David Newman
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
October 10, 2011 - 12:00am

In his Yom Kippur sermon at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, former Israel chief rabbi (and current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa) Yisrael Meir Lau was very forthright in his condemnation of the recent “price tag” desecration of the mosque in Tuba Zanghariya. His comments were made before it became known that a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa, the area under his jurisdiction, had also been defaced, including such disgraceful graffiti on graves as “Death to Arabs.”

Lau, a Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, had no hesitation in comparing the desecration of the Muslim religious sites to events which took place in Nazi Germany prior to the Holocaust.

To be fair, Rabbi Lau was not comparing the Jewish extremists suspected to be behind the heinous acts to the Third Reich. But the very fact that he was prepared to mention the events of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, and Babi Yar (with which he opened his sermon) in the same breath was a clear indication of the great revulsion he, like the vast majority of Israelis, felt at this latest blemish on the Jewish State.

For almost 30 years, extremist activity and violence on the part of the right wing has been attributed to a “few bad weeds” or “fringe elements,” but the phenomenon appears to have sprouted roots.

Examples of such violent extremism include the murder of Emil Grunzweig, the Jewish terrorist organization of the late 1980’s (which had been planning to blow up the al-Aqsa mosque), the mass murder perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in a Hebron mosque and the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Then there are the so-called “halachik” (Jewish law) books and statements of rabbis such as Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba or Yitzchak Ginzburg of the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in Nablus (who pervert the name of religion by arguing that they have every right to disseminate what they see as religious, not political, teachings without being subject to police investigation).

There has also been an increase in violence against Palestinians and the uprooting of their orchards throughout the West Bank, not to mention the support of Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for not renting or selling houses to Arab citizens or the increasing number of cemetery and mosque desecrations. This phenomenon is the cumulative outcome of weeds which were never uprooted or treated with weed killer, and which have now set in very strongly.

ISRAEL IS rightly proud of the fact that, during the past 60 years, the state has ensured full religious freedom for Jews, Muslims and Christians.

That Jews were not always treated in the same way in their countries of exile over the centuries, or that all the synagogues and places of worship which existed in the Old City of Jerusalem prior to 1948 were completely destroyed by the Jordanian authorities during the 19 years of Arab rule, is a sad reality. But this cannot be used as an excuse or apology for the defacement or damaging of of Muslim places of worship or burial. There is no question of “tit for tat” here.

The Western world has taken its lesson from its own poor history in this respect. Acts of vandalism perpetrated against religious establishments, be they Jewish or Muslim, in North America or Western Europe today are met with the full force of the law. It is time the Israeli government and law enforcement authorities undertook similar actions to put an end to the growing acceptance of the legitimacy of this kind of religious intolerance.

One of the good points Israel is able to sell to the increasingly hostile international media is the fact that in the Jewish democracy, all groups are free to practice their religion and culture without fear of oppression or discrimination. But a country which, regardless of the legal niceties, decides to construct its own Museum of Intolerance on the site of a disused Muslim cemetery is displaying its own intolerance and a total misunderstanding of what it means to respect the rights of minorities. This is the message the state is sending to radical groups – if the state can build a museum on the site of a Muslim cemetery, then what is to stop them going one step further?

It was important and significant that President Shimon Peres and the country’s chief rabbis immediately undertook widely covered visits to Tuba Zanghariya to condemn the arson there, but that show of support will simply be insufficient unless real action is taken. For as long as the Israeli police treat Jewish extremism and anti-Muslim xenophobia differently than acts of Arab and Palestinian violence and terror, the problem will only get worse.

At least this time, some Religious Zionist rabbis have come out with public statements against the Price Tag actions. Their previous silence was evidence that they are losing control over some younger, more radical, groups that their political ideology has spawned and who no longer view them as their religious authority. Perhaps their silence was also an indication that they have not always completely opposed these actions and that they would not be troubled if the continuation of these attacks were eventually to bring about the gradual emigration of minority groups from Israel, who no longer believe that the country respects and is tolerant of its minorities, as behooves any true democracy.

Still, while it is a positive development that some rabbis have spoken out against these attacks, the fact remains that in Israel today there is a younger generation of radical elements who are prepared to light the fires of a religious and fundamentalist war and bring them to a point which, even in our own conflict-ridden region, we have not yet experienced.

It is as though the emergence of groups like al-Qaida and the Taliban during the past decade has spawned a Jewish extremist equivalent which, if allowed to go unchecked, will bring even greater disaster and dishonor to the Jewish State.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the national conflict between Arabs and Jews. It has everything to do with the lessons which the Jewish people should have learned from their own miserable experience during two thousand years of exile and oppression. If the state does not bring its full power to bear to stamp out the racist and xenophobic groups within our own society, we will end up being no better than the countries from which we fled and were expelled. Jew, Arab, Christian – the law must be the same for each and every one if we are not to lose the world’s respect as a country in which all religions and minorities are respected.

The writer is professor of Geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.


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