I am now looking at the Memorial Book, published in Tel Aviv in 1967, for the community of Govorovo in Poland. My mother’s grandparents and most of their family were murdered by the Nazis. I am now looking at pictures of my great grandfather, my namesake, Velvel Blumstein, and my great-grandmother, Feiga Blumstein, and, across from them on a different page, three of their seven children slaughtered with them, Shmuel, David Herschel, as well as Mordechai Gerlitz – such handsome young men, killed in their youth.
Last Saturday night, over a thousand men stood in Shabbat Square in Jerusalem and protested the ‘persecution’ of the ultra-orthodox at the hands of the ‘Nazi State of Israel’ and the ‘Nazi Liberal Media.’ And the leaders of the demonstration dressed their children up in prison uniforms from concentrations camps: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachua. One of the leaders explained, ‘this protest reflects the Zionists’ persecution of the ultra-orthodox public, which we see as worse than what the Nazis did.’
The protests at the politicization of the holocaust have been heard from almost every corner; and there is talk of a law that will make the use of such terms in the public sphere a crime. In the meantime, the protesters that gathered last night should be given a mandatory tour of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, or they can come to my house, and we can flip together through the pages of Memorial Book, to look at the pictures of my relatives who perished at the hands of real Nazis. Mordechai Hirsch, you are invited.
But: in the ultra-orthodox communities, one of which I live in, there is silence. I would emphasize – and this is not an apology – that almost everyone I ask is embarrassed by the ultra-orthodox violence against women and children of the past week. And, though I have not inquired today, I am sure that most of my neighbors dismiss the demonstration of last night, as not representing the majority, but rather acts of lunatic marginal extremists. They would also probably decry how the dance of co-dependence between different parts of society – religious fanatics and newspaper editors – is swinging more furiously than ever before.
But that is not enough. In a community where billboards go up regularly – against the internet, against expensive baby carriages, against movies, against mixed buses: where are the billboards and the public proclamations that violence in the public sphere runs counter to the values of Judaism? Where are the sermons in synagogue expressing rage against those who, in the name of Judaism, cause embarrassment or injury to women and children? And for those who require it, where are the posters with citations of the Jewish Legal Code affirming that such behavior is forbidden? Further, I wonder – though I think I already know the answer – where will the sermons be this coming Friday night decrying the shameful appropriation of the images of the holocaust?
The silence that reigns is not only the silence of resignation and apathy, but more than that, it is the silence of those, who even as they feel embarrassed and repulsed, hang on to the sense of Jewish identity that comes through being persecuted. So while most all of the ultra-orthodox whom I know acknowledge the extremity of the behavior – things are worse than they have been in the twenty years I have been in this country – they still nurture an identity based upon being the oppressed minority. Everyone knows – Real Jews are Persecuted.
But real Jews of all persuasion, especially those in the ultra-orthodox community, should not now embrace a Jewish authenticity based upon being persecuted, but a different kind of authenticity, one based on three thousand years of Jewish history: the authenticity of Jewish conscience. That conscience will dictate that when injustice occurs – even or perhaps especially when it comes from those acting in your name – you must stop the silence, stand up and cry out in protest.