We should take a step back from the tefillin rage
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EditorialWe must refrain from reflexively condemning Pnina Peri

We should take a step back from the tefillin rage

A strange encounter with three Israelis, one of whom was putting on tefillin, sparked outrage in the Jewish community. But, we only know the part of the story capture in the video.

(Photo by eldadcarin/ iStockphoto.com)
(Photo by eldadcarin/ iStockphoto.com)

Fifteen years ago, anyone viewing the strange encounter between three Israelis, one of whom was putting on tefillin at Ben-Gurion Airport, would have had grist for an amusing story at dinner. But this is 2018. So last week’s confrontation between University of Maryland professor Pnina Peri, Chabad Rabbi Meir Herzl and business traveler Gad Kaufman drew much more attention, as it was recorded on a phone, posted online and spread virally.

The admittedly disturbing video shows Peri, a visiting assistant professor in U-Md.’s Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, shouting in Hebrew and berating Herzl as he helps Kaufman with the tefillin. Peri yells to them to “move because you are bothering me” and asks rhetorically, “Why are you doing this here? There are people here.” Throughout the video tirade, she laughs mockingly.

But what happened before and after the recorded obnoxious activity? In an interview, Peri said that she first “politely” asked the men “if they could allow me my personal space.” She said that in response, the men “shouted at me to move, called me misogynist names and cursed me out, saying that ‘it’s too bad that Hitler didn’t kill you and your entire family.’” She said the remark about Hitler led to her outburst, but nevertheless apologized for “losing control.”

Herzl, director of the central Chabad House serving the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, disputed Peri’s account in the Israeli media. As he recalled the exchange, someone in the lounge area compared Peri’s ostensibly anti-religious attitude to the Nazis’ hatred of Jews.

In the absence of more significant evidence of Peri’s anti-religious animus — and no such information has been uncovered or brought forward publicly, this unfortunate confrontation should have stopped there. The person who shot the video had the choice not to record it. Kaufman had the choice not to post it. And the rest of us had the choice not to view it. Instead, people who 10 days ago had never heard of Pnina Peri are calling for her firing, using as a “supporting argument” the wholly immaterial fact that her husband, Yoram Peri, a distinguished scholar, is a former president of the left-leaning New Israel Fund.

Peri could have legitimately been concerned about a perceived violation of her personal space, she could have been stressed out prior to boarding an international flight, she may have had a momentary lapse of sanity, or she may actually harbor vicious hatred of Orthodox Jews and Orthodox religious practice. We believe that verbally assaulting a man for putting tefillin on in public is wrong, but without knowing Peri’s motivations, it makes no sense to question her academic qualifications or to judge her on the basis of her religiosity, as many unfortunately did.

While it is difficult to refrain from reflexively condemning the part of the story captured in the video, the lack of a full understanding of what happened counsels that we all get off the outrage bandwagon. PJC

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