Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review March 18, 1999 / 1 Nissan, 5759

Jonathan Rosenblum

Israelís "Little Rock Central High"?

SEPTEMBER 2, 1957, National Guardsmen, their bayonets fixed, ringed Little Rock Central High School. They had been placed there by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to prevent nine black students from integrating the high school that day.

Two weeks later, the nine students succeeded briefly in entering the high school while a large mob orchestrated by Faubus was busy beating four black journalists they had mistaken for the students. But when the surging mob reached the gates of the school, the black students were removed to save their lives.

Little Rock Central High was not successfully integrated until President Eisenhower brought in crack paratroopers to disperse the mobs around the school and protect the nine black teenagers for several months.

It is safe to say that no group watched the unfolding events in Little Rock with more horror than American Jews, traditionally the most liberal group in America. Certainly it would not have occurred to any American Jew that the events taking place in Little Rock would one day find their parallels in the Jewish state.

Now they have.

A religious school opened this past September in Tzoran, a bucolic residential community of 1,500 young families, nestled among the agricultural settlements east of Netanya. Even before the opening, the school already provoked mass protest rallies and threats from local organizer Gidi Bleicher that physical force would be used, if necessary, to block the establishment of a religious school in Tzoran.

Meretz saw another golden opportunity to fan the flames of religious war, and at a Shabbat-rally in mid-October Yossi Sarid called upon the citizens of Tzoran to expel the forces of darkness from their midst.

When the 25 six and seven-year-olds whose parents registered them for the new school arrived for the first day of classes, they were confronted by a mob of sixty chanting adults, some of whom had brought along attack dogs and tied them to the school gate.

Somehow the principal summoned up the courage to march her charges past the screaming mob and the dogs, past the vulgarities aimed at her and her colleagues, into the school building. Once inside she closed the windows despite the heat, as curses and stones rained down on the tiny two-room school for the first hours of the morning. That scene was repeated every morning for the first months of the school's existence.

I would like to believe that the mob outside the school did not intend to physically harm the children, despite the threats of physical violence. But one thing is clear. Their intent was to terrorize little children by forcing them to run a daily gauntlet of verbal abuse and physical menace.

Subsequent events revealed that the protesters were prepared to go pretty far indeed. The night of parent-teacher meetings in mid-November, they poured hot tar on the outside of the school and covered the school walls with disgusting slogans and pictures, causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage. Four were arrested.

After a court threw out a legal challenge to the school's existence in early December, vandals broke into the school that night, smearing walls and breaking furniture. And the next morning furious demonstrators, again accompanied by large dogs, barred entry to the school. The school principal videotaped them, and four more arrests were made.

Not surprisingly, a few parents feared for their children's safety and removed them from the school. More surprising is that the overwhelming majority of the parents stuck out the demonstrations, the social ostracism, and having refuse dumped on their lawns and eggs and tomatoes thrown at their homes.

A year ago those parents fit the standard Tzoran profile -- young, educated professionals, and secular. That is their crime. For if the blight of Judaism can infect Tzoran, it can do so anywhere.

Some of the parents are still not observant, but they have decided that they want a Jewish education for their children. They have seen another side to their former friends -- the ones carrying the placards proclaiming "A war between light and darkness'' -- and it has been, shall we say, enlightening.

The protesters have reached truly Orwellian heights of inversion of words from their plain meaning. A widely-circulated pamphlet, under the heading "A free Tzoran,'' calls upon the citizens of Tzoran to "enlist'' to defend "the honor of man and his freedom.'' Another popular sign at the protests reads, "Enough of religious coercion.''

One marvels at the mental gymnastics required to portray intimidating children and parents from choosing a particular schooling as the furtherance of "freedom.'' And how, one wonders, the honor of man is advanced by hurling epithets at young, religious women, or scaring little children, or turning the parents of those children into targets of abuse for daring to depart from the local orthodoxy?

The only religious coercion in Tzoran today is by those who can not bear the thought of Judaism being taught in their Meretz citadel. What we are witnessing is a reprise of the threats directed at poor, frightened immigrants in the '50s that they would lose their Histadrut work cards if they sent their children to religious schools. Same war, new means.

We have all grown a bit weary of Bialik's quip that the Jewish state would only find its place among the nations when it produced its own Jewish thieves and prostitutes. We have them aplenty -- and Jewish drug addicts, child abusers, wife-murderers, and rapists too.

And now we have our own homegrown Orval Faubuses and Bull Connors. Only their names are Yossi and Gidi. In place of Southern red-necks and good ol' boys, we have our local humanists and enlightened ones.

Somehow I don't think Bialik would have been proud.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.


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©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum