When the disproportion of terrorist acts committed by Muslims – and the resulting hordes cheering the carnage on the Arab street – lead clear-minded observers to conclude that jihadism is the dominant strain in the Islamic world, we are accused of painting with an unfairly broad brush, discounting the silent (and invisible) majority of Muslims who oppose violence and crave peace.
I am ashamed at how fitting the comparison is to the current behavior of certain haredim in Beit Shemesh and parts of Jerusalem. Harassing women, terrorizing schoolgirls, assaulting police officers and journalists, vandalizing property—the so-called Sikrikim seem to have styled themselves after the Iranian vice squads. It matters not whether the perpetrators of these acts constitute 5 percent or 25 percent of the haredi community. Because all we hear from the background is a deafening silence.
There have been no public statements or rallies to oppose this outrageous behavior by those who claim to speak for them. In fact, the only rallies by haredim have been to protest the way they are being victimized by the media and Israeli authorities – including a huge rally last week in Meah Shearim featuring men in yellow “Jude” stars and children dressed in concentration camp uniforms. A handful of haredi rabbis have spoken out against the Sikrikim, but most have not, choosing to reserve their public pronouncements for other matters.
This can only lead one to conclude that a large number of haredim agree with the viewpoints espoused by the activists – even if they do not condone their tactics. They share the worldview that, as one man interviewed at the aforementioned rally was quoted as saying, “there’s only one Jewish way.” If you are not like us, you cannot profess to be frum, to love God and fear Him, to deserve basic human dignity.
Such an exclusionary – dare I say hateful – way of thinking is totally antithetical to Torah and many of its most foundational teachings: “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” (Love your fellow man as yourself); “V’halachta b’drachav” (And you shall walk in His ways); “D’racheha darchei noam v’chol nesivoseha shalom” ([The Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace); “Derech eretz kadma laTorah” (Human decency comes before Torah). . . .
Why has the haredi leadership taken such a passive stance on this cancer metastasizing in their midst? It pains me to say this, but their silence – and that of their followers – is not surprising. The most consistent, persistent message that the extremely right-wing religious leaders send out to their followers, at least publicly, is not ahavas Yisrael, achdus, or continuous introspection. Instead, it is “Banned!” “Treif!” or “Anyone who does [X]or uses [Y] is not worthy of respect.” Whether it’s the Internet, digital cameras, smartphones, music (even by frum artists), public transportation, clothing that offers a hint of femininity, or stores with any percentage of non-mehadrin inventory, the circle of exclusion is forever expanding.
As a result, more and more people – regardless of whether they are indeed shomrei mitzvos and yarei Shamayim – fall outside the parameters of toleration. Holiness equated with quarantine will naturally give rise to disdain for anyone perceived to be “less than.” And so, I believe, this “cheirem culture” has created a monster: a society where it is seen as acceptable to lash out – physically, verbally, or otherwise – at fellow Jews.
What about the rising wave of anti-haredi – and indeed, anti-religious – sentiment in Israel, which has also given way to incidents of real harassment? Of course it is wrong. Completely indefensible. There is no excuse for attacking others (physically or verbally) who have not lifted a hand (literally or figuratively) against you, just because you find their lifestyle, or that of others who look like them, unpalatable.
But for the haredi community to cry victim – without in the same breath disavowing the actions of those who claim to represent their values – is nothing more than a red herring. The anti-haredi incidents are a backlash, and there would be no backlash had no women been heckled out of their seats on a bus and no little girls terrorized as they tried to make their way to school.
There surely are many haredim, whether in Beit Shemesh, Beitar, or even Meah Shearim, who abhor what is happening. But according to Chazal, silence is tantamount to acquiescence. So silent majorities are no bulwark at all – they are simply passive enablers of a grave chillul Hashem.
Ziona Greenwald is a full-time mother who has worked as a court attorney and magazine editor. She currently does freelance writing and editing from her home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.Ziona Greenwald