I have fond memories of the years I spent studying in Meah Shearim, in Jerusalem. That quaint quarter of Ottoman courtyards that housed ultra-Orthodox Jews was tucked away over a hill from the main city streets and down into a valley that once was the border between Jewish Jerusalem and Arab, by the border post known as the Mandelbaum Gate.
I recall it particularly fondly during Sucot. Not only because every balcony and every spare space is packed with Sucot of all sizes, shapes, and materials. Not only because of the way the markets and streets are full of tables of etrogim and lulavim, and the way they examine in great detail each leaf, frond, and fruit with microscopes and obsessive concern with the minutest of imperfections. But also because the weeklong celebration of Simchat Beit HaShoeva, which commemorates the processions in the Temple to pray for rain and pour out precious water over the altar in the hope that God would replenish it. The dancing and the amazing music one can hear there every night prove, more than anything else, that the image of Meah Shearim as a joyless black hole of fanaticism is far from reality. As is the myth that everyone there belongs to Neturei Karta, refuses to pay taxes and will not serve in the army.
In truth, I have met there some of the most spiritual, sensitive, and caring human beings anywhere, even the most tolerant. It is also true, as in any community, that there are its lunatics, louts, and lascivious criminals. Even in my day, gangs of overzealous young men with no other outlet for their hormones used to go wild at demonstrations against anything that offended them, from swimming pools to driving on the Sabbath. To be fair, it was a form of blood sport in the Jerusalem of my day for young secular bloods to provoke as much as they could in the hope of a good punch-up. But then all the religious authorities, to a man, publicly excoriated the aggression and condemned the violence. It didn’t stop it, but it kept it in reasonable bounds.
They didn’t call themselves Chareidi then, and the nuance is modern that distinguishes between genuinely saintly men and women who really do “tremble” before God (that’s where the word Chareidi comes from, trembling) and the bearded hooligans dressed in black, who masquerade as ultra-Orthodox and brutalize anyone–man, woman, or child—that they can gain power over.
I was terribly upset a few weeks ago to see the BBC report about the way ultra-Orthodox men attack religious girls simply because their skirts are not down to the ground or their sleeves end at the elbow instead of the wrist, throwing stones and feces at them on the way to school. I know full well that the media need to find stories and that they particularly love to find the odd story of Jewish fanaticism so that they can equivalize and say, “See, the Jews are just as bad as the others.” Nevertheless, I am convinced that what those bullies really need is a dose of military service and discipline. And I believe it would do the religious world a power of good if their underemployed and under-disciplined young fanatics were put to some hard physical work.
But then I realized the army is not a cure all. Amongst the National Religious fanatics there is a sort of movement called “Tag Mechir” (literally “Price Tag”). It seems to be made up of dysfunctional religious Zionist settler youth who simply attack, deface, slash, and burn any convenient Arab target every time something bad happens to Israelis, whether it comes from Palestinian sources or even the Israeli army taking down an illegal settlement.
This desire to take the law into one’s own hands, regardless, is a growing disease that undermines the rule of law, morality, and religion. Things are getting worse in God territory, wherever you look. I fear the whole culture of Israeli discourse, the aggression and the violence that was directed against the enemy outside is now being turned inwards. Once again I blame the leadership for not doing enough to stop it.
It is a sign of the times everywhere, of course. Less violent are the current battles going on in the Amish community, but similar to the rivalries between Chasidic courts. In both cases they cut off opponents’ beards, humiliate their women, vandalize each other’s property, and knock off hats in public. I really feel for the Copts in Egypt. Since there are no Jews left, they are the new scapegoat. The murderous political rivalry and pursuit of heresy between Shia and Sunni, indeed the campaigns against the Roma and vice versa in Europe are all part of a similar fundamentalist, primitivist way of thinking and behaving which lacks respect for difference and underpins all kinds of extremism.
We must put our own house in order and not take cold comfort from the fact that others are worse or more murderous than we are. In our world there is a false assumption that anyone wearing black is holy. That the outwardly pious ought always to be given the benefit of the doubt, for they are keeping tradition alive. In reality they are destroying tradition by causing alienation, and portraying a mutation of religion that is morally corrupt. If we really care about our religion, we must bring pressure to bear on its religious leaders to stop such extreme behavior instead of encouraging it for political ends. And we should withhold support if they do not. A bully only stops when he is bullied back and true leadership accepts responsibility.