“In 50 years, Israel will be like Iran,” an Israeli friend wrote to me when she forwarded the video of 8-year-old Naama Margolese and the harassment she’s endured at the hands of some Haredi Jews in her Beit Shemesh neighborhood.
Some Jewish childhood friends of mine similarly condemned the same Haredi Jews, using terms such as fanatics, extremists and zealots. They wrote on Facebook defining these ultra-Orthodox Jews in the same terms as Islamic terrorists who kill and maim in the name of Muslim purity.
As terrible and shocking as the video might be, however, I think equating spitting with murder is crossing the line.
“Official” Jews have been a bit more measured in their criticism of the Beit Shemesh Haredim. “The government of Israel needs to stop being coerced into allowing the Haredi community to choose to be poor, uneducated, and exempt from serving the country in some form,” declared Rabbi Daniel R. Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. These Jews have removed themselves from Klal Yisrael, Allen seems to be saying, and the solution is Israel’s government forcing them back into line.
Meanwhile, Jewish journalist Sarah Wildman defended judging these beyond-the-pale Jews in The Forward.
“When Haredi men and women put their children in striped pajamas and place a yellow star emblazoned with the word “Jude” on their chests and parade in the streets of Jerusalem to protest the secular world,” Wildman wrote, “we can call that spitting on the graves of our ancestors.”
So we can call ourselves reasonable and feel free to condemn some other Jews for forcing Jewish women to sit at the back of the bus and spitting on little girls walking to school for alleged immodesty. After all, we are supposed to feel free to criticize our brothers and sisters in Israel. That’s showing our true love and caring for our fellow Jews, right?
When the shoe is on the other foot, however, we tend to react rather badly to receiving criticism. Think back to December when the Israeli government put out some ads targeting yordim (native-born Israelis who no longer live in Israel) suggesting they move back to their homeland. The thrust of the ads was that Israelis can live in America happily but doing so will mean their kids will assimilate. One ad showed a girl and her parents Skyping with grandparents in Israel. The conversation turns to the current holiday and when the grandparents who have a glowing menora in the background ask their granddaughter what day it is she replies “Christmas.” In another ad, a boy cannot rouse his napping father by calling out “Dad” but the father wakes immediately when the boy whispers “Abba.”
To say these ads caused a firestorm is to put it mildly. The Jewish Federations of North America sent a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel demanding the ads be pulled.
“While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel. We share the concerns … that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship,” JFNA declared in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg really blew his top. “The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular),” Goldberg averred.
Only trouble is that the United States is no place for “a proper Jew,” to use Goldberg’s terminology, and the proof is that most of us don’t choose to live Jewish lives. Synagogue membership, federation participation, day school populations are all falling, not rising. Fifty-five percent of us marry non-Jews. And furthermore, sad as it is to admit, outside the Orthodox community, we are culturally encouraged to allow intermarriage and even condone it. We aren’t supposed to judge anyone harshly for choosing to intermarry. We aren’t supposed to have a negative reaction to those who raise their kids in homes where non-Jewish holidays are celebrated. We are supposed to be happy that some Jewish preschools accept children of intermarried parents. We aren’t supposed to proselytize for Judaism (even to other Jews) and, heaven forbid, we even suggest converting to Judaism.
So why shouldn’t the Israeli government actually argue that Israelis living here are losing something when they intermarry?
The real problem with the ad campaign wasn’t the idea behind it but rather that it didn’t go far enough. There was a distinction made between assimilating Israelis and assimilating American Jews. Assimilating is assimilating is assimilating, whether you are Israeli or American. It means de-emphasizing your minority Jewish culture, religion and heritage in favor of prioritizing the majority non-Jewish culture. And why shouldn’t the government of the Jewish homeland argue against that?
Here’s the tough reality: We are one people — one. What happens among some of us has an impact on the whole. If we American Jews have the right to criticize Israel politically, religiously, however, Israelis have the right and privilege to do the same. It will help serve the Jewish whole when we move toward caring about — not condemning — each others’ fate.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, blogs for the New York Post at nypost.com/blogs/capitol.)