Acouple of months ago a young Arab woman from Qalansuwa in central Israel set off to do what we would consider a mitzvah. She was a teacher of Arabic in a Jewish school and she went with a Jewish friend to go to the shivah of a colleague in Jerusalem.
But when they left the shivah, they were confronted by a gang of local yeshivah students. “They cursed her, they spat on her, they threw oranges at her,” said Israeli religious activist Dr Gadi Gvaryahu. “They said to her friend ‘How dare you come with an Arab woman to our neighbourhood’. And then they damaged her car, broke the window, let down her tyres.”
When Dr Gvaryahu and his friends heard about the incident, their response was to organise a delegation to see the woman to apologise for what had happened. They also asked new Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron to join them.
“He said he could not come but that he’d surprise us,” Dr Gvaryahu said. “The day before we came to Qalansuwa, he took his team to her class in her school and he, the minister of education, gave a lesson to her students on how Jews and Arabs can live together in the land of Israel. She was touched.”
Such acts of reconciliation have become a sad necessity for Dr Gvaryahu, a leading Orthodox campaigner against Jewish extremism. A year and a half ago he helped to set up an organisation to counter the “price taggers”, militant young settlers who carry out revenge raids for Palestinian attacks or government attempts to uproot West Bank outposts.
Sometimes the price taggers may be content with spraying graffiti. But they have also engaged in physical asssaults and arson. And whenever they strike, members of Dr Gvaryahu’s organisation will go to the place to talk to the victims and offer help, sympathy and sometimes compensation. “In a [Palestinian] village called Jabba, where extremists tried to burn down the mosque, we met many children,” he said. “One father said he was happy that we’d come because his child had started saying that all Jews are evil.”
His group is called Tag Meir,“tag of light”, a punning riposte to “price tag” in Hebrew, tag mechir. “They want to create damage, we want to create light,” he said.
Although most religious Zionists and most settlers oppose price tag attacks, he notes, enough extremists exist to cause trouble. “One person can create an enormous amount of damage,” he said. “You just need one Yigal Amir to kill a prime minister, and one Baruch Goldstein to kill 29 innocent Muslims at prayer.”
An eighth-generation Jerusalemite on his mother’s side — who has a doctorate in animal behaviour — he was inspired by the religious values of his father, a Holocaust survivor. “For him, anything that sounded like racism or hate crime was a sin,” he said.
Tag Meir is not his first venture into activism. He is also a founder of the Yud Bet Cheshvan Foundation, named after the yahrzeit of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. “Yigal Amir was unfortunately a religious Zionist. And we feel a kind of responsibility for what he did. He received our education,” he said.
Amir was thought a model student at Bar Ilan University and also studied at the respected Keren B’Yavneh Yeshivah. “You cannot say he was not part of us, that he was crazy,” Dr Gvaryahu said.
The foundation has established a number of schools and also a youth movement. “We decided we need to bring more values of tolerance and open-minded pluralism. As we say in Hebrew, derech eretz kadma l’Torah, you need to be a human being before you practise your religious obligations.”
Whereas Orthodox Zionism was once a liberal, even left-leaning movement politically, he noted, it swung right after the 1967 War, gripped by messianic idealism which viewed settlement in Judea and Samaria as holy work. But that sense of divine mission has also spawned among a small, but dangerous, minority, a disregard for democratic norms.
The struggle against extremism is not just for Israelis. “Our religion is under attack and not only in Israel. If you let extremists burn mosques and churches all over Israel, tomorrow someone will do it with a synagogue,” he said.
Which is why his just he paid his first visit to London, as a guest of the New Israel Fund, which supports his work in Israel. He addressed a Yom Ha’atzmaut lunch at Golders Green Synagogue and spoke to groups from two other United Synagogue communities, Muswell Hill and South Hampstead.
If the religious Zionist sector were slide to the extreme right, it could spell disaster for Israel. “Because they serve in the army, they know how to use guns. They can destroy the country,” he said.
Instead, if it regained a more moderate voice, it could play a major bridge-building role in Israeli society, he believes. “I think at the end of the tunnel, we’ll win the battle. But there is a long way.”