Our Indifference Must End
By Guest Writer Sam Sokol,
Kind Permission of The Five Towns Jewish Weekly
When Israel’s Channel 2 ran its exposé on the attack on eight-year-old Naama Margolese, who was innocently making her way to school and suffered the degradations of a group of chareidi extremists known to Israelis as the Sicarii, our own culpability in these events was exposed as well.
While an entire community stood by and did nothing, the Sicarii were allowed to bully, abuse, and torment many young Jewish girls, whose only crime was their desire to learn Torah in safety.
Many in the Orthodox community have tried to assuage their feelings of guilt by telling themselves—and anyone else who is willing to listen—that the Sicarii do not belong to their community and that the majority of chareidim deplore such activities.
While the second statement is most certainly true, the first is just as assuredly a pernicious falsehood. The extremists pray in the same synagogues, immerse in the same mikvaot, send their children to the same schools, and shop in the same grocery stores as the rest of us. We pass them in the street, live in the same buildings, and, as one of my acquaintances from shul admitted, even learn in the same kollels.
Like it or not, they are a part of us: the worst part. While we might deplore their behavior, we too are responsible for it. Our culpability, however, is not due to an act of commission but rather of omission: our failure to act against this cancer in our midst.
The Talmud teaches us that all Jews are responsible for one another, and the Torah states that one must not stand idly by as his brother’s blood is shed. Indeed, according to Chazal, one who witnesses a crime and does nothing is as guilty as the one who acted.
As a community, many of the chareidim in Israel have shown a deep-seated willingness to go to the streets to protest anything perceived as a threat to their way of life and to the honor of the Torah. If we can man the barricades for a parking lot, surely we can do so for the honor and safety of a little girl and her classmates.
Arguments over who owns the school building are irrelevant and detract from the real issue here, namely, our acquiescence to violence by those with whom we share a neighborhood and common institutions.
Some have called these thugs criminals, but this too is misleading. Criminals do not pretend to speak in the name of the community, or in the name of the Torah, or in the name of the Deity to whom we all have pledged our obedience and eternal honor.
While these people call out to the world that they represent Judaism, it is our responsibility for us to cry out, “Not in my name!”
Some gedolim have decried the actions of the kannoim within their own closed kehillot, but they have not called for any communal action against the extremists. Nor have they been willing to share their message with the wider secular public, other than such notable exceptions as Rav Ovadia Yosef and others like him. However, even as he decries violence, he continues to support a mayor who has all but bent over backward to give in to the demands of these criminals.
There have been some courageous individuals from Ramat Bet Shemesh Aleph who have gone out to the streets to protect the girls of Orot Banot. However, they have done so without the official sanction or encouragement of our rabbinic leadership.
One communal rav, in an e‑mail widely disseminated on the Internet, told a local resident that he would not sign a letter condemning the radicals for fear of giving the appearance that they are indeed of our community. This was followed by a 13-page epistle explaining his reasoning at length. This is disingenuous. The secular media has already tarred all of us with the same brush, and anyone with a basic understanding of the press can tell you that we need to show the world that opposition to this behavior does exist in the Orthodox community.
One such hero of public relations is Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, of the Kirya Chareidit. He is the former spokesman of the Eidah Chareidit. As a journalist, I can attest to the fact that while many chareidi leaders poured fuel on the fire by calling the media to task for an anti-chareidi conspiracy and downplaying the violence of our own radicals, Rabbi Pappenheim bravely faced the outside media and said, “Not in my name!”
If it were not for Rabbi Pappenheim, the chareidi world would be in a much worse position than it already is. This is a matter of chillul Hashem, and as such it behooves every one of us to mobilize all of our strength to fight for the honor of Torah by joining with right-thinking individuals of all religious persuasions to argue against the use of violence in the name of Hashem.
I must say this clearly: I am not chareidi, nor do I live in Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet. I am dati-leumi, I am married to a Chabadnik, and I live in Ramat Bet Shemesh Aleph. I do not know any of the Sicarii personally, and I have never been consulted before they commit their heinous acts.
But I am culpable nonetheless. I have stood silently while this violence has occurred and I did nothing. I accept my responsibility and offer my apologies to the family of Naama. Can the rest of our community do any less?
When I was writing about Bet Shemesh as a reporter, I would sweat bullets to make my pieces objective and fair. I would write revision after revision to purge all personal biases, and I interviewed people on all sides, sometimes risking my own safety to do so. I stayed up pulling all-nighters several times to make sure my pieces were fair and balanced.
Two days after the Sicarii attempted to lynch an Israeli television news team, I entered their beit midrash and confronted them, digital voice recorder in hand, asking why they act as they do. I risked my life for the story.
However, I am no longer writing the story. I have moved on to other topics and can finally speak out as a concerned citizen less worried about objectivity than protecting my family.
Every day I bring my daughter to school in Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet. Every day I wait for a bus back to my neighborhood at a stop on which is scrawled “death to Zionists.”
However, even with this on my mind I still stayed objective.
Following the publication of my final feature on Bet Shemesh for the Jerusalem Post, a local man approached me in my synagogue one Friday night, and in front of the entire congregation called me a “heretic,” because he did not approve of how I quoted his rabbi.
The pressure started to build within.
The next day, another member of the community told me that he believed that he had no obligation to assist his beleaguered brothers. It seemed that “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh” was dead.
More pressure mounted.
However, it is only today that I finally speak out because one final incident occurred, what one might call the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Several hours prior to my writing this article, a young woman in Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet was surrounded, had her car windows smashed, her car keys stolen, and her head bashed with a rock, all for the “crime” of attempting to put up posters in a chareidi neighborhood.
What was particularly frustrating was that when she described the near-lynch, only disrupted by the intervention of the police, she told reporters about the large number of onlookers, outnumbering her assailants, who stood by and watched them close in around her.
Nobody did anything.
This passivity in the face of violence is what allows this type of religious crime to fester in our communities. The
silence of the rabbis not only emboldens our enemies, but also makes those who would otherwise stand up to these bullies feel that they need not act.
The excuses made by our rabbis are laughable. As a member of the press who is on friendly terms with Palestinian, secular Israeli, and chareidi journalists, I must say that the only truly unprofessional journalists I have witnessed were those in the “frum” media. Lies were told, the truth was distorted, and facts were hidden from the public.
Did the secular media blow things out of proportion? Many say yes. However, the media in Israel is sensationalist by its nature. Despite this, many in the secular media showed an appreciation for the nuances of the conflict in Bet Shemesh and my colleagues were searching for a chareidi voice that would provide context and distance the community from extremism. Except for Shmuel Pappenheim, that voice was never raised.
Was there an anti-chareidi media agenda among some journalists? It could be, but in the end it doesn’t matter. When there is an issue of Jews fighting Jews, those who profess to be our leaders must stand up and act, regardless of the media.
We must recognize that, as Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz, the chareidim are an easy target and some are using them to further their own political agendas in this matter. However, that must not allow us to forgive or excuse their guilt.
While there would not be glowing press for the chareidi community, largely complicit in the violence for their
silence, the right words from the right rabbis could have greatly mitigated the negative press and diminished the chillul Hashem. Our rabbis may know Torah, but they do not understand media relations.
The chareidi press has cast doubts on the very occurrence of many of the incidents of violence, has misreported events, and on many occasions has declined to report on acts of violence by those living in their neighborhoods.
When the residents of Bet Shemesh got fed up with abuse, and with their appeals for help to the police, the rabbis, and the city government falling on deaf ears, they went to the media.
To the chareidi press, this was the real crime, not the violence.
As a resident of Ramat Bet Shemesh Aleph, I must say this: our continued silence is a crime. Until we end our shameful silence and come to the aid of our brothers, we are damned as collaborators. This indifference must end.