Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Does Might Make Right (8/5/2009)

This week, I am writing not at all about my personal experience, but rather about current events and my take on them. Over the past couple of months, the Israeli media has been abuzz with various protests that have been taking place in Yerushalayim (and for a couple of days even spilled over into Bet Shemesh). We have read accounts of uncontrolled violence and rage. We have heard accusations and counter-accusations. Yet beneath it all is a struggle for power that is all too familiar.

I am referring to various "protests" and "riots" that have taken place in response to two different actions taken by the Jerusalem municipality. The first was the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat to be used by non-religious Jews as well as non-Jews who visit the capital city on Shabbat. The second was the arrest of the chareidi mother who allegedly starved her three-year-old son.

Before you get nervous, this is not another "Shmuel hates chareidim" article. I certainly fail to understand the more radical of them, but in this instance I understand their motivations and even agree that-in part-they had no choice but to act as they did. And I wonder why it is that things have to come to such straits.

Many years ago, when the first non-religious Jews began to move to Jerusalem, the local rabbinate faced an immediate crisis. For the communities in the eastern part of the city, the only Jews that the majority of their kehillah had been exposed to were observant. They had never witnessed chillul Shabbat or any other of a range of transgressions of the Torah. The rabbis worried that these newcomers would have a detrimental effect on the Jews of the city.

One of the actions they took at the time was to institute the practice of crying "Shaaabbbiiis" whenever one saw another Jew desecrating the Shabbat. They wanted people to remind themselves that the Shabbat was a holy day, and therefore the call of "Shabbis" was not directed outward at the other Jew, but rather inward as a reminder to keep the day holy and special.

In fact, in story after story, the original rabbanim who were involved in protests and activities in honor of Shabbat observance were incredibly particular not to say anything to a Jew who was transgressing the Shabbat, lest it represent a halachically valid warning. A Jew so warned is then guilty of violating Shabbat on a Torah level and not a rabbinic level, something they wanted to avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, as tends to happen, over the years and generations this practice has evolved into an accusation against the non-religious Jew - almost in direct conflict with the original intention.

About two months ago, the mayor of Jerusalem, responding to safety concerns within the city, opened up a municipal parking lot for use on Shabbat. It is important to note that (i) the lack of parking facilities in the city on Shabbat creates safety issues for pedestrians and emergency personnel who have to navigate the narrow streets of Jerusalem, which used to be filled with haphazardly parked cars blocking traffic; (ii) the lot is operated by non-Jews on Shabbat with no chillul Shabbat taking place in the actual opening and operation of the lot itself; and (iii) the plan was done with the consultation and eventual approval of members of the chareidi religious parties in the city council (who had rejected using the originally proposed lot and insisted upon the use of a lot further from the chareidi neighborhoods).

In my opinion, the demonstrations (which have at times turned violent) against the opening of the parking lot were unreasonable. The only chillul Shabbat being performed was that being done by private parties, not the municipality. Those who were actually driving and parking in the lot were certainly guilty of this, but they would have been driving on Shabbat with or without the parking lot being open. (The only argument that is even slightly valid is that these drivers might not have come to Jerusalem if not for the parking-but historically, that is inaccurate. They came and parked in the streets.)

I believe that these protests were a simple muscle flex being done by the fanatical minority. They saw an opportunity to inflame people and make a point to the mayor and the country that they are a power and force to be reckoned with. I also believe that the city overreacted and that things quickly got out of hand. I am convinced that these initial protests quickly became a game of chicken. I also think that the mayor, as well as the secular community, was outraged by the "betrayal" of the chareidi parties who had helped formulate this plan but who quickly abandoned it in the face of public pressure.

It was this climate (a climate that has continued with protests and sporadic violence each Shabbat) that I believe became the catalyst for the second crisis that arose. I believe that in their zeal to smack down the chareidim, no matter what the issue, the municipality overstepped its bounds with their next step.

Much of the following may be inaccurate, and for that I apologize. I am trying to sift through the media reports and accusations from both sides and the result is what I hope is a close approximation of the truth.

There is a woman in Jerusalem who I believe has a terrible illness. Her illness has led her to do a terrible thing to her own son, which is an unimaginable tragedy. She apparently withheld food from her infant son and allowed him to waste away. The police claim there is even a video, shot by the hospital staff with a hidden camera, of her removing her son's feeding tube in the hospital and at times putting some foreign substance into it.

Faced with this evidence, the hospital had no choice but to report her to social services and the police. However, when the police wanted to have her arrested, the hospital balked and refused to allow it to happen in the hospital. Instead, a plan was devised by the police (independent of the social service workers who were still investigating the issue) to have the woman arrested outside of the social services offices, in the heart of her neighborhood.

The chareidi community, outraged at the arrest of one of their own, quickly went on the offensive. The social services offices were trashed and torched, garbage bins were set aflame, street signs and traffic lights were destroyed, and general mayhem and mischief ensued. There were both violent and nonviolent protests in Bet Shemesh, as well.

My initial reaction was one of disgust. After all, the police and hospital had been very vocal about having evidence, and this was a horrific crime. How could the chareidim defend this woman and protest her arrest? In my mind I had convicted her of terrible things; the information being presented was simply too inflammatory.

The mayor, responding to the violence and threat to civil servants in the city, pulled all municipal services from chareidi neighborhoods. He publicly regretted the fact that the innocent were swept up in this punishment, but charged the innocent with restoring order and civility to the area so that services could resume. I thought this was a long overdue move that was certainly justified and commensurate with the crimes.

Then came the news on erev Shabbat that the mother had been released into the custody of a high-ranking chareidi lobbyist, who paid $100,000+ bail for her. A deal had been struck where the woman, after initially refusing to cooperate with the investigation, agreed to be evaluated by a psychiatrist two days later, on Sunday. I was upset that they had let her out. How could they cave to the demands of hooligans and rioters? Didn't the rule of law apply here?

On Monday, a story was released that the mother had failed to show up for her mandated evaluation. The judge was quoted as saying that he hoped this wasn't an effort to undermine the court system, and there were quick condemnations.

She eventually presented herself for evaluation at midnight a couple of days later. Within hours, the chareidi community leaked reports that the psychiatrist had concluded that there was nothing wrong with the mother and that she did not constitute a threat to the members of her family. In the ensuing days, the psychiatrists for the prosecution contradicted the original psychiatrists, and there have been claims and counterclaims of misrepresentations and lies. The original psychiatrist has written a letter retracting his evaluation and was discovered to be a disgruntled former employee of the hospital in question, as well.

A judge, having seen the evidence, remanded the woman to house arrest. She is allowed to visit with her other children, but not the one she is accused of starving. The judge also explicitly criticized the police for blowing things out of proportion. The investigation continues. So does the posturing.

Although in my initial reaction I was outraged at the behavior of the chareidi community, I think I am changing my mind. They were wrong to be violent, no question. But at what point do we realize that their anger was justified, if not their actions?

The hospital and the mental-health professionals both had the ability to insist that the woman be arrested or have a restraining order issued against her. Why didn't they? Perhaps it was because they felt that with the child in the hospital's custody and now being supervised, the woman did not present an immediate risk to him. Perhaps also because they had determined-in their professional opinions-that she did not present an immediate risk to the rest of her family or the public at large. The police, whose job it is to enforce the restraining orders and maintain law and order, did neither. They took it upon themselves to make a judgment in this case that they had no expertise in and no business making.

A woman is sick. Her child is sick as a result. That is a tragedy-not a public relations opportunity. There is a system to handle these types of issues. Help, both medical and psychological, were called for, not condemnation and ridicule. The state, which is responsible to be impartial in the effective use of its power, was supposed to reach out and help, and instead slapped down and figuratively "spat" upon this family and community.

Perhaps this happened because the police were smarting. The chareidim had been making a mockery of their efforts to maintain safety with the opening of the parking lots, and maybe they wanted to get them back. So they jumped the gun and made the arrest.

So I wonder-and this is really why I have gone through the whole sordid story with you-what would have happened if this had been a non-religious mother? Would the police have been so quick to act, or would they have let the system process the case normally, waiting for the professionals to decide the next step? If they had acted, would her community have "gone nuts" and effectively forced a quick decision on getting her out of jail, or would she still be sitting in jail waiting?

What if it had been someone from my community, the Religious Zionist community? There is no question that people would have been up in arms. But would we have gotten violent? Almost assuredly not! Would we have forced the issue by virtue of our threats? Again, no. So I wonder if maybe we, outside the chareidi community, are the fools here. They saw an injustice and acted swiftly, strongly, and decisively to address it as soon as possible. More knowledgeable people than I have weighed in on the situation and agreed that the steps taken by the government were indeed well beyond what was required. This family was most probably being persecuted. Amazing for me to say it, but the chareidi community's emotional reaction to the second crisis was probably right-even though their actions (which were the catalyst for a fair hearing) were still wrong.

This is why the juxtaposition of the two crises is so compelling. It is the reaction to the first crisis that most probably caused the second crisis. In one situation, a bunch of punks got together to cause trouble because they felt ignored. In the other, a community banded together and took action in protest of persecution. It is unfortunate that, for this community, they seem to go hand in hand.

Note: After the above was written, the child involved was released from the hospital. He was reported to have gained weight and has shown significant improvement since being removed from his mother's care.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Dog Days of Summer (7/29/2009)

We have officially reached the dog days of summer here. As usual, the entire country is gearing up for the annual "everyone goes on vacation in the month of August" fest, which means the kids are home and bored and the weather is nice and hot. Not only that, but many of the Anglo families are on their summer trips overseas, so the shuls are half-full, too. And it is hot.

No, not hot like you think. You have it hot in the 90s and 100s for a day or two-or maybe up to a week or ten days-and then it cools down to normal temperatures in the 80s and even as low as the 70s. We have day after day after day of 90 degree heat for over a week, one day of 85 and then right back up to the 90s and 100s. The sun is incredibly strong and I do not know how anyone lived here before there was A/C. I guess that is why we have "Shemesh" in our name here.

Of course, our employers still want us to give them the full value of work for our pay, so the kids get to be bored without me in the house and Goldie home only part time. But they are used to it from the rest of the year-they come home from school early here, and almost all the kids in the neighborhood are busy playing outside from the minute they get home until the minute they go to sleep. So they are very independent and, at least play-wise, are very self-sufficient.

We are members of a pool at one of the local kibbutzim, so Goldie will at least have a nice free activity for them. They love swimming. We go to the pool every Friday and they cannot get enough of being in the water. But we definitely miss summers in the U.S. summer camps (day and sleepaway) that last the entire summer, days that aren't all 100+ degrees, and, my favorite-Sundays. I would gladly trade my relaxed Friday if it meant that I could get my family Sundays back.

We are looking forward to trying out a new activity for the Katzes this summer. Israel is a country of hikers and campers. We have never really been into camping, but after our very successful Lag B'Omer hiking experience, I got Goldie's OK to schedule a camping night or nights. She will probably end up sleeping in the car, but the kids will have an awesome time.

Since we are still newbies, our day trips, hikes, and basically anything we do is an adventure for us. We have been to one amusement park since we arrived, so that is definitely on our short list of things to do. Plus, the kids always love the beach, the zoo, and anything that involves food-so we have an outline for some fun days with them as well.

They deserve it. After a year of six-day school weeks, they are entitled to get out and have some fun. Things are definitely less structured here. We see it in the school year, when the kids play on their own and can freely roam the neighborhood safely. We see it at s'machot, where formality is just not so important. And we see it in the summer, where there aren't programs and camps for the whole season. After all, if there was camp, there wouldn't be family fun time.

I got an e-mail from someone wondering why the change in the headline last week. If you hadn't noticed, we decided to stop numbering the Aliyah Chronicle articles. You see, the prior article was number 120 and in keeping with an "ad meah v'esrim" theme, we had to make some change, and that was it. From now on, we are simply "Our Aliyah Chronicle," and I look forward to sharing our experience-the highs as well as the lows-with you.

As I write this, Tishah B'Av is still in the future. By the time you read this, I hope that you all enjoyed coming to the Beit HaMikdash to enjoy the avodah as much as my father, brothers, and sons enjoyed performing it. On the off chance that the geulah did not happen, I hope you had a meaningful and easy fast and are looking forward to a terrific August.