Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Racial Tolerance in Israel

One of the more pleasant experiences I had during my recent trip to Israel was to see a certain level of Achdus in a Ramat Bet Shemesh (A) Shul that I Davened in while I was there.

This Shul is very Charedi and centrally located. It is extremely well attended but not only by Charedim. On a typical morning you can find as many Daatim Davening there as Charedim in many of its multiple daily Minyanim.

Of particular interest to me was one fellow I saw from the Dati world. He wore a big Kipa Serugah and dressed in the typical jacketless fashion of the Religious Zionist world. I observed this fellow as he Davened and noticed just how much Kavanah he seemed to put into every word he said. He in fact stood out from the crowd.

But it was not only because he seemed so sincere in his Avodas HaShem (Teffilah) that made him stand out. It was also because of the color of his skin. He is black – probably an Ethiopian immigrant. And yet his presence there seemed to be as normal and integrated as could be.

Considering the grief that particular part of Israel has with its nearby neighbors the residents of Ramat Bet Shemesh (B) - it was quite a treat to see this level of tolerance in a Charedi Shul.

Tolerance like this is hard to come by in Israel. Israel is a land of extremes. Anyone who does not see this – is simply not looking. It will not take anyone too long to come across an article reflecting those extremes. Whether it is the religious fanatic zealots of RBS (B) trying to force their ways on Dati residents in the bordering Sheinfeild neighborhood - or Religious Zionist fanatics doing ‘price tag’ raids in Palestinian neighborhoods on the West Bank.

It should be understandable why Israel attracts extremists. It is the nature of the beast. The people most likely to live in the holy land are those who are the most idealistic. They are the ones who will be the most dedicated to the ideals they bring with them. When they see circumstances that contradict those values they cannot stand idly by. So some of them act to protect those ideals -often in ways that are anathematic to the Torah – all the while believing that they are defending it.

I would go so far as to say that the animosity that Charedim have toward the Religious Zionist Israeli is greater than they have toward the Chiloni (secular) Israeli. So seeing the circumstance I witnessed in that Charedi Shul made me very happy. As I observed that I wondered if this trend is something new or is it just one community being polite to another while quietly still harboring ill feelings. I hope it is the former. The tolerance I saw for a fellow Jew of Ethiopian descent gave me hope for the future.

It is a rather well known and yet sad fact that racial and ethnic tolerance is a major problem in Israel. Sephardim – much less Ethiopians - are treated like second class citizens by much of Israeli society. This is an across the board phenomenon that includes Jews of Ashkenazi descent – secular or religious.

That the secular establishment does this is a problem. But they do not claim to act the ways of the Torah. But when the religious world does it, it is a different story and a Chilul HaShem. The religious schools have been so bad about accepting Sephardi children in their schools that the high court in Israel had to force them to do it!

And yet the discrimination is so ingrained – it seems - that they find ways to get around the dictates of the court by finding other ways to keep Sephardi children out as was the case with a Chasidic school in the town of Emanuel last year. The school’s requirements for acceptance essentially stripped Sephardim of the heritage and turned them into Chasidim.

For reason that are not entirely clear to me Sepahrdim see the Ashkenazi schools a being superior to their own. So they were willing to allow their own children to give up their heritage. Thus the school in Emmanuel has a significant number of Sephardi students who for all intents and purposes are becoming Ahskenazim with a Chasidic bent! This is not tolerance. It is version of genteel but forced ‘conversion’!

I don’t know what school that Ethiopian Jew I saw Davening in that RBS-A Shul sends his children to. But I hope his children are not being forced to abandon their heritage. I hope that what I witnessed in that Charedi Shul was not just surface or cosmetic tolerance but a genuine love of one fellow Jew for another regardless of their Hashkafos or their heritage. This would be a new reality in Israel. A reality where religious Jews sees every Jew as truly equal - all while respecting their differences And a big step forward for Achdus.