A spate of vandalism against Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel has non-Orthodox leaders worried about a new, intensified level of physical violence against them by Orthodox opponents.
The concern by both American and Israeli leaders is being expressed following a window-breaking attack last week against the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem — the second attack at HUC in less than a month.
Two weeks ago, vandals torched a Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood.
No one was hurt in the incidents, but non-Orthodox leaders, citing mounting hostility from fervently Orthodox circles, warn it is only a matter of time before someone is hurt or killed.
“Next time it won’t just be windows,” the HUC dean, Rabbi Michael Marmur, told The Jewish Week Monday. “I no longer believe that [a fatality] couldn’t happen.”
Rabbi Marmur noted that at another time of day there would have been children next to the shattered glass windows, where vandals also spray-painted the word “Satan” on the floor of the King David Street campus, which also houses several Reform movement offices.
Reform and Conservative leaders attribute the new violence to a “panicked” response from Orthodox critics who fear a growing popularity of non-Orthodox Judaism among Israelis.
Several also noted the recent successes of non-Orthodox legal cases against the Orthodox establishment in Israeli courts over such core issues as religious conversion and gay rights.
“I think there is a growing radicalism and militantism on the part of some of the ultra-Orthodox forces,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive vice president of ARZA, Reform Judaism’s American-based Zionist division. “There is now a growing concern in our movement that somebody might be killed, and an institution might be burned down.”
He said that’s a change from five years ago, when Reform officials expected verbal insults from Orthodox critics but were “relatively unconcerned about our own physical well being.”
While admitting they don’t know who carried out the recent attacks — there have been no arrests in the arson or glass-breaking incidents — some Reform leaders contend it doesn’t take much to figure out that the fervently Orthodox community is behind the violence.
“There is more than enough reason to believe that some folks in other corners of the Jewish world find the prospect of our increasing success a prospect they are simply panicked by and are lashing out against,” said Rabbi Marmur.
He and others cited articles in Yated Ne’eman, a right-wing publication, calling the Reform movement in Israel “invaders” and “our spiritual enemies” for trying to change the status quo of Orthodox hegemony over adoption, burial and freedom of worship.
“[Reform] is intent on uprooting every vestige of Torah law from Israeli society,” one column said. “The time has come to snap out of our fantasy. If we wait any longer Ertez Yisroel may soon change beyond recognition.”
Jonathan Rosenblum, the Israeli director of Am Echad, a fervently Orthodox advocacy arm of Agudath Israel, called the non-Orthodox charges nonsense.
“If you haven’t found the culprits, if you don’t know who you are talking about, how can you make an argument about why it’s happening?” he asked.
He said Israel’s haredim don’t fear the popularity of Reform and Conservative as much as the Supreme Court giving them official sanction. And Rosenblum dismissed the Orthodox newspaper articles as being aimed at an American audience, not Israelis.
But Rabbi Marmur contended the anti-Reform rhetoric is a clear connection to the vandalism.
“I’m telling you it would stretch one’s credulity to a great extent to believe that there’s no connection between this atmosphere of fear among many people on the corners of the Jewish spectrum who look and see that Reform and Conservative Judaism are making inroads in Israeli society to an extent never before seen, and as a result the need to lash out.”
HUC president Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who is based in Cincinnati, said the college is upgrading its security system in what he calls “a battle for the soul” of Israelis.
He noted that no representatives of Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment have called to offer words of support, but that he has received words of empathy from Christian colleagues.
Rabbi Zimmerman left for Israel Tuesday, as new groups of American teens and college students begin Reform summer programs. He said is leaving with “heightened anxiety and concern.”
“I think this is an escalation of something,” he warned, calling the attacks against his buildings “planned and thought out.” But, he added, “we will not close our doors.”
Rabbi Zimmerman said the latest attack has renewed calls by some Reform rabbis to ask congregants to withhold charitable contributions to Israel and instead direct funding toward Reform projects.
Rabbi Marmur rejected attempts to rationalize the vandalism as acts of fringe groups.
“There is no doubt that the persons belong to a lunatic fringe,” he said, “ but if we learned anything from the Rabin assassination, it is that it’s not enough to [dismiss it] as acts of the lunatic fringe.”
Indeed, Samuel Freedman, author of the upcoming book “Jew vs. Jew” said that failure by Israeli officials to find and prosecute earlier incidents spurred the recent spurt of vandalism.
“Part of what set the table for these events are similar ones in the past that haven’t led to arrests or any real widespread public condemnation, not just from the religious right but from the secular left,” Freedman said.
He noted that “the Orthodox establishment in Israel has been really slow” to condemn the vandalism partly because “their disdain for anything that challenges their monopoly on certain aspects of civil life.” Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Israel Lau decried the Conservative synagogue attack.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he didn’t believe there was any concerted effort or conspiracy by Orthodox groups.
But he said the vandalism is “a result of a society that has permitted and tolerated an approach to pluralism that is so negative that it breeds this type of contempt.”
Rabbi Epstein fears it will only get worse “unless their society starts re-educating these people that we are their brothers and sisters, and as Jews in Israel should be embraced.”
In the U.S, the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union publicly condemned the torching of the Conservative synagogue. OU official Betty Ehrenberg said the group also condemned the HUC attacks.
Charles Bronfman, chairman of the United Jewish Communities, American Jewry’s fund-raising arm, said in a statement, “It is our responsibility to loudly decry such acts of violence and reconfirm our commitment to the expression of religious freedom and democratic rule.”
- Israel Lau
- Jonathan Rosenblum
- executive vice president
- Ammiel Hirsch
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Samuel Freedman
- Sheldon Zimmerman
- Michael Marmur
- Union College in Jerusalem
- David Street
- Reform Judaism
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