Sunday, April 1, 2012

More Religious-Secular Tensions in Israel: Swine Let Loose in Beit-Shemesh

A new organization has waddled into the religious-secular debate in Israel by stirring up a great deal of mud. HAZIRA (Chilonim Zazim – Yisraelim Rotzim Herut) (Secularists on the Move – Israelis Want Freedom) has taken responsibility for the strange incident in Beit Shemesh early yesterday morning. Somewhere between 9 and 10 a.m., a white cattle truck (M’sait bassar l’vana) stopped right near Beit Knesset Ohalei Ohavei Nashim and dropped off three large hogs. One witness reported that the van quickly sped away after letting the animals loose. It is unclear how the vehicle made its way into the area, which is normally closed off to vehicular traffic on Shabbat.

Congregants who were arriving late to Synagogue noticed the pigs meandering around just outside the synagogue doors. Since it was Shabbat, no one was able to contact the police or remove the swine. The pigs were apparently well groomed but were nevertheless a major affront to this very Orthodox Jewish community. One hog was wearing a sign that read “even pigs have rights.” Another pig was draped in a blue and white blanket.

At about 10:30 a.m., a crowd of 15-20 onlookers arrived, most of whom appeared to be secular Israelis. Some tried to take pictures which created tension since the use of cameras is forbidden for observant Jews. Worshippers were forced to pass by the pigs as they made their way out of the shul after services ended. One shul member was apparently so shocked at the sight of the three pigs that he passed out. Two other congregants, Lazar Wolfe and Moshe Tzayad, reportedly became ill. Wolfe later told Yidiyot Ahronot that the idea of seeing pigs in a blanket just after having eaten at the Kiddush made him sick.

About an hour after Shabbat ended, Rabbi Menachem Hayim Moshe Yisrael Reuven, commonly known in Beith Shemesh as “the Mahmir” provided a statement to the press. Calling this one of Israel’s most insidious and provocative acts in the ongoing dispute between religious and secular Jews, he referred to Torah passages from Vayikrah (Leviticus) calling for the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for this type of the desecration of the Sabbath. He called for immediate arrests and speedy prosecution.

The chair of the newly formed organization, HAZIRA, Izzy Boten, issued a press statement late Saturday evening, responding to the attacks by Rabbi Mahmir. “Pigs are not illegal in Israel and should have the right to dignity and fair treatment. Although this might have offended some, we chose to drop the pigs off near the synagogue as the quintessential expression of the fight against religious coercion. Pigs are rarely seen or heard in Israel, which is symptomatic of the power that the religious hold over the secular in Israel. Our aim is to free Israeli society from this oppression.”

In a strange twist, the incident created an unusual coalition of Arab and Jewish Knesset Members who issued a joint statement calling for greater religious tolerance, mutual respect and a continuation of the “status quo” as it pertains to pigs and pig products. They proposed that the Knesset institute a rule change prohibiting boorish behaviour in the Israeli parliament as an initial response to this incident.

The “Swine Affair,” as it has been named, has divided many Israelis and led to Op Ed pieces in all of Israel’s major daily newspapers. Noting the various protests that have been held earlier in the year in relation to issues such as public transportation on Shabbat and religious –based gender discrimination, some writers have asked that society also consider other areas of religious oppression including rules of Kashruth. Others have argued that the incident went too far. “Despite the differences of opinion between secular and Orthodox Israelis on a range of issues, no mainstream organization advocates making pigs kosher” argued the Op Ed piece printed in Ma’ariv.

One Yisrael Hayom reporter even contacted convicted rapist and former Israeli President Moshe Katzav, who reportedly claimed that “there is no place for pigs in Israeli society.”

The political fallout is likely to continue over the coming weeks.

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