by Steven Philp
In light of the fact that anti-Semitism exists within contemporary society, a large number of Jews devote their time and energy to organizations—like the Anti-Defamation League—that combat intolerance and bigotry. Yet rather than address hatred within our own community, there is a tendency toward finger pointing or—worse—ignoring the issue altogether.
Every now and then a case of Jew-on-Jew violence comes to the attention of national media, such as the recent firestorm generated by the assault on Aron Rottenberg in the Skverer Hasidic enclave of New Square, NY. According to an article posted by the Associated Press, Rottenberg claims that Grand Rabbi David Twersky ordered his 18-year-old butler, Shaul Spitzer, to target Rottenberg after he started attending services at a nearby minyan rather than the main synagogue. The May 22 attack left Rottenberg with third degree burns on half of his body. Spitzer, who also suffered injuries to his hands and arms, has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder, attempted arson and assault.
Regardless of the trial’s outcome, Rottenberg’s testimony of psychic and physical coercion at the hands of fellow Jews—detailed in a New Jersey Jewish Standard article—is a disturbing testament to the intolerance that can exist between members of our community; in this case, over difference of opinion in a small Hasidic neighborhood. Others have confirmed Rottenberg’s report; one New Square resident, interviewed outside the town under the pseudonym Weiss, says that dissenters can expect to be treated “like a goy”: Neighbors will not acknowledge their presence, their children will be expelled from religious school, their car tires may be slashed or their house windows may be broken in.
Unfortunately, another instance of inter-Jewish violence came into the spotlight following the historic vote to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State. According to the blog Capitol Confidential, a short scuffle broke out between a group of Orthodox men and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, NY. Reports indicate that the men had been standing outside the State Senate antechamber, chanting “No vote for LGBT supporters” while the congressmen and women considered a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. They were countered by marriage equality advocates, one of whom was Rabbi Kleinbaum, known for her positive—if not at times controversial—stance on LGBTQ issues within the Jewish community. When Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. joined the protestors, they began to move away from the antechamber. In video footage of the incident, Rabbi Kleinbaum—wearing a tallit, and carrying a sign that reads “Equality for All Families” and “Marriage Now”—attempts to insert herself between Senator Diaz and the cameras. After being jostled out by the group of Orthodox men walking with Diaz, she elbows her way back in to the crowd and puts her arm around one of them. This causes him to react forcefully, pushing her away and spitting, while one of the men repeats, “You’re not a Jew! You’re not a Jew!”
Reports of the incident vary widely, as do opinions within the Jewish community. According to the blog Failed Messiah—a watchdog site that reports on events within the Orthodox movement—it was a “Satmar Hasid” who spit on Rabbi Kleinbaum. Online comments on the article contradict the report, saying that the man did not spit at all or that he spit at the floor. Others point out that the man may have been a member of the Neturei Karta, a Haredi group known for their anti-Zionist stance. An article in the Five Towns Jewish Times accuses Rabbi Kleinbaum of sexually harassing the Orthodox man. Calling her “rabbi,” the author claims that she made an “unwanted physical advance.” Here commentators argue over whether her touching the man was a sign of Jewish solidarity or a violation of Orthodox physical modesty, something that—as a rabbi—she should be aware of.
While opinions have been generated by members from both the Orthodox and liberal Jewish communities, it seems that no one has stepped forward to promote dialogue between opposing sides; we have pointed fingers, rather than ask questions. Some call the Orthodox men involved in the scuffle violent and intolerant, while others point out that Rabbi Kleinbaum stepped over the line, and showed a lack of knowledge about communities other than her own, when she did not respect their modesty. There is some truth in both statements, but the inflammatory nature of either argument comes at the cost of understanding. As made evident by the articles and their respective comments, this exacerbates the divisions that already threaten the solidarity of our small community, and belies the call for every to Jew to show compassion for klal Yisrael—all of Israel—even when their opinion is different from our own. In a society where anti-Semitism does exist, is it not enough that we face hatred from the outside that we permit it to take root within our community as well? Nothing can be generated from assigning labels of extremism or violence to the Orthodox men at the protest, nor is anything gained by disregarding Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s title and role within the Reform movement. Instead, we must each patiently explain our respective positions and listen. After all, it is the central imperative of our tradition: sh’ma Yisrael. Listen, Israel.
This week in particular, as we read of the violent extremism of Pinchas, we would do well to take Mr. Philps’ message to heart. Pinchas was not the model to follow, but rather his peace-loving grandfather Aaron. Extremism in any form, and even more so, violent extremism, has no place in the community.