Those of us alive in the 1950s will never forget the scene in which a little black girl, surrounded by federal marshals, was escorted into her newly desegregated school while a large crowd of whites shouted profanities and hurled missiles in her direction.
Who would have believed it then that some 60 years later the scene would repeat itself in Beit Shemesh, Israel, where an eight-year-old Orthodox girl was called the vilest of names and pelted with the most disgusting things by a large group of haredi Orthodox men while she was walking to school? We know that she was sufficiently traumatized to refuse to cross the street the following day even though her mother brought her to the curb. Prime Minister Netanyahu offers some words of support but too little else.
It is deja vu all over again.
On New Year’s Eve, my wife and I were at a small gathering of friends in Fair Lawn. One of those attending was the little girl’s aunt. She described a scene in which her sister, the little girl’s mother, had a brick thrown at her by some haredim in front of the school. She threw the brick back only to have it thrown again, this time hitting her in the shoulder. She called the police and was told that the cops didn’t want to get involved but she could file a report if she wished.
There is a parallel situation taking place in which some settlers, not content with destroying Arab olive crops and defacing mosques, are attacking IDF bases and destroying military structures and equipment while the soldiers are told not to react. Could anyone imagine what the IDF reaction would be if, instead of settlers, Israeli Arabs attacked? And once again the government verbally condemns them but takes no further action.
In the Beit Shemesh incidents, there have been reports of many haredim who expressed opposition to the demonstrators. Most of them do so anonymously as they fear retribution if they go public. In a recent article in the Jerusalem Report, Kamoun Ben Shimon reports on a number of efforts by haredim to set up programs to help others enter the labor market. Some of these people have been ostracized in their synagogues and communities.
While American Orthodox and haredi groups were quick to condemn the violence in Beit Shemesh, condemnation from the heads of major yeshivot or hasidic groups in Israel was rare or muted. Haredi Knesset members and newspapers were equally hesitant. There seems to be two parallel developments. On one side are the haredim, tired of the poverty that is their fate unless they take positive action. On the other is their traditional leadership, whose members fear contact with the non-yeshiva world will weaken their hold. As a result, the leaders try with all their might to stem this tide by becoming more and more extreme, and subtly encouraging these young demonstrators to attack little girls in Beit Shemesh.
The basis of Zionism is Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. The actions of both the haredi hooligans and the settler extremists undermine Jewish sovereignty and are anti-Zionist. Of course, many fervently Orthodox are self-described anti-Zionists to begin with. The settler extremists, on the other hand, see themselves as “super Zionists,” likening themselves to the Sicarii, those zealots who both terrorized the Romans and other Jews leading to an uprising and subsequent destruction of Judea.
In Little Rock, Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in soldiers to quell the disturbances not because he was such a strong proponent of civil rights but because he knew instinctively that when a group deliberately and violently disregards the laws of the land, they undermine government and encourage additional violence.
And so the Israeli government is at a precipice. Should it stand up to these extremists and risk the government falling, as both these groups have strong political support? Or should it challenge them on behalf of the vast majority of Israelis who continue to believe in the rule of law and the ideals of Zionism?
As was the case in Little Rock in 1957, the choice is obvious.