Israel’s own religious fanatics
The problem with any country fashioned along religious lines is that moderates get buried under rocks and a stream of abuse
During Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the port city of Akko erupted into race riots, after a clash between Jewish and Arab residents escalated into a battle involving hundreds of willing participants. The initial incident was sparked by a handful of Jews hurling rocks at an Arab man, after they took umbrage at his decision to drive through the Jewish side of town on Yom Kippur, an act that apparently offended their religious sensitivities.
When word of their attack spread around the Arab community, the response was swift, and as utterly unacceptable as the initial violence meted out by the Jewish attackers. Mobs of Arab locals went on a rampage, smashing cars and vandalising shops belonging to Jews, until police took control of the streets and forced them to a halt. As soon as the Israeli press got back to work after the Yom Kippur hiatus, the reaction was fast and furious, with both sides rushing to condemn the other via the media.
When I likened the wanton destruction I witnessed in Nil’in to a pogrom, I was hauled over the coals by my detractors for the language I employed. A few months on, and it appears that the word is enjoying something of a renaissance: Ehud Olmert using it to describe a wave of settler attacks on Arab villages, and – last night – at least three MKs calling the Yom Kippur war in Akko a pogrom, albeit from polar opposite sides of the spectrum.
Yuval Steinitz, a firebrand Likud politician took the view that “Israel has become the only country in the world where pogroms against Jews are taking place”; hot on his heels came Estherina Tartman’s racist outburst, in which she claimed “The pogrom in Akko is another proof that the Arabs of Israel are the real threat to the state”. Countering these claims was Ahmed Tibi, one of Israel’s few Arab parliamentarians, who called the events a “Jewish pogrom”, accusing the police of discriminating against Arab residents of the city during the disturbances.
Last night, a second round of clashes brought heavy police intervention, with the mixed city seemingly unwilling or unable to return to its pre-Yom Kippur state of calm and tolerance. While there is little doubt that what took place during the disturbances definitely walked and quacked like a pogrom, focusing on the symptoms rather than the disease is an unhelpful way of addressing the situation.
That anyone should feel so affronted by a non-Jewish citizen driving his car on Yom Kippur that they hurl rocks in response is as absurd a reaction as the recently-exposed ultra-orthodox vigilantes in Jerusalem, who take the law into their own hands to uphold religious law. For a country so determined to criticise – rightly – the Taliban-style behaviour of many Arab states, it is incredible that such practices are not clamped down upon when they occur closer to home.
Religious fervour has an alarming way of dragging its followers, and their unfortunate victims, back to Bible times. Stoning women in Iran is matched by stoning Arabs – or anyone else – daring to contravene Jewish law in Israel; the violators apparently deserving to be injured or killed for simply exercising the free will that the modern world extends to them.
I spent the entirety of Yom Kippur in synagogue, paying no attention whatsoever to what others might or might not be doing while I was fasting and praying. The only way I could have been offended by others’ actions would have been if it directly impeded on my ability to carry out my religious obligations: if anyone had played music beneath the synagogue’s windows, for example. However, catching sight of the hundreds of cyclists who come out of the woodwork every Yom Kippur wasn’t offensive in the slightest; their violations of the day being their look-out, and no one else’s.
The inherent problem with any country fashioned along religious lines is that the moderates get buried under a pile of rocks and a stream of abuse; a state of affairs to which both Israel and Gaza can attest. Jews attack other Jews for daring to contravene the seating arrangements on “modesty buses“; Palestinians do likewise to their non-believing brethren in similar acts of fundamentalist rage.
Sceptics will say that Akko was a tinderbox waiting to explode, and that religious sensibilities played little part in the initial outburst of violence, in the same way that Sharon’s infamous tour of al-Aqsa was dismissed by rightwingers as incidental to the outbreak of the second intifada. However, the fact remains that politicians and commentators alike have been only too quick to jump on the religious bandwagon, claiming to be mortally hurt by the Arab driver’s actions, as though Israel’s otherwise untainted religious purity was irredeemably stained by his decision to – quite legally – drive on Yom Kippur.
The local police chief described the incident as a “deliberate provocation” by the driver, while saying precious little about the decision by his assailants to resort to hurling rocks and bottles to express their displeasure. But in that case, why don’t the police end the nationwide tradition of bike-riding on Yom Kippur, if such acts are deemed to be a provocation to those adhering to religious law? The answer’s pretty clear, and gives the lie to any claim that Israel is any more tolerant than its peers in the Arab world.
There is much to be said for respecting others’ religions and customs, but at the same time “your freedom ends where my nose begins” cannot – and must not – be allowed to extend to a national scale. When that happens, and when the state apparatus fails to condemn such behaviour, then the game is well and truly up. And all the screams of “pogrom” in the world won’t cover up who the true Cossacks are in such a case.