Desecration at the Western Wall

What kind of Jewish education is producing youngsters who genuinely believe the foul behavior witnessed last Thursday constitutes the glorification of the divine power?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Ultra-Orthodox youths interrupt a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)
Ultra-Orthodox youths interrupt a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

The deeper one reads into our reporter Judah Ari Gross’s account of the chilul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name, at the Western Wall last Thursday, the deeper the horror and the sense of despair.

Three families were holding bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the Wall’s egalitarian area — specifically established for gatherings of Jews whose approach to the faith does not require the gender separation imposed at the main area of the Western Wall — when their celebrations were set upon by dozens of mainly ultra-Orthodox youths.

The celebrants, Conservative Jews, were denounced by the ultra-Orthodox rabble as everything from Christians, to animals, to shiksas (a derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman), to Reform Jews, to…. Nazis. Yes, Jews celebrating a coming-of-age in the faith were castigated by fellow Jews as genocidal Nazis. A grandfather of one of the bar mitzvah boys is a Holocaust survivor. How must that odious insult have resonated with him? Exacerbating the slur, Gross reports that this elderly gentleman’s cane was taken away from him and thrown over the side of the balcony.

The abominable behavior also saw the miscreants tear up prayer books. One of them took a torn page and wiped his nose with it.

Coming from a large and particularly diverse family whose members’ approaches to Judaism differ vastly, I can’t say I’m remotely surprised by the depth of the ultra-Orthodox youths’ hostility to non-Orthodox Judaism. I have heard Reform Jews likened to Nazis during unremarkable conversations — as an ostensible fact that needs no elaboration. Coherent, non-Orthodox approaches to the faith are deemed in some ultra-Orthodox circles to constitute an existential threat to “authentic” Judaism — and as such are regarded as immensely more dangerous than the indifference of secular Jews.

Pages torn from a siddur by young Orthodox men at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Masorti Movement)

But though I’m not surprised, I still can’t get my head around the depths of that internal hatred, and the readiness it engenders, on dark days like Thursday, to regard fellow Jews as the most notorious of enemies. And I cannot fathom how that can extend to tearing up and then still further desecrating prayer books that contain the holy names of God — printed words so sacred to believing Jews as to require the storage and burial of the pages that contain them when they are no longer able to be used.

It was striking that Deborah Lipstadt, the newly installed US antisemitism czar, felt sufficiently outraged as to weigh in with the observation that “had such a hateful incident — such incitement — happened in any other country, there’d be little hesitation in labeling it antisemitism.”

That’s precisely what it was, of course, and there need be no hesitation in labeling it so. As such, it requires and almost certainly will not prompt long overdue soul-searching in the communities from which these Jewish antisemites have sprung. What kind of education, what kind of Jewish education, is producing youngsters who genuinely believe this foul behavior constitutes the protection and glorification of the divine power?

US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt speaks at the New Tools in Combating Contemporary Antisemitism forum at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, July 5, 2022. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

As a minor antidote, let me mention the much-remarked upon scenes, three days later, of Labor party leader Merav Michaeli dancing, hand-in-hand with the bride at the wedding of the granddaughter of United Torah Judaism party leader Moshe Gafni.

Much has been made in Hebrew media since Sunday of the ostensibly jarring disconnect: What was the pants-clad Michaeli, center-leftist, feminist, purported arch-secularist, doing at the gender-segregated wedding of a leading ultra-Orthodox Knesset member? An MK, moreover, who had routinely denounced the recently collapsed coalition of the “wicked” Naftali Bennett of which her party was a core member?

Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli dancing at UTJ leader Moshe Gafni’s granddaughter’s wedding in Bnei Brak on July 3, 2022. (Screenshot/Twitter)

In initial comments on Monday morning, Michaeli declared, “I have great respect for the Haredi community… Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox parties have chained themselves to [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in recent years.”

And “I have never disqualified the ultra-Orthodox parties; they are the ones who disqualified everyone else except Netanyahu. I think they are paying a very heavy price, and especially their community is paying a very heavy price, for this bondage to Netanyahu.”

So far, so political. (And, indeed, the very broadcast of the footage seems somewhat political and insensitive; many of the ultra-Orthodox women seen dancing and celebrating in the clip may well have been discomfited by its publication.)

On Tuesday, however, Michaeli vouchsafed that she has a “partnership” with Gafni that dates back to her arrival in the Knesset as a freshwoman MK in 2013.

And Gafni, a rabbi and former educator, himself elaborated in a televised interview: “I’ll announce to you, and I’ll announce to everyone: She [Michaeli] was at my son’s wedding. And when she was elected to the Knesset, she asked me to give her a blessing. Merav Michaeli and me, [when it comes to] the ideology of how Israel should look as a Jewish and a democratic state, there are vast gaps between us. But we can be friendly. We can speak.”

UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni speaks in the Knesset on September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

How banal that statement. And how wonderful. Two Jews who work in the passionate, cynical, pressure-cooker world of Israel’s parliament, making decisions that determine Israel’s national character with gulfs of disagreement between them, can nonetheless be friendly! They can speak! They apparently respect each other. They can share a Jewish religious celebration.

Please, Knesset member Gafni, convey this to those who desecrated God’s name at the Western Wall last Thursday, and those who miseducate and misguide them. Take Merav Michaeli with you. Open some minds. Break down some intra-Jewish intolerance. Belie your comments six years ago, issued in reference to the same egalitarian prayer area, that Reform Jews are “a group of clowns stabbing the holy Torah.”

It’s not going to happen, is it? But, oh, MK Gafni, it should. It truly should. With all due respect to whatever you believe you have achieved in your career to date, this would be your greatest sanctification of the Lord’s name, your greatest kiddush Hashem.

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