Religious zealots attack “immodest” Jerusalem shops


A sign at the ice cream parlor may caution men and women not to lick cones in public, but the warning didn’t stop Jewish zealots vandalizing the shop in Jerusalem’s main ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Other businesses in Mea Shearim, including a book store and dress shops, have been damaged in night-time attacks by Sikrikim, a group of some 100 ultra-religious men who want one of the holy city’s most tradition-bound quarters to become even more conservative.

“Promiscuity” reads graffiti scrawled in black at the entrance of a clothing shop selling dresses whose lengthy hemline and drab colors have been deemed too racy by the group.

Other stores in the neighborhood, where men wear traditional black garb and women bare little but their face, have had their windows broken, locks glued and foul-smelling liquid smeared on walls.

“They also threw once a bag of excrement inside and smashed our windows three times,” said Marlene Samuels, manager of the Or Hachaim bookshop, whose bright lights and large storefront sign stand out among smaller and more dimly lit businesses.

The shop has been attacked more than 10 times since it opened a year and a half ago, Samuels said. The latest assault was last week when one of the store’s branches had its locks glued overnight.

Samuels said the shop’s owner met with the Sikrikim several times. The store stocks only religious books, but they include volumes published by Orthodox institutions that are Zionist—anathema to the Sikrikim, who believe a Jewish state can be established only with the coming of the Messiah.

Named after a small Jewish group which 2,000 years ago fought against Roman rulers and suspected Jewish collaborators, the modern-day Sikrikim strike at night and some wear masks to hide their identities.

“They use aggressive tactics and they also ask for protection money which involves paying (a religious inspector) coming in and removing the books he deems unfit,” Samuels said.

Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem councilman from the secular Israeli Meretz party, voiced concern that the existence of the Sikrikim, although a tiny minority, signified a growing divide among Jews in Israel.

“Society is becoming increasingly extremist. With the Sikrikim particularly, who are religiously motivated and rule out any position but their own, one cannot reckon, only fight them,” Margalit said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 8 percent of Israel’s 7.7 million population. With an average of eight children per family, they are a fast-growing population. Many live below the poverty line and keep to dozens of their own towns and neighborhoods.

Mea Shearim area is small, less than half a square mile (1.3 square km), and home to about 30,000 residents considered among the most tight-knit and reclusive of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It takes about a minute to walk from Jerusalem’s city center to Mea Shearim, but the dozens of synagogues and Hassidic courts dotting its narrow alleyways are a world away from the cafes and bars of downtown Jerusalem.

Sikrikim attacks have also been reported at Beit Shemesh, a mixed secular and religious town with a growing ultra-Orthodox community, about half an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. The latest target there has been a religious girls’ school.

The Sikrikim who reside near the school object to the way the girls dress. Since the school year began in September they have regularly picketed outside shouting out at the students, most of them younger than 12, that they are promiscuous.

“They claim to be religious but what they do is a crime against God, against the Torah and against humanity,” said David Rotenberg, who works at Or Hachaim.

“SACRILEGE”

Up the road, the Zisalek ice cream parlor has separate entrances for men and women and a sign—posted at the request of local religious authorities—asking them to avoid any show of immodesty by licking cones in public.

“They (the Sikrikim) had a real ball with us,” said Guy Ammar, one of Zisalek’s owners, describing vandalism similar to attacks against other shops in the area.

“But we were not deterred. Residents here told us not to give up and business is going well now.”

Sikrikim shun the media and have made no public comment about their activities.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said an investigation was under way following two complaints lodged by Or Hachaim Center but no suspects have yet been arrested.

Some business owners in Mea Shearim said police has been slow to act, reluctant to get involved in what they see as internal disputes among different religious sects of a closed community.

Rosenfeld said that no other businesses have filed formal complaints in recent weeks.

A few minutes walk from Zisalek Ice Cream is the Greentech music shop, where Hassidic music plays in the background and one DVD in a collection of ultra-Orthodox movies is a suspense film about the battles of a rabbi against Christian missionaries.

The Sikrikim “do not like anything that changes the character of the shtetl and the way it was a hundred years ago,” a worker in the music store said, using a Yiddish term for the small towns where Eastern European Jews lived before the Holocaust.

Shlomo Kuk, an ultra-Orthodox journalist from Jerusalem, said the Sikrikim shouldn’t be seen as representative of devout Jews known as “haredim.”

“One thing is certain: they may dress like haredim but what they do is utter sacrilege which blackens the name of the entire haredi community,” Kuk said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

Muslims and Jews must move on and strengthen ties


Muslim-Jewish relations in Los Angeles have undoubtedly undergone a test the past several weeks, the outcome of which is still unclear. But out of an acrimonious political battle,
many Muslims would like to move on and attempt to re-establish discussion and dialogue with our fellow Jewish Angelenos.

What is being referred to is last week’s decision by the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations to give its John Allen Buggs Humanitarian Award to Muslim leader Dr. Maher Hathout and the vitriolic rhetoric from a segment of the Jewish community in the weeks preceding. It has, amongst other things, been a trial for Muslim-Jewish relations. But interestingly enough, the period has also seen certain bonds between the two groups solidify.

Based on his past criticisms of Israel, a segment of the Jewish community engaged in what can be fairly called a smear campaign against Hathout. In doing so, it took a long-standing moderate and intellectual Muslim leader and painted him as an extremist in an attempt to make him, and the organizations he represents, politically radioactive.

In a Sept. 1 press release, the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) called Hathout “a radical Islamic leader masquerading as a moderate and deceiving the American public.” The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) on Sept. 6 accused Hathout of “promoting violence, hatred and divisiveness”; this again because Hathout likened Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to “apartheid,” a term even Israeli news organizations use to characterize Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories.

Led by these two groups, and eventually joined by others such as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the FBI-designated terrorist group, the Jewish Defense League, an unsuccessful campaign to rescind the award was orchestrated.

This unfortunate effort, filled with more anger by some of these groups than I care to describe, did nothing but build resentment in Muslims. In their view, this campaign continued a pattern of opposing Muslim political integration purely because of its differing viewpoint on a foreign country.

But to others in the Jewish community, Hathout was none of the above. In fact, Hathout and the organizations of which he is a part, should be embraced and recognized for their struggle to bring moderation to the Muslim community and harmony in interfaith relations.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance, Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple, Rabbi Steve Jacobs of Temple Kol Tikvah and David Wolf, son of the prominent late Rabbi Alfred Wolf of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, were among the numerous interfaith leaders attesting to Hathout’s genuine and decades-long effort to build harmony and trust amongst Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles. Yes, they acknowledge there are differences on the Middle East, but that should never exclude Muslims like Hathout from the political process or make him ineligible to receive the award.

To these Jewish leaders who had the courage to stand on principle, we express our deep thanks. Their actions should not only make many Jews proud; they have also set an example for us as Muslim Americans. They represent the best of what Muslim-Jewish relations can bring.

To the AJCommittee, ZOA, Jewish Federation and others who have never really engaged us in dialogue, we stand at the ready. We stand ready to meet and engage on our differences, not expecting to come to agreement but expecting to make things more civil.

Brutal tactics such as those used in this campaign risk poisoning overall Muslim-Jewish relations and building resentment. Such a negative outcome could potentially impact not just Muslims and Jews in Los Angeles but, unfortunately, extend into Muslim-Jewish relations around the country.

To those in the Jewish community who know us, it is time to take our efforts to the next level. Rather than predicate our relations on the dynamics of the Middle East (of which we have no control and to which we actually stand opposed to dictatorial Arab regimes), we should work on domestic issues, such as homelessness, health care, education and other issues which our respective faiths have much in common and which effect us equally as members of the same society.

At the end of the day, Muslims and Jews have far more in common than they realize. It is time to start building on those commonalities for the betterment of our communities, our nation, and our world.

Omar Ricci is chairman of the

Maher Hathout — partner for peace or anti-Semite in centrist clothing?


To progressive Jews, he is a partner for peace and a moderate Muslim in a world darkened by Islamic extremism. To conservative Jews, he is a strident anti-Israel critic, perhaps even a closet anti-Semite, masquerading as a centrist.
 

Dr. Maher Hathout, like no other local Muslim leader in recent memory, has divided the Jewish community, exposing fissures between Jews who fervently believe in reviving the frayed Jewish-Muslim dialogue and those who have lost faith.

 
The chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California and senior adviser to the national Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Hathout became a lightening rod for criticism soon after the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission tapped him in July for the prestigious John Allen Buggs Award for excellence in human relations, which he is slated to receive next month.

 
Following the announcement, terrorism expert Steven Emerson penned an article published in New Republic Online depicting the Egyptian-born cardiologist, who immigrated to the United States in 1971 and is a U.S. citizen, as an apologist for terror groups and a strident critic of the Jewish state. In his piece, Emerson points to Hathout’s past attacks on Israel, including publicly characterizing the country as “a racist, apartheid” state, as his accusation that “the United States is also under Israeli occupation.”

 
These remarks, which Hathout says were made in the context of criticizing the Israeli government, Emerson argues are actually code words for anti-Semitism, and should disqualify Hathout from receiving an award established to promote positive race and human relations in multicultural Los Angeles County.

 
Hathout, in an interview with The Jewish Journal, said he has no intention of withdrawing. To do so, he said, would reward the forces of intolerance and intimidation.

 
At a Sept. 11 commission meeting convened to allow for public comment about the proposed award, Hathout said that “probably my words were harsh” at times, but that he stands by his statements. Hathout said he had no problem with the Israeli people but only with their government. He has helped to organize interfaith services and has traveled to Israel on joint missions in the past.

 
After the publication of Emerson’s article, three major Jewish groups, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs, criticized Hathout and questioned the commission’s decision to honor him. On Sept. 11, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles joined the trio.

 
Hathout’s “words regrettably create the very fissures and divides that the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission is seeking to repair,” Los Angeles Federation President John Fishel said in a speech before the commission meeting.
Rabbi John Borak, director of inter-religious affairs at the L.A. chapter of the American Jewish Committee said that the fact that someone with Hathout’s opinions is considered a moderate Muslim shows why Muslim-Jewish dialogue has faltered in recent years.

 
“The Muslim community doesn’t have honest brokers,” Borak said in an interview before the meeting on Monday. “They say they’re for peace, but their actions don’t accord with that. [Hathout] is an example of that.”

 
Yet some Jews who have worked closely over the years with Hathout dismiss the criticism as mean-spirited and counterproductive. His defenders include rabbis and political activists, among others, who characterize him as a moderate Muslim who opposes Muslim extremism and favors tolerance and inclusion. They argue that intemperate remarks about Israel should not be justification to marginalize him.
“He’s a man who’s demonstrated in every way his commitment to what is humane,” said Rabbi Leonard Beerman, the retired founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles. “He’s a moderate in the Muslim world. If we can’t embrace him, we’re left twisting in the wind.”

 
Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs, rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, argued that Hathout’s humanity and decency was especially evident at a 2002 Jewish-Muslim Passover seder he and Hathout helped organize.

 
Hathout called the seder one of the most moving religious experiences of his life, Jacobs said.

 
“If I felt [Hathout] was an extremist prone to violence and approved of things that are antithetical to Jews, I wouldn’t be here,” Jacobs said at a Sept. 8 press conference at the Islamic Center, which attracted more than 20 prominent local religious leaders who support Hathout.

 
Appearing three days later before the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, a confident and resolute Hathout said he has worked tirelessly to promote dialogue and diversity. Attempting to allay concerns over his past remarks, he told the commission and the emotionally charged audience of 100 that he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestianian confict, as well as Israel’s right to exist, and that he has long condemned suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism as antithetical to the Quran’s teachings.

 
At the same time, Hathout remained steadfast in his criticisms of Israel. The retired cardiologist defended his right to criticize the president and Congress of the United States, as well as the state of Israel, and he said he would continue to do so long as he saw injustices. He said he believes that it is only his sharp comments about the Jewish state that have created the pressure on the human relations commission to rescind.

 
“There’s a storm of hate raised to a hurricane directed to me, my name, and, I guess, to you,” Hathout told the commissioners. “You can be sure if I had been talking about Canada or Brazil, we would not have such a hurricane.”

 
The human relations commission, after listening to nearly 50 speakers in a two and half hour meeting, decided to postpone a decision on what, if anything, to do about Hathout’s award until its next meeting on Sept. 18.

 
Some of Hathout’s critics used their time before the commissioners to raise questions about the nomination process. Normally, a commission subcommittee accepts nominations for the award and the full commission accepts the nomination. The county supervisors themselves have no vote in the matter.
According to sources, ordinarily commissioners themselves put forward names. In this instance, Hathout’s name was put forward by MPAC Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati. Al-Marayati represented that Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky supported Hathout’s nomination, though both men have said they never took a position.