Sticks and Stones . . . and Spittle

Shalom from Jerusalem! It’s nice to be back in Jerusalem for a week of study with rabbinic colleagues at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The pace of recent weeks has been so busy that it has left precious little little for reflection and for writing. But these past few days of travel and a day walking around the city have provided me with some much needed time to simply think. Of course, the world around us continues a pace and there’s much to think about. As I left Boston on Monday the American Jewish community was in an uproar (rightly so, I believe) over the words written a few weeks ago by the owner/editor of the Atlanta Jewish community’s Jewish newspaper. As you no doubt know, in his January 13th column Andrew Adler wrote that Israel has three options in terms of dealing with Iranian threat, one of which, in his opinion, including the Israeli government approving the assassination of US President Barack Obama. In his piece Adler wrote the now famous words, “…give the go-ahead for U.S.-based Mossad agents to take out a president deemed unfriendly to Israel in order for the current vice president to take his place, and forcefully dictate that the United States policy includes its helping the Jewish state obliterate its enemies.”  To say the least, the outrage and disgust regarding Adler’s column has been swift and forthright. Yes, he has apologized. And yes, he has resigned and put the paper up for sale. But his words are out there, and as one Israeli friend put it over coffee here in Jerusalem yesterday, “It’s not good for the Jews.” In recent weeks we’ve also been hearing about the uptick in tensions surround the Hardei (ultra-Orthodox community) here in Israel with incidents in Jeruisalam and Beyt Shemesh taking the lead as members of the ultra-Orthodox community spit on and attack women and children they deem immodestly dressed, and as they hold protest rallies in Jerusalem decrying the efforts of Jerisalem police to uphold the laws of the city and state, to which many among the Haredim do not see themselves as responsible. I arrived to news of fresh attacks in Beyt Shemesh on a woman who was hanging up posters in her community and who was chased by a crowd of Haredi men, and who, after taking refuge in her car found her windows smashed, bleach poured on her, her car keys taken and was attacked with spit and rocks. Again, sitting with my friend at coffee yesterday he proceeded to tell me about the increase of incidents in which Haredi men spit upon Christians in Jerusalem’s Old City.  In one incident, the Haredi men spat upon  man they assumed to be an Armenian Christian based on his religious garb.  While he is a member of that religious community,  it turned out he is originally from Canada.  A former football player in his high school days in Canada, this young man turned on his assailants and fought back.  The Haredi community demanded and achieved his arrest. In his ruling at the end of the subsequent trial, Judge Dov Pollock wrote:

“The Jewish people has had a long history of Christian anti-Semitism which brought suffering to Jews and Judaism…  But with the realization of the Jewish people’s return to independence and sovereignty, the state has and continues not to look backwards but rather to establish a state which safeguards freedom of religion and ritual to all religions, a state in which all people are equal before the law without distinction based on race or religion.  These ideas constitute the foundation of the Declaration of Independence and they are the foundation of the State of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state….

In these circumstances, the prosecution of a person who struck a single blow to someone who spit in his face – after years of suffering the humiliation of being spit at whilst going about in his church robes during which the authorities never addressed his distress – would substantially contradict the principles of justice and judicial fairness.”

Words of sanity in the midst of growing unrest, hatred and disgusting and unacceptable behavior.  Whether it’s Adler’s words in Atlanta, or the demands of women and children to leave neighborhoods or seats on a bus, and the subsequrent spittle and physical intimdation, it all adds up to behavior not in consonance with Jewish values. With the condemnations by right-wing rabbis of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin we witnessed one possible tragic outcome of hate and hate speech. His assassination at the hands of Yigal Amir is hardly the only example of words leading to action.  As Jews, we know all too well the history of the power of speech.  Indeed, our tradition makes the power of speech one of its first value lessons as Genesis speaks of the power of the word of God in fashioning the world.  It may be but a story about creation, but its powerful value lesson stands. Israel cannot be the Jewish State we dream of so long as such behavior antithectical to Jewish values and tradition stands.  This is true amongst Jews, as well as in the interactions of Jews and Christians, Jewish and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, or in any corner of Israeli society Judge Pollack’s ruling ought to be a clarion call for Israel’s leaders, and her citizens to come to sanity before they come to blows even worse than those we’re seeing now.  As the old children’s saying goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones . . . ” But guess what, our tradition teaches and today’s reality affirms that words too can hurt!

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