Synagogue Fire Highlights Orthodox Hostility to Progressive Jews

Published July 8th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

The damage caused by an arson attack on a progressive synagogue in Jerusalem last month has been repaired, but the hatred of Orthodox Jews toward the reformist brethren who contest religious power in Israel is still burning. 

Three scrolls of the Jewish holy book, the Torah, as well as prayer books, religious objects and furniture valued at several thousand dollars were destroyed in the fire on June 24th. 

Rags soaked in gasoline (petrol) had been set alit by unknown attackers in the Conservative synagogue in the Ramot neighborhood of disputed east Jerusalem. 

The synagogue's rabbi, David Bateman, told AFP that "a similar act abroad would quite rightly be denounced as a hateful anti-semitic attack. It is terrible to see that it could have happened in Israel and that suspicion lies principally with fellow Jews". 

Although the name of the Jewish movement to which the synagogue belongs is Conservative, it is a more relaxed version of Judaism than that of the Orthodox. Tension between Orthodox Jews and those of the tiny Conservative and Reform movements in Israel has been high. 

Orthodox Judaism is predominant in Israel, where church and state are not separated. 

It does not recognize its progressive rivals, which tend to be more flexible in their interpretation of Jewish law and insist on the equality of the sexes. 

Bateman says that last month's "profanation" of his synagogue "cannot be separated from the campaign of hatred which regularly targets non-Orthodox tendencies." 

He pointed out that the same synagogue was the target of an unsuccessful arson attack a month ago and that, three years ago, a kindergarten belonging to Reform Jews was razed to the ground. 

Rabbi Bateman denounced what the reaction to these crimes by Orthodox leaders. 

He said indignantly that the grand rabbi of Ashkenaze Jews, Israel Meir Lau, "had certainly slammed the arson, but he carefully avoided using the word 'synagogue' so as not to give any legitimacy to our tendency, while the chief of Jerusalem's religious council, responsible for religious services, talked of a 'club'." 

An ultra-Orthodox publication even suggested the crime may have been the work of Conservative Jews 

Rabbi Henri Kahn said the act "cannot be anything more than a provocation carried out by people who want to leave (Orthodox) Judaism." 

Kahn, editor-in-chief of the religious magazine Kountrass, said "coexistence is impossible with religious tendencies that do not abide by the Halakha," the strict religious tradition based on the Talmud. 

According to him, "reformers" and "conservatives" are part of a movement to "dissolve Judaism". 

In response, Yonathan Leibowitz, a spokesman for the Conservative movement, said: "It is natural that the Orthodox tendency rejects our conception of Judaism, as they always have, but beyond the theological debate, they cling to their privileges, and their hate can be explained by the fear of losing their monoploy over the state." 

He pointed to the rapid development of his movement, which has 52 communities in Israel, a network of schools and has made inroads against the Orthodox in juridical matters in alliance with the Reform Jews. 

For example, the Israeli authorities have finally agreed to allow men and women to pray side by side at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism. 

The Supreme Court has recognized the legitimacy of the two progressive tendencies of Judaism, which have battled long to force the state to accept the concept of religious pluralism and to recognize as Jewish those people who convert to their movements – OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) 

© 2000 Al Bawaba (

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