I saw the recent photos of ultra-Orthodox Jews sending their children to a demonstration wearing yellow stars. We all saw those photos. I opened the New York Times with a silent prayer: “God, please don’t let one of those photos appear in these pages.”
But my prayer was not answered. What could be a greater sacrilege than those photos? Could my grandparents, Auschwitz survivors, ever, ever imagine that Jews would put these stars on themselves in their own country?
The Haredi, ultra-Orthodox, population claims that it is “a target of persecution” in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, and that it is a victim of discrimination. The secularists and national religious claim that they are targets of ultra-Orthodox hatred and disrespect. No one is backing down, and the rhetoric is becoming harsher. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even suggested creating two separate cities for different types of Jews, our own self-made apartheid.
What is happening to us? At the end of the day, this does not hurt the secular, the religious, or the ultra-religious. It hurts Judaism, because anyone opening up a newspaper across the globe and seeing what is happening makes no fine distinctions. We are all just Jews, just Jews engaged in baseless hatred and misunderstanding. We’re hurting Judaism.
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293) was one of the great medieval community leaders and scholars in Germany. He had a fascinating life and told the story of his people’s suffering through responsa literature, legal questions he received and answered. Rabbi Meir, in protest to laws instituted by King Rudolph I that imperiled Jewish political freedoms, left Germany with his family and followers. He was imprisoned in what is France today and held for ransom. He begged his community not to pay that ransom, fearing that it would lead to future kidnappings. As a result, he died in prison seven years later. Fourteen years after his death, his body was ransomed, and a wealthy Jew who is now buried beside him bought his body back for a Jewish burial.
Rabbi Meir was never in the land of Israel, but he knew suffering intimately. He gave his life — literally — on behalf of the Jewish people. And although he had never visited Israel, he believed that on Israel’s holy soil, every transgression gets magnified. The king’s palace is a reference to God, of course. We are on holy soil without realizing that holy soil must be nurtured more carefully. A sin there somehow is amplified beyond what it would be elsewhere. We know that’s true in the media attention that Israel receives. We’re under the microscope. If you hold yourself up to a high standard, people will be watching.
And what are they seeing now? They are seeing the long-term bruises of a dysfunctional system that allowed a segment of the population to benefit from the taxes, welfare and army service of others while not having to make an identifiable contribution beyond narrow sectarian, internal interests. Is it a wonder that we have what looks like a civil war that we cannot afford? Does anyone need to fight Israel from the outside when this is what we are doing to ourselves on the inside? It is internal combustion of the highest order, and without ringing alarms we are unquestionably going to implode — unless the government takes drastic measures soon.
We need to pray, and get a hold of this madness before we are engulfed by it. Our very heart is being split in two. How can we allow it?
(Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. This article is distributed with permission of Brown through JNS.)