Igniting Israel’s Powder Keg

The Reform movement’s kindergarten in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion was torched by arsonists on the eve of Monday’s opening of the school year. No one was injured, but the kindergarten’s walls were blackened with soot, windows were broken, and equipment and toys were destroyed.

Chana Sorek, chairperson of Mevasseret Zion’s Reform congregation, said that at a town council meeting in January, Sephardic residents, aligned with local politicians and rabbis from the Shas (Sephardi ultra-Orthodox) party, told Reform members: “We’ll burn you,” and, “It’s too bad they didn’t burn you at Auschwitz.”

The threats came as the council was about to decide on a plot of land where the Reform congregation, which numbers about 225 families, could build a community center and synagogue. The meeting was adjourned, Sorek said, when the Shas-aligned group appeared on the verge of physically attacking the Reform Jews present.

She said that it was obvious the arson was connected to this group of residents, and that at least one local council member — whom she did not name — agreed. Hours after the arson was discovered, a local Reform member received a telephone call from someone who told her, “You’ll be hearing from us.”

A spokesman for the Jerusalem police confirmed that the fire was caused by arson, and that the connection Sorek spoke of was one of the possibilities being investigated. The spokesman said that he did not want to elaborate, “because this is a very sensitive matter.” He added that no suspects had yet been arrested.

Meanwhile, the 41 children at the Kehilat Mevasseret Zion kindergarten have been gathering daily at the home of a nearby Reform Jewish family. The local council is expected to try to find an alternate site for the kindergarten.

Rabbi Uri Regev, Israel’s most prominent Reform leader, stressed that the arson was not a merely local matter, but was the inevitable result of continuous incitement by leaders of Israel’s Orthodox establishment.

“We hear it every day. The incitement against Reform Judaism does not stop; it has gotten out of control, and it is orchestrated by the leaders of the Orthodox establishment,” Regev said.

The verbal attacks have escalated in the last month, following the Supreme Court’s decision that Joyce Brenner, a Reform Jew, was entitled to sit on Netanya’s religious council. When Brenner tried to take her seat in the council chambers, a Shas member said angrily, “We don’t want lesbians or people who care more about Arabs than about Jews.”

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Lau recently blamed the Reform for assimilation, and he was quoted in an extremist-Orthodox newspaper as saying, “Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad commit suicide at Mahane Yehuda, and they [Reform Jews] commit suicide of a different kind.”

Rabbi Moshe Gafni, a Knesset member with the Degel Hatorah (Flag of the Torah) party, told Israel Television: “Just as you cannot allow a Hamas member onto the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, so you cannot allow someone who wants to destroy Judaism onto a council that is supposed to provide religious services to Jews.”

Interior Minister Eli Suissa of Shas said from the Knesset podium, “We will do everything in our power to banish them [the Reform] from our midst.”

Regev said that when unsophisticated Israelis hear this sort of talk from Orthodox leaders, “it’s easy for them to translate it into violent deeds.”

Regev drew a parallel between the current incitement and violence against non-Orthodox Jews and that which preceded Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. An attempt on the life of a non-Orthodox Jew looms as a real possibility, he warned, saying, “Once again, the writing is on the wall, and no one wants to see it.”

Surveying the damage in the kindergarten, Sorek said that she believed the arsonists were connected to the 300-odd local Sephardic residents, many of them homeless, who have recently been battling police while trying to take over Mevasseret Zion’s immigrant absorption center.

The squatters, children of Sephardic immigrants who settled in the Ma’oz Zion neighborhood of Mevasseret Zion in the 1950s, resent the thousands of richer, mainly Ashkenazic residents who bought expensive new cottages and apartments in the Mevasseret Yerushalyim neighborhood over the last couple of decades. Squatters accuse the newcomers of “stealing” land that should have gone to them.

The militants in Ma’oz Zion tend to be traditionally Orthodox, and they see the Reform congregation — liberal, middle-class and largely Ashkenazic — as a symbol of their enemies, Sorek said.

“These people are violent, they threaten people, and some are drug addicts. It’s easy for someone to take their anger and turn it against the Reform,” she said.

Rabbi Avraham Yosef, the official rabbi of Ma’oz Zion, condemned the arson as “criminal,” saying that he would impart this message in his coming sermons. “I’m not for the Reform, but I’m not for violence either,” he said.

Yosef went on to say that he was unaware of any local incitement against the Reform, and that he was convinced the arson could not have been carried out by Mevasseret Zion residents.

Asked why he was certain of this, Yosef replied, “Whoever heard of a Jew doing such a thing to another Jew?”

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A Reform Response By Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

We condemn the burning of the Reform kindergarten in Mevasseret Zion. We are appalled and saddened by this senseless act of violence.

We call on Israeli leaders, both religious and governmental, to denounce this attack in the strongest possible terms, and to aggressively pursue its perpetrators.

While those responsible for the arson attack cannot yet be identified, there is no doubt that wildly irresponsible and incendiary remarks by Orthodox officials have contributed to a climate of hate that makes such attacks possible. In the wake of the Rabin assassination, we had hoped — apparently to no avail — that religious and political leaders had come to understand the dangers of rash statements and inflammatory language.

We are particularly appalled by the remarks made on the Sunday prior to the arson by Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Lau, who compared Reform Jews to the suicidal Arab terrorists of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. Such words open the door to the grim possibilities of terror and violence.

Rest assured, we will not be deterred. The kindergarten will be reopened, and we will redouble our efforts to build Reform Judaism in Israel.

We remain committed to the dream of a Jewish state that unites the Jewish people wherever they may be found, a state in which Jews are respectful of their differences but united in their love of Zion and their commitment to a common Jewish destiny.

During the coming Days of Awe, we beseech the leaders of Israel to promote Jewish unity and the partnership of the Jewish people, in the spirit of mutual respect and civility.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.