A Reform synagogue in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana was vandalized overnight Wednesday-Thursday in an apparent hate crime carried out by Jewish extremists. The incident took place at the site of a similar attack in January 2014.
Threatening graffiti that included references to biblical passages were sprayed on the outer walls of the Kehilat Ra’anan synagogue and envelopes containing death threats against senior leaders in the Reform movement were left outside of the building along with a knife branded with a further scriptural references.
Police say they have opened an investigation into the incident and are searching for the suspects behind the attack.
The vandalism seemed to have been tied to a push by the Reform Movement and others to open the Western Wall to non-Orthodox prayer services.
The phrase, “The divine presence will never leave the Western Wall,” was sprayed on the front of the synagogue, as was a biblical chapter and verse reference, “Ovadia 18 and 21.”
“Psalms 139:21-22” was written on an adjacent wall.
The passages from Ovadia speak of the destruction of Israel’s enemies at the hand of a vengeful God, while the passage from Psalms reads, “Did I not hate Your enemies, O Lord? With those who rise up against You, I quarrel. I hate them with utmost hatred; they have become my enemies.”
A phrase scrawled on the knife appears to refer to a Jewish legal obligation to kill traitors.
The death threats were directed at Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the US-based president of the Union for Reform Judaism; and Anat Hoffman, head of the Women of the Wall activist group.
The three have been leading the campaign for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, a proposal the government agreed to but has not carried out.
Earlier this month Kariv, Jacobs and Hoffman participated in what they called an “unprecedented act of civil disobedience” by holding a mixed-gender service in the main Western Wall plaza.
Responding to the death threats against him, Kariv said he would not be deterred from his work promoting progressive Judaism in Israel. “This attack shows the urgent need to present a different type of Judaism to the public. We can’t let this hateful Judaism set the tone in Israel,” he said.
“These acts will not stop us from demanding our rights at the Kotel and continuing our educational and spiritual work across the country,” he added, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.
Kariv said the attack was a direct consequence of incitement against the Reform community by ultra-Orthodox religious and political leaders, and he called on senior government members to condemn the attack.
“We expect the Israeli leadership to understand that this is the time to draw a red line under this wave of incitement and the prime minister to make it clear that he is not willing to accept such incitement from ministers in his cabinet. We also expect Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett, who lives in Ra’anana, to come to the synagogue and to send a clear message,” Kariv said. “Israeli politicians are not taking this threats seriously enough and we need to act before its too late and before we see acts of bloodshed.”
Kariv’s call was echoed by Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni, who called on the government to “end this witch hunt” against Reform Jews. Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid said he expected the authorities to make every effort to find the perpetrators.
Netanyahu “strongly condemned” the attack, saying in a statement that, “such acts have no place in our free society.”
Bennett responded that the attack and others like it should be condemned and prevented from happening again.
“There are differences of opinion over substantial issues – including Jewish life,” the statement from his office read. “But we cannot allow disputes deteriorate to abusive discourse and incitement, which could lead to the physical harming of a person because of his opinions and beliefs.
Said Hoffman: “This vandalism is a result of a wave of incitement that points out Reform Jews as second class citizens. Our work is to ensure that there are no second-class citizens in Israel – not women, not Arabs, not Reform Jews. Israel should embrace its diversity and not let extremists dictate life choices for the rest of us.”
Noa Sattath, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, protested the “shocking, hateful occurrence” and said it marked “an escalation in the aggression against the Reform Movement and its institutions seen over the past year, fueled by the unprecedented attack on Reform Judaism led by senior figures in the Haredi community. We will continue to combat this kind of hatred by working to advance equality, freedom and democracy, and the values of acceptance and tolerance.”
Yossi Cohen, Executive Director of Beit Samueli, Kehilat Ra’anan, said: “Upon arriving this morning at my second home, I was shocked to see that once again people are persecuting and harming progressive Judaism. In this space, we run three kindergartens, and my first concern was to make sure that everything was okay, although I’m not sure what to say to children when this is the first thing they see when arriving to kindergarten.”
In January 2014, the Kehilat Ra’anan synagogue suffered a similar attack with biblical passages of the same nature sprayed in the same spot on the front of the building.
The incident also shows striking similarities to a January hate crime carried out in Jerusalem against a prominent Israeli ethicist and atheist philosopher.
Aida Bibliowicz, chair of the Kehilat Ra’anan congregation, said she was “disgusted” by the repeat attack and called on those who disagree with the Reform movement to engage in productive discourse rather than “vicious and hateful” acts.
“If someone doesn’t agree with us then we invite them to talk to us, we will sit and we will talk about it. That is our way,” she said.
The Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, a group of religious-Zionist rabbis, also condemned the attack, saying that differences in opinion should never lead to “any hint of violence — neither verbal nor physical.”