October 16, 1997
Over the High Holidays, somebody scrawled Nazi swastikas and the epithets "Cursed evildoers" and "Evildoers, you will die" on the front door of the Reform movement's Har-El Congregation synagogue in midtown Jerusalem.
This was only the latest act of vandalism against Har-El, Israel's oldest Reform synagogue, in recent months. Over the summer, someone smeared human excrement on the synagogue door. On two other occasions, somebody poured acid on the synagogue garden, turning the grass yellow. All these incidents took place when the building was closed.
The police haven't arrested anybody, and local Reform Jews don't think the police -- or Israel as a whole, for that matter -- are terribly interested in the problem.
"After the swastikas and the graffiti, the policeman who came to investigate asked us, 'Are you connected with the Jews for Jesus?' From his tone, you could infer that he thought we should expect that things like this would happen to us," said Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, leader of the Har-El Congregation.
"In Europe, when swastikas are written on a synagogue, the police usually catch the criminal and put him in jail. Israel is the only country in the world where anti-Semitic acts can be carried out -- swastikas can be printed on a synagogue, [non-Orthodox] rabbis can be vilified -- and it doesn't seem to move anyone."
There was no outcry, to say the least, after any of the acts of vandalism against the synagogue. After the swastika incident, the only Israeli public figure who spoke out was Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg, who said that anyone who commits such a sin should forget about being forgiven on Yom Kippur.
The vandalism at Har-El was not the only attack on non-Orthodox synagogues over the holidays. On the morning of Yom Kippur, members of the Conservative Hod V'Hadar synagogue in Kfar Saba discovered that the glass front door had been smashed and the mezuzah yanked from the doorway. On Rosh Hashanah night, a side window of the synagogue had been broken, and, last month, the mailbox had been pulled off the wall.
Emily Levy-Shochat, president of the congregation, said that she had written down the two earlier incidents as simple hooliganism, but the Yom Kippur vandalism of the mezuzah made it obvious that these were religiously motivated crimes.
If recent history is a teacher, the vandals who attacked Har-El and Hod V'Hadar will not be caught. No one has been apprehended in the recent torching of a Reform nursery school in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion. Neither has anyone been arrested for the hundreds of threatening telephone calls and faxes received by the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.
"I've basically given up hope with the police," said Action Center spokeswoman Anat Galili. "Whenever something happens, I call to remind them, but I don't expect anything. One policeman actually told me that if we make a noise in the media, we encourage the hoodlums to attack us. In other words, we should keep silent."
A Jerusalem police spokesman claims that the threats against the Action Center have subsided since the summer of 1996, thanks to police phone taps that traced the calls to five or six yeshivot in the capital. At the urging of police officials, rabbis of these yeshivot warned their students against harassing the Reform, and the harassment ended, according to the spokesman.
Galili has evidence to the contrary -- the Action Center's answering machine. "Almost every morning, there is at least one hostile, threatening message on it. We're not getting the flood of threats we had before, but they're still coming in."
She notes that the immediate neighborhood around Har-El, located on Shmuel HaNagid Street, is a model of religious tolerance. Right nearby are a strictly Orthodox synagogue, a Baptist church and a Jews for Jesus congregation. The wider surroundings, however, are a source of fiercely anti-Reform elements -- small pockets of fervently Orthodox residents lie about a five-minute walk away, and the area, not far from Mahane Yehuda, is known for its concentration of Kach members and sympathizers.
But because the graffiti featured well-worn haredi curses such as "cursed evildoers," Galili suspects that the hand of a haredi, not a Kachnik, drew the swastika and wrote down the curses. It could have been worse. Two years ago, a cafe on Har-El's grounds that had been opening on Shabbat was torched. Some 15 years ago, the Baptist church was torched. No one has been arrested for those crimes either. n
Nazi swastikas, not unlike the one above, were scrawled on the front door of a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem during the High Holidays , but there was no outcry nor any arrests. Photo by David Margolis.