A degrading memorial

By Alexander Yakobson


August 19, 2004

In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Beit Yisrael, the Jerusalem municipality has erected a memorial to the fatalities of the August 2003 terror attack on the No. 2 bus: a memorial plaque bearing the names of those who were killed. The name of one of the dead, Maria Antonia Reslas of the Philippines, was engraved separately from the others, and she was given the title "Mrs.," while the Jewish dead were awarded the title "sainted" (kadosh). "Shortly after the ceremony," the newspaper (Haaretz Hebrew edition, August 9) reports, "there was already evidence of the scratching that unknown persons had done over Reslas' name."

The damage to the plaque is an ugly act of vandalism but the plaque itself, which officially declares that one of the dead is a second-class victim because she is not Jewish, is far more shameful and ugly. This is not a matter of an act by extremists. The hand hesitates to write this, but the truth must be told: The municipality of Jerusalem decided to degrade the woman who was killed out of consideration for the feelings of the public.

These things are not being written out of a tendency to "devour the ultra-Orthodox." This phenomenon, about which the ultra-Orthodox public complains a lot, does indeed exist, and it deserves condemnation like any other manifestation of hostility toward an entire community. However, the story of the plaque brings to mind a phenomenon of the opposite sort: The mayor of the city of Jerusalem is an ultra-Orthodox politician, Uri Lupolianski, who was elected with the help of the votes of a considerable number of liberal voters who remembered to his credit his praiseworthy activity at Yad Sarah [an organization which provides medical equipment to the needy].

The terrible suicide attack on bus No. 2, in which entire families were killed, aroused profound identification among the general public with its ultra-Orthodox victims. Many people spoke, with admiration and even envy, about the dignified way in which the ultra-Orthodox coped with their disaster. That is to say, precisely on the background of this incident there has been an evident willingness on the part of many secular people not only to respect the ultra-Orthodox, but also to recognize the seemly aspects of their world.

Is it really the halakha (Jewish religious law) that necessitated the degrading inscription of the name of the woman who was killed? It is known that the halakha prohibits the burial of Jews and non-Jews together. Does this prohibition also apply to a memorial plaque? If the title "kadosh" is reserved, according to tradition, exclusively for Jews, would it not have been possible to relinquish it? And if indeed there is no possibility, according to the halakha and tradition as interpreted by the ultra-Orthodox, of mentioning Jews and non-Jews together in a dignified way, would it not have been preferable not to have posted the plaque? Are official memorial plaques a religious requirement?

The truth is that this is not a matter, in this case at least, of halakhic requirements. However, this is also not merely a manifestation of insensitivity, but rather of a perception that is deeply rooted in broad circles of ultra-Orthodox society - even if it must not, of course, be attributed to every single ultra-Orthodox person. This perception refuses to accept a non-Jewish person as being of equal worth and to internalize the fact that here, in Israel, we are not a Jewish community that is concerned only for its members but rather a sovereign state that is responsible for everyone who lives in its territory.

This attitude toward non-Jews has nothing to do with the Jewish-Arab conflict and the feelings of fear and hostility that it arouses; the dead woman who was treated with contempt in Jerusalem is a victim of Arab terror. Nevertheless, it is clear that this basic approach toward non-Jews has implications in the Jewish-Arab context. Public opinion surveys show that hostility toward the Arabs is stronger among the ultra-Orthodox than among other segments of the public.

Is an ultra-Orthodoxy possible that is not based on these perceptions? It is to be hoped that it is. There are ultra-Orthodox Jews abroad that differ from this approach in important respects. In Israel, too, there are examples of a different approach: Yad Sarah, for example, also cares devotedly for non-Jews in need. The question is whether the ultra-Orthodox public in Israel, including its leaders and its spokesmen, is prepared to rid itself entirely of the view that non-Jews are not really human beings. If the answer is negative, this does not bode well for initiatives that aim to nurture dialogue and understanding between various segments of the Israeli public.

The writer is a lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.