Secular media continue to scapegoat the Orthodox

Israeli police recently arrested three youths for the arson attack on Kehillat Ya'ar Ramot, a Conservative congregation in Jerusalem. If you weren't reading carefully, you may have missed the news — it brought a surprisingly muted reaction.

The arson itself, which occurred in late June, dominated Jewish media for weeks, and as much print was spent directing the finger of blame as describing the events. Though two of Jerusalem's many Orthodox synagogues were vandalized just weeks earlier, and an Orthodox synagogue in Israel is attacked more than once monthly on average, the police, media and liberal clergy all voiced their suspicion that haredim, or "ultra-Orthodox" Jews, were responsible.

That being the case, the arrests surely came as a noteworthy surprise, especially considering the photographs of the confessed arsonist (he implicated two others). No black hat was evident, no beard or dark suit — just stubble and a Nike T-shirt. The fellow had indeed recently turned toward Jewish observance, but police indicated that his rap sheet was considerably longer than his religious pedigree. No yeshiva trained him for this, no rabbi was responsible for his repugnant behavior. He had learned how to express himself from the same mean streets that educate petty criminals worldwide.

In short, what we were told to expect was wrong. A laudable exception was Ya'ar Ramot's Rabbi David Bateman, who immediately dismissed the idea that those who vandalized his synagogue represented any valid Orthodox group. Synagogue president Hilary Herzberger, on the other hand, speculated that "if the chief rabbi had come out against such behavior, maybe it could have been prevented." It is unfortunate that many other liberal leaders took their cues from the congregant, not the rabbi.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, claimed "that in the yeshiva grassroots there are people who are rethinking the situation and are embarrassed — but they are waiting for their leaders and rabbis to speak out."

Rabbi Richard Block, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and former leader at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, similarly opined that "such attacks do not occur in a vacuum." Less subtle was Rabbi Reuven Hammer, who insisted that there was "absolutely no question that these physical acts have their roots in the inflammatory…[Orthodox] rhetoric attacking the non-Orthodox movements."

In a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism press release, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president, responded to "evidence" that "ultra-Orthodox" Jews were responsible by fanning the flames even more. "What is most disheartening," he proclaimed, "is the fact that the… religious leaders in the State of Israel have permitted a climate to exist in which such events can take place," and accused Orthodox authorities of indirectly "allow[ing] such heinous acts to occur."

Now we know that this "evidence" never existed. We now know that the vandal was not responding to a yeshiva or "ultra-Orthodox" teaching, after all. In all fairness, Orthodox rabbis are no more to blame for this vandalism than those of us who condemn prostitution are to blame for the recent, tragic arson of a Tel Aviv brothel.

If the media buried this discovery on Page six, even more surprising is the silence of those who so quickly pointed fingers before. Religious leaders in particular are expected to pursue both truth and peace, and therefore should come forward to set the record straight — something that would certainly go a long way toward smoothing relations among Jews.

Instead, they simply turn to new issues, and continue to make unrealistic demands on the Orthodox. The non-Orthodox movements originated, after all, via a consciously departed detour from universally accepted Jewish tradition and then applied the label "Orthodox" to the Jews they left behind. Considered rationally, it is clearly impossible for Jews committed to tradition and halachah to consider new "Judaisms" the equivalent of its ancient and biblically mandated form.

Yet rather than cede to the Orthodox the freedom to adhere to their deeply held beliefs, those leading the fight couch the debate in terms of "equality," "diversity" and "religious pluralism," as if the Orthodox religious credo violates their civil rights or inherently leads to violence. They teach their followers that the Orthodox hate them, even believe them not to be Jews. They stage elaborate provocations at Judaism's holiest site, in the hope that a few Orthodox hooligans will provide them with "proof" — and useful media coverage.

Rabbis truly committed to Jewish ethics and ahavat Yisrael, love of other Jews, will apologize for unfair finger-pointing and set the record straight. Those who only want to wage war will simply look for a new weapon.

So far, the silence bodes ill for Jewish unity.