Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Two Birds

When the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel returns home from his spread-the-friendliness-to-Tsunami-victims trip to Thailand he will face questioning by the police about the physical abuse (read torture) of a Bnei Berak teenager who was becoming too friendly with his unmarried daughter. The attack was allegedly carried out in the Rabbi’s house with the help of a couple of Palestinians, friends of the Rabbi’s older son Meir who apparently has something of a reputation for being somewhat different, and with the full knowledge of the rest of the family. The Rabbi, who is supposed to have been at home while the incident occurred, of course heard or saw nothing. Indeed he was said to be surprised to hear the story and ‘very disturbed’ that it happened (although not disturbed enough to break off his vital business in Thailand).

We Ultra-Orthodox Jews do not go for blood the way our Muslim counterparts do. For that I am thankful. You can be sure this blog, like those of my fellow anonoshgatzim, would probably never have been created if being found out had equaled being found dead. The Palestinian chief-prosecutor for Gaza once said that up to 70% of all murders in Gaza are honour killings. Yet while we are all prepared to dutifully tut-tut that, we are all at the same time aware that the knocking around of those who do not toe the line in our society is relatively frequent and not only acceptable but even seen as appropriate by most of us.

It is called a ‘mashkante’ and it amounts to people’s justice. I personally came across it first in Yeshiva (college) when a friend of mine was given a message that he should report to the library. He was met there by three masked students. They threw a pillowcase over his head and then proceeded to soundly beat the shit out of him. Although no one actually said it aloud it was clear to all that this attack had been sanctioned by, if not actually coordinated with, at least some of the Yeshiva staff. His sin, I later discovered, had been to go to the cinema with a friend. He is no longer religious today although he still wears all the costume and his children go to the same yeshiva he did, and none of this surprises me. I am sure the family of the Chief Rabbi’s young friend agree that he deserved it, just as the Palestinians who meted it out do.

It is not the gravity of the sin that makes its perpetrator eligible for a Mashkante, it is the style. The Mashkante is used for punishing crimes that society does not recognize. I believe that most Chassidim reading this would agree that I would be a perfect candidate for this treatment if my real name were ever to leak out. But it is boys who date girls against their parent’s wishes who are the classic recipients. In Israel it has been organized by one of the local Tzaddikate into an organization called Mishmeret Hatzniut (Modesty Patrols). They will Mashkant people up, for anything from going into bars to pre-marital sex, at nobody-knows-whose behest. I personally have heard it called for on more than one occasion and I am actually grateful that I never had prior knowledge of such a crime because I don’t know how my conscience would deal with it.

I am fully aware that democratic justice has its limitations. I know that there are many to whom, I too passionately believe, it should be done. Pederasts who prey on mikvegoers spring to mind, men who refuse to give their unloved a divorce until they receive large sums of money and Tzaddikim who utilise their piety to achieve material comfort for themselves.

The first two are crimes that all agree are wrong, with the question only whether it actually was committed, the last is not punishable because touching a hair on these untouchables’ heads, their colleagues assure us, could lead to eternal damnation. I also know, however, that there is a slippery slope between honour bashing for the community and bashing for the honour of the community leaders and history has already shown where it could go from there.

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