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Before Israel alleges 'anti-Semitism' abroad, it should root out the plague at home 

Deborah Lipstadt in Rome, Italy on 17 October 2016 [Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images]
Deborah Lipstadt in Rome, Italy on 17 October 2016 [Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images]

When Dr Deborah Lipstadt became America's special anti-Semitism watchdog she decided to embark on an 11-day tour of the Middle East, making Saudi Arabia the first stop. As predicted, it wasn't long before the US State Department's anti-Semitism ambassador was confronted by an explosive episode of Jew-hatred. However, it wasn't in the land of Islam's holiest sites that this took place; it was in Jerusalem, and the culprits were extremist Zionists.

Misogynistic, hard line Jewish men disrupted a pro-women Jewish group during religious ceremonies near the Western Wall; they screamed things such as "Nazis", "Christians" and "animals" at the mixed congregation before ripping up prayer books and drowning out the words of rabbis by blowing whistles. The disruption was caused by dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremists who targeted three bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies near the wall a few days ago.

Lipstadt, who was sworn in to the ambassadorial-level post in March, was duly told about the incident. "Deeply disturbed by the troubling actions of a group of extremists last week at the Kotel," she tweeted on 30 June. "Let us make no mistake, had such a hateful incident — such incitement — happened in any other country, there'd be little hesitation in labelling it anti-Semitism."

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So why doesn't she call it out for what it is and tell US President Joe Biden precisely that ahead of his Middle East tour which begins this week? That's what Biden appointed her to do, wasn't it? He said that he wanted to crack down on blatant anti-Semitism, so why is no action being taken by Israel's main supporter against this repugnant, violent group of religious fanatics?

The reality is that this form of Jew-hatred has been prevalent in Israel for many years among religious extremists within the Jewish community. While episodes of anti-Semitism have seen internal crackdowns in political parties, colleges and other organisations around the world, the Israeli government has swept its own Jewish problem under the carpet and allowed this home-grown form of anti-Semitic terror to flourish.

Women of the Wall is a group which has been targeted many times since its formation 30 years ago. The founders were Jewish women from Israel and overseas who demanded the right to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and aloud at the Western Wall (the aforementioned Kotel) in occupied Jerusalem.

The Western Wall is Judaism's most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty, and yet women cannot pray there freely. Women of the Wall says it pulls together all denominations of Judaism: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Masorti, Renewal and Reconstructionist. Its demands to pray by the Western Wall according to their own traditions in a gender-mixed space has proved to be a political hot potato for political leaders in Tel Aviv. The then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a compromise in 2016 by designating an egalitarian space on the southern side of the Western Wall, accessible from the main gate of the plaza, to be managed by a council of representatives of progressive Judaism.

Netanyahu soon came under pressure from sections of the powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish lobbies, so a smaller space was established, although after violent outbursts and the 30 June incident it can hardly be called a safe space for female Jews. As any Palestinian in occupied Palestine will tell you, compromises in the Zionist State are often not worth the paper they're written on, and it looks as if this is true from the perspective of progressive Jews too.

In 74 years since its bloody inception, Israel has never been able to control the violent religious extremists, mainly from the illegal settlements, who routinely disrupt and brutalise Palestinian lives. If Tel Aviv can't offer protection to Jewish women at Judaism's holiest site, then what hope is there for Palestinians?

No wonder Islam's third holiest site, of which the Western Wall is one boundary, is constantly violated and attacked by Jewish extremists as well as Israel's brutal occupation forces. They make worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque extremely difficult for local and visiting Muslims.

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Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pushed through a compromise during his short tenure while trying desperately not to be sucked into a political row with the hard-line clerics and their followers from the ultra-Orthodox parties. However, as the events of 30 June have demonstrated, velvet glove diplomacy doesn't work with the ever-expanding extreme right-wing Jews in the occupation state.

Dr Lipstadt certainly has her work cut out if she is serious about cracking down on unacceptable Jew-hatred which has been tolerated for far too long in Israel. What these latest episodes have shown us is that the Knesset is running scared of the religious extremists in their midst and there's a reluctance to rein-in their links to terror groups and criminal behaviour. The latter is directed not only against Palestinians, but also against other Jews.

The Biden administration appointed a special envoy with ambassadorial status to tackle anti-Semitism. That's a positive start. Now the hard work must begin in what is rapidly becoming one of the most dangerous places for Jews in the world: the self-declared Jewish state of Israel. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, so before Israel cries "anti-Semitism" abroad, it should root out the plague at home in the occupation state itself.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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