Wednesday, July 15, 2009

“Shabbos, Shabbos"

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Before there were religious newspapers, the Jewish media world was owned by the maskilim. It took some time before religious Jewry realized the awesome power these papers wielded over the Jewish masses, in particular, the youth. They hastened the alienation from Torah and the embrace of non-Jewish culture that was rampant at the time. It was to stem that awful tide and to fight the wholesale distortion of truth that gedolim established newspapers and fought to obtain subscribers and financing.

To those who are skeptical of the manipulative power of the press 100 years ago, a close look at the skewed reporting that prevails in our own day regarding recent events in Yerushalayim provides a cogent reality check. In many ways we are still fighting the same battle.

Thanks to the power of persistent “drip-drip” journalism, the common perception of Chareidi Jews as a mass of vulgar rabble-rousers has taken deep root.

Demonizing the Chilul Shabbos Protesters

Let’s take a look at the demonstrations going on against the increased chillul Shabbos in Yerushalayim. Based on media reports, many of you are probably under the impression that mobs of fanatically religious Jews converged near City Hall to burn garbage pails and stone policemen. You’ve either read this fallacious reporting yourself in the media, or got it second or third hand from others who did.

This is not to deny or condone the actions of a handful of miscreants who carried out these reprehensible actions. But the fact is, they are lone exceptions, certainly not the rule. Their actions are being exploited by irresponsible editors who seek to tar the entire Chareidi community with one brush.

Students of history can cite dozens of hafganos which were called to stop autopsies, disturbing of ancient cemeteries, chillul Shabbos, giyus banos, yaldei teheran and the like. They can show you pictures of police beating religious Jews; of police shooting water cannons at women. They can give you the facts about the times choshuveh people such as Rav Yisroel Grossman were locked up in jail for participating in protests.

I can offer my own personal testimony as well. Many years ago, I lived in the Ezras Torah section of Yerushalayim, where it was alleged at the time that the parents of today’s Shabbos rock-throwers would gather to stone policemen and cars traveling on K’vish Ramot. What actually happened was that some weeks, a few people would walk in from Meah Shearim to scream “Shabbos!” alongside the recently opened highway. Other weeks, no one showed up.

From my porch, I had a bird’s eye view of the action—or more often, the lack of it. I never saw anyone do anything other than holler “Shabbos.” A single police car was stationed there to maintain order lest the multitudes arrive. Yet, every Motzoei Shabbos after Havdalah, turning on the radio to catch the headlines, I would hear how once again, the chareidim converged at K’vish Ramot, throwing stones and assaulting police!

This was a blatant, deliberately fabricated urban legend. Not surprisingly, the masses in Israel bought it. Religious people became synonymous with crazed fundamentalists who embraced terror tactics on what was supposed to be a holy day of rest.

Police Brutality Has A Long History

Back then, the battle over Shabbos already had a sordid, decades-old history, with pious Jews being beaten and persecuted for their efforts to preserve kedushas Shabbos in Yerushalayim, Bnei Brak and many other cities in Eretz Yisroel.

I vividly remember passing by hafganos during the time I learned in Yerushalayim, witnessing the police brutally charging after people as they fled for their lives. Those hapless souls who were caught were mercilessly beaten.

There were times when police barged into botei medrash and grabbed hold of anyone not fast enough to escape. The police beat those poor souls to a pulp, then arrested them for assaulting police. Far from being isolated incidents of police brutality, these outrages were common occurrences. Anyone who has ever witnessed a hafgana demonstration can attest to that.

Just two weeks ago, the ugly pattern repeated itself. Following a Shabbos protest, police charged into the dormitory of Yeshiva Kol Torah in Bayit Vegan. They dragged sleeping boys out of bed and identified them as rock throwers who had participated in an unruly demonstration hours earlier. It was only after the Roshei yeshiva vouched for the integrity and innocence of the boys that they were released from jail. Police captains later apologized to the Roshei Yeshiva and promised to take disciplinary action against the patrolmen who invaded the dormitory.

In another incident, an American boy who happened to be in the area of a recent demonstration at Kikar Shabbos was arrested and locked up in the Migrash Harussim jail. Police accused him of throwing stones at them. After being held in jail without bail for two weeks, witnesses who had been walking with him came forth and testified that he neither threw stones nor engaged in any anti-social behavior.

Charges were reduced to illegal assembly, impeding the flow of traffic and other less serious charges. The youth was freed from jail but banished for Yerushalayim for two months until his upcoming trial.

How can one understand the flood of false arrests and the habitual police brutality in a democratic state where citizens supposedly enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of assembly? How can the government get away with tactics associated with tyrannical dictatorships or totalitarian states?

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

First of all, it might come as a surprise to many that in Israel, unlike America, it is illegal for more than three people to congregate without permission. Thus, every protester is regarded as a lawbreaker. Additionally, unlike in America, one is not assumed innocent until proven guilty. There it is just the opposite; you are guilty until proven innocent and treated that way. Religious people are automatically singled out for special treatment.

What generally happens is that ehrliche people who are bothered by some injustice or new breach in the holiness of the city gather to protest. The police arrive and begin taunting and baiting them. Other police then arrive in riot gear and on horseback and charge into the crowd, seeking maximum damage and injury. When the people fight back, they are arrested and thrown in jail. Innocent bystanders, often times Americans, who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are rounded up and jailed as well.

After the crowd disperses and everyone goes home, miscreants seize the opportunity to “throw the last punch.” They set fire to garbage pails which they roll into the street to create maximum mayhem.

Jews Brutalizing Jews

Anyone who has witnessed a hafgana and the police reaction is traumatized by the sight of Jews brutalizing fellow Jews. And this in the Jewish state, in the twenty-first century! How frightful that this has been going on ever since the founding of the State of Israel. The peaceful Shabbos atmosphere that reigns over religious neighborhoods on Shabbos came at a high price. It was achieved only after years of struggle and countless demonstrations similar to those taking place now.

Yet, the news trickles down to us the way the secular media presents it, so when we think of hafganos, we conjure up images of wild lunatics burning garbage pails, of stones flying, and of crime-fighting heroes being spat upon. We don’t think of ehrliche people crying out for Shabbos. We don’t feel the pain of Shabbos being trampled upon by cheap politicians. We don’t feel the pain of dignified Jews with long beards being stomped on by horses. We don’t feel the pain of Jews in the Holy Land protesting the desecration of the most basic tenets of the Torah, which grants the people of Israel the right to their land.

We don’t realize how far we have sunk as a people that the sight of Jews beating other Jews has become the norm. We forget the cruel irony that most of the grandparents of those baton-wielding policemen wore beards and payos themselves. Just one generation later, their children are being used by a corrupt government to stamp out the kedushas Shabbos that the grandparents would have sacrificed their lives to protect!

We let the secular media skew our perception of the facts. We permit then to demonize kind, law-abiding, peaceful, charitable people as a pack of Neanderthal wild men. In an outrageous reversal, pious people who are exquisitely careful in how they treat others, are painted as wild-eyed, ruthless lowlifes.

Religious Apologists

The problem is compounded when religious people who ought to know better get swept up in the propaganda. People who have never witnessed a protest over the desecration of Shabbos allow themselves to be manipulated by media hype. They encourage other frum Jews to write letters to the secular media decrying the objectionable behavior of their fellow chareidim. They rush to express sympathy for secular Israelis who are lobbying for a new parking lot—right opposite the walls of Yerushalayim.

Rabbis who ought to know better feed the media one-liners against the violent extremists, as if they constitute a sizeable camp. They issue sharp indictments which reinforce the stereotype of Orthodox Jews as an archaic, intolerant bunch of people.

Should Jews be engaging in violence? Of course not. Do we believe that burning garbage pails is the way to return Jews to their heritage? Of course not. But think of the media coverage splashed over these few incidents compared with the manner in which public protests in, let’s say, Iran, are treated by the world press.

How many articles have you read condemning freedom-lovers for beating Tehran police? How many newspapers have featured pictures of Iranians setting fire to trash in their coverage of the election protests? Not one.

Why is it that burning garbage pails in Iran are ignored and those in Yerushalayim are blown up and highlighted? Is it because only the former captures world sympathy? Is it because the media seeks to glorify the Iranian protesters while reserving its disgust for Jews who want only to protect what is sacred to them?

Most disturbing, why is it that the religious media falls into the trap of accepting wholesale misrepresentation of the truth?

Are there better ways to fight the battle for kedushas Shabbos? Most certainly. There is no excuse for violence and vandalism. But let’s consider the protests themselves, that are cleverly manipulated by authorities into turning violent. With politicians, the courts and public opinion all stacked against the religious community, what choice do those who anguish over chilul Shabbos have?

In fact, it is only thanks to the ranks of idealistic protesters, who knowingly risked life and limb, that forced autopsies in Israel were halted, that giyus banos was dropped, and that there is no Shabbos traffic on Kikar Shabbos.

Throw Lifelines, Not Stones

It is indeed tragic that so many of our brethren remain ignorant about Shabbos observance. Due to the present global financial crunch, organizations in Israel that have succeeded in returning so many thousands to the religion of their forefathers are forced to cut back on their activities. It costs money to run effective kiruv organizations and the latter are millions of dollars in debt.

Without good people digging into their pockets to help fight the battle bedarchei noam, the soldiers of Lev L’Achim, Shuvu, Chinuch Atzmai and all the rest can’t accomplish as much as they have in the past. They need our financial assistance in order to educate more Jews and to turn the tide of public opinion in favor of appreciating and safeguarding kedushas Shabbos.

Let us all resolve to increase the honor of Shabbos in our personal lives and support those who open a window for their fellow Jews to the beauty and richness of Shabbos. Let us support those organizations that have demonstrated the ability to reach out to Jews from all walks of life who have been robbed of their birthright. Let us display more Ahavas Yisroel. Let us cast lifelines, not stones.

And let’s not jump to conclusions about our heartbroken brothers who cry out, “Shabbos, Shabbos!” They are not only following the dictates of their conscience with their protests; they are also doing our job—yours and mine.


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