Jews in Israel. One of the basic reasons for this is that it is precisely in Eretz Israel that there exists the danger that a new generation will grow up, a new type bearing the name of Israel but completely divorced from the past of our people and its eternal and essential values; and, moreover, hostile to it in its world outlook, culture and the content of its daily life; hostile – in spite of the fact that it will speak Hebrew, dwell in the land of the Patriarchs and wax enthusiastic over the Bible.

As an Orthodox Jew in Israel, I live with the reality of the Rebbe’s prescient words day in and day out.

In fact, after living in Israel for 24 years, I think the biggest surprise is that I still look Jewish.

Avraham Shmuel Lewin is the Israel correspondent of The Jewish Press.

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