Bygone Days: When sanctity was profaned
There is a strand within ultra-Orthodoxy which, try as one might, it is impossible to reason with. I do not speak of the haredi mainstream but of those zealot sectarians who feel so threatened by the fast change in scientific-technological society, and so fearful of the festering breakdown of moral mores beyond their ghettos that the intensity of their anger can become one letter short of actual danger. Hate becomes their fuel, and fear their barricade against new knowledge. When, in debate, one casts doubts on what they hold to be rigid beliefs, you are not simply making a rhetorical point, you are threatening their whole universe, and that provokes venom, and quite frequently, irrational public fury.
Take the incident of the demonstration against Prime Minister Menachem Begin in March 1979. To the standing ovation of a galaxy of dignitaries assembled on the north lawn of the White House, and to the fervent acclaim of the world media, prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat put their signatures to the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty. On the following day, a Thursday, the prime minister flew to New York for an extended weekend that turned into a hero's welcome - public rallies, receptions, interviews and dazzling black-tied and evening-gowned banquets. Begin reveled in it all.
His Sunday program began with a CBS interview on Face the Nation, while in the prime minister's Waldorf Astoria suite another camera crew was setting up equipment for an interview of an entirely different kind. It was to be a documentary for posterity - a relaxed soliloquy in which Begin would be given all the time he needed to talk candidly in depth about his life and times. Brainchild of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the footage was intended for archival purposes, to be released at some unspecified future date. He and Begin were old friends, having worked closely together during Schindler's chairmanship of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
AS I sat with Schindler going over his notes, awaiting the prime minister's arrival, a demonstration was beginning to form on Park Avenue below. Mention had been made that the police had granted a permit to a group of haredim who were protesting an archeological dig in Jerusalem at a location called "Area G." Human bones had allegedly been uncovered at the site, thereby rendering the ground hallowed. The group in question were disciples of the avidly anti-Zionist New York-based Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, many of whose followers were associated with a zealot sect called Natorei Karta - Aramaic for the Guardians of the Walls. To these most ultra of ultra-Orthodox Jews, the State of Israel was, by its very existence, a secular blasphemy, a man-made obscenity, a sinful obstacle along the road to ultimate divine redemption.
The NYPD had assured us that while microphones would be used for speeches, the volume would not reach Begin's suite, 38 floors above. Looking down I could discern the cordoned-off area where the demonstration was beginning to assemble, between 49th and 50th Streets, directly in front of the hotel. A mobile speaker's platform was positioned in the center of the block, on the southbound lane, and from the height where I stood everything was in miniature. Hundreds of tiny beings, all garbed in black - black pie-shaped, broad-brimmed hats, black kaftans, black beards - were gradually filling the cordoned off block in what seemed to be absolute silence. No street noise penetrated the multipaned windows of the hotel suite; it all looked so neat, so symmetrical, so choreographed, like a velvet tapestry embroidered by an invisible hand energized by the crowd.
The design was sprinkled with spots of dark blue, these being the policemen posted in no particular pattern. They wore no crash helmets, nor did they carry shields or batons. Jewish demonstrations were never violent, it was said. There was nothing sinister about the feel of it all. Indeed, I could not but marvel at the innocent civility of the occasion, how this great metropolis was taking in its stride an anti-Zionist, haredi demonstration on a Sunday afternoon in the very heart of Manhattan, and shrug it off as just one more community of New Yorkers doing their own thing in their own way, as the law provides.
UNAWARE OF the protesters below, Begin entered the lounge and greeted Schindler warmly. Seeing me staring out of the window, he asked what was attracting my attention. When I told him, he strode over to look down.
"Nu, nu," he said, "thank God America is a free country where Jews can demonstrate without fear."
He then clapped his hands, placed himself in a chair facing the camera and said with alacrity, "Shall we begin?" And the camera rolled.
Schindler began by asking him about his home life as a youngster, his early years as a Zionist, his trials as commander of the Irgun underground, his frustrations as a politician and his aspirations as a statesman. The most personal and difficult questions he left to the end - those about the fate of the Begin family during the Holocaust; what their slaughter had done to him as a man and as a Jew. And, yes, where was God?
As Begin began to explain the meaning of kiddush Hashem - the sanctification of the Almighty's name even in the hell of the Holocaust - the sound system below was turned up full blast, and a speaker was heard damning Begin as a Nazi, and calling upon the United Nations to dismantle the Jewish state And then the single voice gradually amplified into a chorus which swelled into a howl, and the howl into a roar, as hundreds of far-off voices from the street below welled up yelling in unison a chilling curse in a rhythmic beat: "Begin, yemach shimcha! Begin, yemach shimcha!"
And as the protesters called down the wrath of God upon the prime minister to obliterate his name from the face of the earth, he did not stop talking about his ani ma'amin - his credo - why, despite all the suffering, he remained a believing Jew. And as he said these words the rant of hate rose and grew, until Begin ordered the camera to stop.
He sat there head bent, lips compressed and trembling, and fists clenched so tightly against the arms of the chair that his knuckles went white, as if seized by some private infernal Holocaust reverie.
Little by little, the din died down, and amid the hush that settled on the room he went on to dwell at length about his undiminished belief in Elokei Yisrael - the God of Israel - ending off in almost a whisper, "After the Holocaust, there is no command more supreme than that a Jew should never curse another Jew, should never lift a finger against another Jew and should endeavor to love his fellow Jew as himself."
The writer served on the staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin. His book, The Prime Ministers - an Intimate Narrative, is due out in the spring.