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Faint readings of pluralism detected

JERUSALEM, June 27 (JTA) — Perhaps it was the image of classic anti-Semitism, conjured up by reports of flames raging through a synagogue in Jerusalem, that sparked some sympathetic Orthodox responses to the latest attack on liberal Judaism in Israel.

Or maybe it was just a realization that someone had taken things too far.

Whatever the reason, the arson at the Ya’ar Ramot Conservative congregation Saturday at least momentarily set off a subtle shift in tone from some players in the debate over religious pluralism in Israel.

There are still plenty of doubts as to whether Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s strong condemnation will mark a turning point in relations between the warring religious streams in Israel. The Conservative and Reform movements, with strong support from many American Jews, have long been seeking official recognition in Israel for their institutions.

While it still remained unclear who set the fire, police hinted they suspect fervently Orthodox Jews, motivated by ideology, were responsible.

Conservative and Reform leaders are still waiting for stronger criticism from more Orthodox political and religious leaders. Some of these leaders admitted that the incident generated unprecedented sympathy from some in the Orthodox community.

“We are encouraged by some responses,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel.

“But we are still waiting for the Orthodox political and religious leadership to speak out. I believe that in the yeshiva grass roots there are people who are rethinking the situation and are embarrassed — but they are waiting for their leaders and rabbis to speak out.”

Vandals hurled gasoline-soaked flaming rags into the synagogue Saturday night, setting ablaze sections of the main sanctuary and destroying several chairs and prayer books. Nobody was injured in the attack, and the synagogue’s three Torah scrolls were unharmed.

Bandel said he was extremely moved by gestures that flowed in after news of the fire spread. He pointed out that one haredi, or fervently Orthodox, student from the Mir yeshiva called the Conservative movement anonymously to express his “shock and disgust” at the torching.

Several modern Orthodox Jews and rabbis attended a gathering of 200 people at the Ya’ar Ramot synagogue Monday, under the banner: “Let’s Put Out the Fire.”

However, many of them were long-standing supporters of pluralism, and liberal leaders are not letting down their guard.

They are worried that the silence of haredi leaders will be seen as a tacit endorsement of the act, and that the style of the public condemnations was full of ambiguities.

For example, Hamodia, a popular haredi newspaper, ran an editorial on the day after the torching titled, “Worthy of Condemnation. But …”

It clearly condemned the arson in a “sweeping way, without reservations or conditions.”

But the editorial went on to strongly imply — as did other stories published in the haredi press — that the arson may have been carried out by Conservative sympathizers who wanted to “besmirch the religious public in Israel.”

Furthermore, the Hamodia editorial argued that the public outcry and media spotlight on the torching contrasted with the silence that occurred when Orthodox institutions have been attacked.

Bandel said some messages were problematic because they condemned the arson as if simply a criminal attack.

“This is not just vandalism,” said Bandel. “This is a hate crime.”

Yet the gist of the haredi message has been picked up in the Orthodox street.

Ya’akov, a 50-year-old haredi yeshiva student who declined to provide his last name, echoed the Hamodia editorial by saying that in the study halls of Orthodox seminaries nobody believed the fire had been set by an Orthodox person.

“Whoever did this should be locked up for life,” he said. “Even if one religious punk did such a thing, that does not mean we should all be blamed.”

Ya’akov spoke Tuesday as he left morning prayers at the Western Wall, while nearby, a gathering of several dozen Reform leaders from around the world congregated for morning prayers.

Cordoned off by a double ring of police barricades, Reform rabbis insisted they had come just to pray. However, with nearly as many police standing by as worshipers, and a pack of journalists and photographers on hand as well, the rabbis knew there was more to the service than met the eye.

There have been frequent demonstrations by haredim against mixed- gender prayer services at the wall. In May, the High Court of Justice recognized the right of women to hold prayer services at the wall. The landmark ruling capped an 11-year legal battle by a women’s group, Women of the Wall.

Unlike previous occasions, there were no protests or disturbances when the group of Reform Jews, led by a female cantor, prayed Tuesday at the Western Wall.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA World Union, said there was a direct link between Saturday’s arson attack and the prayer service.

“The reason we are penned up here is because of this constant threat of violence against all Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox,” he said.

Referring to Rabbi Lau’s condemnation, Hirsch said it would take “more than one reaction” to create a real change in atmosphere between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams.

“It will require sustained discipline from the forces of tolerance,” he added. “It’s a shame that there are extreme elements that endanger the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.”

Later that day, as the Knesset convened to discuss scheduling an emergency meeting on the synagogue torching, any hopes that a new spirit of dialogue might emerge from the ashes of the synagogue fire were quickly dashed.

Though haredi politicians participated and issued general condemnations, the session quickly turned into a shouting match.

Legislator Meir Porush, of the haredi United Torah Judaism bloc, accused the Conservative movement of being responsible for the blaze.

This charge led Naomi Hazan of the secular Meretz Party to charge Porush with making “anti-Semitic statements” by blaming the victim for the crime.

Porush then called Hazan an anti-Semite.

The Knesset eventually decided to schedule a discussion on the torching — a move that will keep the issue on the agenda in the days to come.

Despite the nasty exchange in the Knesset, there were nonetheless behind-the-scenes signs of a subtle change in attitude.

In a telephone interview with JTA, legislator Yair Peretz, chairman of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, issued a strong condemnation and even a rare call for dialogue.

Although he at first worded his condemnation in general terms against “all acts of violence and hooliganism,” when pressed for a more specific response, he added, “It is a doubly severe crime to desecrate a sanctuary of Israel.”

While Peretz also said he could not believe an Orthodox Jew had committed the crime, he added that if indeed a haredi was found guilty, “He should be taken out of klal Yisrael,” or the Jewish community.

“I think if this event does not create a dialogue, it will be very bad,” said Peretz. The arson should set off “warnings lights for the entire Jewish world. Coercion and hooliganism will not achieve anything.”

Asked if the dialogue should include Conservative Jews, Peretz answered: “Certainly.”

Still, there are serious reasons to doubt whether comments made this week will have any impact on the violent atmosphere.

On Monday night, just two days after the arson attack, a “messianic synagogue” in downtown Jerusalem was vandalized. Its Torah scroll was stolen and bottles of gasoline were found at the site.

While Conservative leaders reject the theology of Jews who profess Christian beliefs, they said that Israel, as a democracy, must protect the rights of all people.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, said the key to change lies as much with the haredi establishment as with the police, who did not make any arrests after past attacks on Reform and Conservative synagogues.

“I have no reason to think that the arson will change anything,” he said. “As long as there is no punishment meted out, then what incentive is there for an individual not to do this?”

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