Breaking the Sound of Silence

The violence that broke on Charedi streets last Shabbos terrified everyone. How, then, can we ‎explain the deafening public silence that followed? The lies not in indifference and ‎nihilism, but in our neglect of the public square.‎

Sivan 5782 / June 2022

Friday night. Hundreds of rioters gathered outside the doors, their cries clearly heard inside the Shul. Children clung to their parents, seeking shelter. Helpless adults recited Tehillim in helpless panic. One door is torn down, then another. Rioters unleash their fury, smashing furniture and hurling holy books to the floor, tearing them to shreds. An eight-year-old child looks up at his father and sees his head covered in blood. Nobody knows how the terror will end. After minutes that seem like an eternity, the prayers are answered and baton-carrying officers show up. Ranks of helmet-bearers divide between persecutor and persecuted.

This is not a quote from the annals of a Jewish community sometime in the distant past. The events described, without any exaggeration, happened in our own times. Moreover, they did not occur in some distant land but here, in the heart of Jerusalem. The events noted above are a very partial description of the pogroms of Bechukosai 5782.

On the nineteenth of Iyyar, the night before we read the Admonition of the “vengeful sword,” three years of wild incitement, separations between families, harassment of children, tire slashing, and myriad other methods of oppression reached their climax. The time to reap the fruits of hatred had arrived. Thousands of Gerrer Chassidim in several concentrations across Israel hit the streets on a mission: to beat, smash, and shatter the bodies and property of members of the seceding community, those who dared to follow the leadership of Rav Shaul Alter. The attack was not sporadic or coincidental; the incited masses were acting on the explicit instruction of Ger leadership.

Young men alongside venerable rabbis were beaten and wounded. Under the cover of an ostensible “peaceful protest,” rioters ran into the Shuls of the Pnei Menachem community, ransacking, beating, and wrecking all they saw in a violent rampage. From there, the campaign of destruction continued to private homes, where it was the women’s turn to suffer the wrath of the assailants. Fearing for their very lives, mothers called the police in the middle of Shabbos to save them. All this took place in the view of the public eye—in Jerusalem and in Bnei Brak, in Ashdod and in Beit Shemesh. Kollel students were ambushed, some suffering grievous injury; Rabbis were struck by naked fists. Ultimately, thousands of young men and Kollel students ran rampant for close to forty-eight hours, their eyes burning with hatred, letting their violent urges loose on their victims.

 

A Chilling Silence

Shabbos passed, as did the following night. The sun rose, and with it morning papers were delivered. And then darkness struck back. Though many thousands were aware of the shocking events, you would know nothing of them from reading the Charedi press. A new day dawned, and yesterday’s events were erased from the record. Charedi dailies—Yated Ne’eman, Hamodia, Hamevaser, and others—made not a single mention of the violence that had swept the Charedi street for close to two days. Placards, pashkevilim, Rabbinic letters that know well how to decry any and all violations of Charedi norms, were silent. Yesterday, blood was spilled, yet today it’s business as usual. The Rabbinic “shock and dismay” of the type we are so accustomed to in response to religious threats and infractions was entirely absent. No shock, no dismay.

Even Charedi websites and ostensibly free broadcasting stations seemed to know nothing of what happened, aside from one or two short pieces noting “clashes between Chassidic factions” tucked between other current events. Non-Charedi radio stations reported the events and even held some interviews, but these were absent from the Charedi airwaves. The police made arrests, but instead of the perpetrators, they arrested the victims. The now-famous father of estranged girls (he prefers the word “kidnapped”) was forcibly led into a police interrogation chamber, while a victim who was viciously beaten was accused of incitement and disturbing the public peace. One MK was blunt in his response: “Not my community, not my interest.” This is the dark headline of silence.

How could we be silent on this matter? Are we that bad? Where is our Yiras Shamayim? Where is our humanity and decency, our basic instinct for life?

The Torah perspective on this matter is crystal clear: “You shall not stand over your fellow’s blood.” To this, we can add the piercing statement of the Sages (Shabbos 54b), as quoted by the Rambam: “One who can protest and does not do so is held accountable for the sin.” A person or community who has the power to reproach and rebuke, yet fails to do so, is considered complicit in the crime itself. But even setting aside the Torah obligation, silence in the face of such actions does not befit a society desirous of life. It does not allow for a functional public square; today one group is beaten and tomorrow another. The bystander’s day will come, too.

The silence does not derive from indifference. In the face of this terrible violence, the beautiful face of the simple Jew on the street was revealed in the form of mutual aid, care, and charity. The Charedi public was anything but silent. Hundreds of Jews of all circles and communities risked themselves in protecting victims and property against the violent rioters. Many protected total strangers with their own bodies. Young Kollel students were extracted by anonymous rescuers from the frenzied mob heading toward them, and neighbors and acquaintances volunteered their help in this time of need. Voices of protest were heard everywhere. The Jewish people wrapped the Pnei Menachem community with love and compassion.

At the holiest moment of Shabbos, rava deravin before sunset, thousands gathered at the perimeter of Gush Shmonim in an unprecedented and spontaneous show of support. The Charedi community, which never hits the streets without centralized rabbinic instruction, declared that Shabbos desecration and lynch mobs cannot be met with silence.

There is no doubt that Charedi society deplores such acts of terror and entirely disavows them. Surely, it would do everything within its powers to protect innocent victims. But the question must be asked: Why is none of this visible among our public leaders? Why are the media horns silent?

In the face of this popular rally, the public silence becomes even more inexplicable: How can it be that a community diligent in every matter of halacha, a community of mutual support, charity, and compassion, makes no public sounding of protest? As a private individual, a person will protect victims with his own body, yet publicly nothing is said. What is the meaning of this? Why are political representatives dumbstruck and community leaders suddenly absent? Why is there such a radical difference between private solidarity and public apathy?[1]

 

Abandoning the Public Square

Our society is not corrupt. It is certainly not nihilistic. Surely, we don’t believe that every Charedi group whose chief rabbi was insulted has the right to beat the living daylights out of whoever did it. Some, particularly certain Gur defendants, have taken this approach, but can it be true? Great rabbinic figures such as Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashaiv, Rav Gershon Edelstein, and others, have been slurred and insulted. None of their flock, or even those of the Viznitz or Satmar Rebbes, conceived of laying a hand on somebody else.

Time and again we encounter the claim that Chassidic courts are violent by definition. Heaven forfend! No Chassidic court ever took pride in the cruelty and wickedness of its people. Even if certain individuals lacking public mores and personal values acted badly in the shadows, our rabbinic leaders, giants of Torah and pillars of Chassidism, disavowed and condemned them. Skirmishes between youths are nothing new, and embarrassing conflicts do break out in Yeshiva institutions from time to time, but to my knowledge never has it happened that a whole community sent its finest to beat seceders for the very crime of breaking.

The answer to our silence is not toleration of violence. Rather, it lies in the very relationship, or lack thereof, to the public domain.

The founding of the State of Israel left us in “survival mode,” and notwithstanding the urgent challenge, we have never made the effort to formulate proper procedures concerning halacha of the public square. This is a different kind of halachic realm from individual Mitzvah performance. It has never been studied, and certainly never taught and practiced. Of course, Rabbinic leaders have stood their ground against halachic or hashkafic dangers—matters of worldview and basic questions of faith—but it comes to guiding public conduct of communities we find a massive lacuna. Everyone does whatever they want.

The Charedi public sphere is simply “no man’s land.” In the private sphere, we are occupied with a range of stringencies and hiddurim, while in the public sphere there is no law and order. In the political realm, virtually anything is permitted for the sake of budgets and jobs, and in the public domain people get away with murder (almost literally) because of our reticence to get involved in internal Charedi disputes, and because we have never given the matter any thought. “When there are no expectations there are no disappointments,” goes the saying, and the moral vacuum in our public square certainly embodies it.

This is the simple reason for the silence. Not evil, corruption, idolatry, or nihilism. Inattention to public regulations is the principal reason that we do not hear a great voice of protest. Members of Knesset can simply wave away the issue with “it’s their problem,” while newspapers are silent and public leaders play dumb.

 

More Than Just Fear

It is not a matter of fear alone. If they believed it was their job to stand up and protest, rabbinic leaders, activists, and politicians would certainly resist pressures to back down in the face of threats. The Charedi community is willing to repeatedly go to war over what it considers sacred and dear and pay a heavy price to that end. Moreover, while fear of Gerrer power—which is, indeed, significant—might justify silence on the part of one group or another, the coming together of several groups and rabbinic leaders to censure violence would take alleviate such concerns.

Rather, the silence is not due to a lack of courage, but to the fact that none of us feels responsible for the public square. If this was a group trying to harm the Torah, even in the slightest detail, our streets would be in an uproar and all the Gedolim would go out of their way to fight and quench the threat. But since the issue is not Torah but rather matters of the public domain, all are silent. We have no tradition in dealing with such cases. “That’s how it always was,” we tend to think, and therefore “that’s how it always will be.”

Recent events require us to stop and think about where we’ve ended up, and how we’ve deteriorated so far without even noticing. We need to engage in some serious soul-searching. “For your violence against your brother Jacob shame shall cover you, and you shalt be cut off forever,” said the Prophet. We cannot stand aside. It does not require us taking sides to demand a moral threshold of basic decency and Torah justice, articulated clearly and unequivocally. This, it seems, is the call of the hour.

Behavior that is totally unacceptable to us as private individuals cannot be tolerated in the public square. Operatives and public representatives are our delegates, and the aim is to repair, not distort. We need to disavow anyone involved in terror and violence and must certainly cease to give them power. We need to call on our media: You have a role! There is a role for radio stations and news sites as well as traditional media outlets. These do not exist to augment bittul Torah but rather to extirpate spiritual sickness. The journalist is our agent for this purpose, not to protect rioters for cash. We, the common folk, need the courage to give this message to all the leaders, operatives, politicians, and media figures—all those who act with the power we have given them. It is our duty at this time.

The past Shabbat can also provide a modicum of optimism. We learned that our community is not rife with vices and is not willing to be silent in the face of violence and injustice. The sentiment of mutual solidarity arose within us at a time when our brothers suffered through no fault of their own. The source of the public silence is simply the vacuum of our public affairs, and because it is not fundamental the problem does not require complicated treatment. All we need to do is apply our own high moral standards to public life. Admittedly, this is no light task, and we must support our public figures and assist them to stand their ground in the face of the predictable difficulties. But we have prevailed over harsher adversaries, and we can prevail here, too.

If we only seek justice and truth, as the Torah reminds us so often, we will surely merit the prophet’s words: “If you wish and listen, you will eat of the goodness of the land.”

 


[1] This article was written right after the events it discusses, and its translation to English was only published three weeks later. In the interim, it is important to highlight those brave yet very few Rabbinic leaders who did condemn the violence, and in particular the Viznitz Rebbe. See report here: https://vinnews.com/2022/06/01/chassidic-leaders-blast-rioters-over-violence-chillul-shabbos/.

 

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