A few days ago in my comings and goings I found myself in the heart of the Hareidi neighbourhood of Me’ah She’arim. I’d done some shopping there and was on my way back to the army: trundling along the crowded pavement, bags flailing about, full IDF garb with all my pins and stripes intact of course. The weather had cooled down a little and I was rather enjoying the walk, when, quite suddenly, from around the corner came a middle-aged hareidi man who started bellowing at me, literrally screaming, at the top of his voice:
“תוריד את הכיפה! תוריד את הכיפה! פושע! אתה לא יהודי!”
(“Take off your kippah! Take off your kippah! Criminal! You’re not a Jew!”)
I’ve never been one to get into confrontations, but apart from anything I was totally startled, so I kept my head down and continued walking, my heart almost hammering its way through my chest at the speed of sound. At this point I noticed that everyone was looking at me; I’d never felt more out of place or alone. I heard someone tutting loudly, and was unsure if it was directed at me or my agressor.
As I continued to walk, three people came seperately to apologise to me:
The first, a young man on a bike who stopped next to me, stretching out his hand to touch my forehead and then kissing it. “His way isn’t our way. I’m sorry for his atrocious behaviour.”
The second, a teenager speaking in broken Hebrew: “Don’t listen to him. We love you.”
The third, accompanied by his wife, who immediately pulled out her phone to film his heartfelt apology: “The highest ma’alah of righteousness is one who is offended and doesn’t offend his offender back. I’m sorry for what he said, it’s not the Jewish way.” Then he produced a 100 shekel note and pushed it into my hands. I protested and told him to give it to charity, but after insisting for a while he finally (niftily) buried it in one of my bags.
Then the first one, on the bike, joined us, and asked me to bless him. “Bless me for health and prosperity!” He said. This is getting really weird, I thought. After a moment’s pause for thought, I said, “I bless you that you should protect me like I protect you.” He didn’t seem too inspired about that one, so I threw in something about parnasa and hatzlacha too.
It seemed like a minor incident at the time but I haven’t stopped thinking about it for days. On the bus ride afterwards, I remembered a time when I was rushing through Camden Town underground station, when I caught the stare of a group of oncoming teenagers, a few years older than me (I was probably 14 or 15 at the time). One of them started chanting: “Put ’em in the ovens, watch ’em burn!” His friends all burst out laughing, and that was it, as quickly as they came they disappeared. We were in a crowded place, but no one else paused, turned around, or said anything. The whole incident lasted about five seconds but left me deeply scarred.
Eight or nine years later, and I find myself wondering: am I more offended by people laughing at how my great-grandparents were murdered? Or by a Jew, on the streets of the Jewish State, telling me that I’m not Jewish?
Truthfully, it doesn’t really make a difference. For as offensive as the hareidi man’s abuse was – and I really was hurt – the more memorable part of the whole story was the string of apologies afterwards.
In the election before last, Ya’ir Lapid’s ‘Yesh Atid’ party came in a strong second place after a campaign based wholly on demonising the Hareidim and their stubborn refusal to join the army. I’m sure my story of abuse at the hands of a man dressed in black and white would have woven beautifully into Lapid’s ‘us versus them’ narrative.
But in truth, far from the media’s glare, hareidim are slowly but surely joining the ranks of the IDF as they realise that in today’s world, their need to feed their families supercedes their antagonism towards the State of Israel. The mad hatter in my story (geddit?) may not be a lone wolf, but he represents a minority of extremists.
I’m unsure of what conclusions I should be coming to, but perhaps it’s this: while the antisemitic taunting I endured in England contributed to a feeling that this was not the place for me, the incident here in Jerusalem gave me hope for the future. Within my belief in the State of Israel as ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו, “the first blossoming of our redemption” we’ve still got a way to go. שנאת חינם is still rife. But there’s a lot of אהבת חינם out there too, and with a bit of work to bring people together and to create more understanding, the Redemption is slowly but surely on its way.