Ugly Forces

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In the past two weeks, the already-disastrous relationship between Israel’s religious and non-observant sectors has escalated to a new and alarming level.

The haredi deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Haim Miller, yesterday served notice that under no circumstances would his group permit Jerusalem to host next year’s most popular song festival – Eurovision – because of the role in Israel’s victory of the transsexual, Dana International. The NRP’s Shaul Yahalom promptly repudiated Miller.

Earlier, Deputy Minister Meir Porush’s insensitivity in accepting the role of government representative at a ceremony marking Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars generated understandable outrage by bereaved parents. The repeated statements by various haredi spokesmen that it was un-Jewish to stand in silence together with the nation to honor the fallen heightened tensions further.

But there is no doubt that the first prize for promoting intolerance should be awarded to those who exploited the Jubilee Bells debacle.

No doubt the enormous outrage generated emanated from a long pent-up and understandable frustration with haredi political tactics, policies and pressures. This explains why so many jumped on the bandwagon and saw an opportunity to hit back at their enemies in the religious world.

Thus Tel Aviv Mayor Ronni Milo was applauded when he went over the top to claim that this event represented one of the greatest disasters in the state’s cultural history.

Sensing the growing hatred of religious Jews, he used the issue to launch himself on the national scene with a new party which he claimed would be centrist and a bridge- builder to heal divisions. Talk about double speak!

Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg – never regarded as a great contributor to improving relations between religious and non-observant Israelis – outdid himself with an inflammatory outburst of unreason.

Emphasizing that he was wearing a kippa, Burg denied that the Batsheva incident was the beginning of a religious civil war, alleging that it was merely a continuation of the struggle that was initiated with the bullet shot by Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin.

By any standard, this was a remarkable statement from the head of an organization purportedly striving to unite the Jewish people.

To their credit, both President Ezer Weizman and Labor leader Ehud Barak distanced themselves from the incitement against the religious community by the likes of Burg.

THE moment cries out for enlightened leadership. Israel faces a nightmare if secular and religious extremists hijack a debate which needs sensitivity, understanding, tolerance and knowing when to avoid saying the first thing that comes to mind.

Leaders must take extra care not to demonize all religious Jews, to restrict their justifiable criticisms against the specific elements who seek to impose their views by anti-democratic means, and to recognize the enormous dangers in fanning prejudice and hatred.

When demonstrators used the epithet “dirty Jew” as they hurled abuse at NRP minister Yitzhak Levy, who was not even indirectly involved with the madness, we were witness to a chilling indicator of the ugly forces that an emotional, no-holds-barred, offensive campaign against religious Jews could unleash.

Such a campaign has real parallels with the antisemitism and demagoguery from which Jews suffered for 2,000 years in the Diaspora.

If the “silent majority” of Israelis who want accommodation do not call a halt to the inflammatory and expedient attacks by political leaders, we will be heading for disaster, even a civil war, with far greater dangers to our future than the current problems with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Perhaps President Weizman should invite the prime minister and the Labor leader to join him in a bipartisan conference designed to initiate a process of reconciliation involving the main centrist religious and non-observant groups.

Perhaps such a process could lead to a bipartisan approach to Ehud Barak’s initiative in calling for a review of the outrageous yeshiva draft exemption racket, which the government has been forced to face in view of rising public indignation. This and other similar issues could be reviewed by such a commission of moderates from both camps in a civilized and unemotional manner. We must try to heal the deeply divided House of Israel now, before it is too late.

The writer is chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress.

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