The violence in Israel right now leaves me feeling worried and confused. Everyone seems to be throwing up their hands trying to understand what is going on.
It would be one thing if it was a terrorist organization like Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that was planning and carrying out these attacks. Then, we could point to a particular group with its own ideology, and hold it accountable. But that is not what has been happening.
What we are seeing is scarier. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Afula… These attacks have not been coordinated. They are being carried out by boys and girls, men and women with knives and meat cleavers. People with families. People whom we would not expect to be violent. A young girl. A thirteen year old boy. A perversion is taking place that is producing a kind of collective insanity, a national blood-lust. What else could explain why two teenage cousins would go out into the street, and randomly stab a thirteen year old on a bicycle?
When a society goes astray like this, it is the leaders of that society that must step up and take responsibility for setting it back on course. But there have been too few voices calling for calm.
What ostensibly set off this violence were claims by some Palestinians that Israel was planning to take the Temple Mount away from Muslims. It is not true.
When Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, an Israeli flag was quickly installed on top of the Dome of the Rock. As soon as he found out about it, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan immediately ordered it removed. Soon later, he gave authority over the site to the Muslim Waqf, which is charged with maintaining Muslim holy sites. Jews were forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount. That has been the status quo arrangement ever since.
Recently, rumors started spreading that Israel was planning to take over the Temple Mount. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately denied the rumors, and affirmed that the status quo would remain as it has been for nearly fifty years.
But nobody listened. Even those who ought to know better have been fanning the flames of violence. As the rumors were spreading last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said: “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.” Then he declared that Jews “have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.” This week he also accused Israel of “executing” Palestinian children.
What does he think he is doing?
As Jeffrey Goldberg writes in The Atlantic, this is not the first time that false rumors of an impending Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount have led to widespread violence. In 1928, Jews brought a wooden bench up to the Western Wall for elderly worshippers to sit along with a partition to separate men and women for prayer. Local Muslim leaders stirred up popular anger by declaring that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount. Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, used the incident – the placement of a bench – as proof of a plot against Islam. He incited Jerusalem Arabs to riot against the Jewish community. Doctored photographs showing a defaced Dome of the Rock were distributed in Hebron to rile up the community. In riots the following year, 133 Jews were murdered.
In 2000, the Second Intifada was launched when Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount. Granted, he took a large military presence with him. But he had cleared it with Palestinian security officials in advance, who assured him that the situation would remain calm. And he certainly did not go to pray.
After the visit, Palestinians began protesting, and the leader of the Waqf, on a loudspeaker, called on Palestinians to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque, which Sharon had not even entered. The protests became violent, and it soon grew into the Second Intifada. It later turned out that the uprising had been planned in advance by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, but it was Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount which was used as the pretext to incite Muslims to defend their holy place.
Today, there are many Arab leaders who are fanning the flames of violence, many even more blatantly than Abbas, but it does not seem to be a coordinated strategy.
And to be clear, it is not everyone. Just three days ago, the Bedouin village of Zarzir, which my children passed through every day on their way to school, organized a public rally for peace. They called it “We refuse to be Enemies.” Many of our friends from Kibbutz Hanaton participated. There were signs and posters in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Village leaders, wearing kafiyyehs and holding Israeli flags, spoke against violence and in support of the State of Israel. But I did not read any news reports about it except for an article by Rabbi Yoav Ende, of Kibbutz Chanaton.
I saw a news clip of Arab news reporter, Lucy Aharish, speaking about as forcefully as a person could in condemning the violence and declaring that there is no justification whatsoever for committing terror. She blasted Arab leaders for failing to come out and strongly condemn the violence. That is where she placed the responsibility.
I do not claim that Israel has been perfect. As you know, I have a lot of disagreements with decisions of the Israeli government over the years. I think that Israel’s policies have contributed in part to feelings of hopelessness within Palestinian society.
While Israelis are understandably feeling scared, I think it is awful that some have responded to the terror with their own violence and discrimination. It is inexcusable.
But nothing justifies stabbing a random stranger with a knife, or driving a car into a crowd of people waiting at a bus stop. There is no moral equivalency when police, soldiers, or even civilians respond with violence to defend against a terrorist who is actively trying to kill an innocent person. There is no excuse when the leaders of a society glorify a teen-ager who has committed a terrorist act, or fail to do everything they can to stop violence.
I do not have any suggestions for how to solve the chaos that ensues when a society that is not mine has lost its way.
In this morning’s Torah portion, Noach, we read of another society that has lost its way.
“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness (chamas). When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (hishchit kol basar et darko), God said to Noach, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness (chamas) because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.”
Ironically, the word that the Torah uses for “lawlessness” is chamas. It is just a coincidence, but an ironic one. Nahum Sarna defines chamas as the “flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.” (JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 51) There was no rule of law. No respect for communal standards.
Then the Torah says ki hishchit kol basar et darko – “for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth.”
God’s response is not to give them a warning, or a punishment, or to send a Prophet to urge them to change their ways. God regrets having created humanity, and decides to wipe out all life on earth, saving only representative male and female samples of each species.
After the flood, humanity is just as wicked as before. It is the same DNA.
But God makes two significant changes.
He tells Noach and his offspring that they must punish those who murder. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” This is retributive justice. According to the theory of evolution, the strongest, most violent people ought to survive. But God introduces an element to counter the morality of “survival of the fittest.” Simply put, whatever you do to harm the body of another shall be done to you. This is the basic premise of retributive justice. Human societies have to protect their members by punishing those who commit violence.
The second change is a counter to the first. God declares: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”
God knows that human nature has not changed. People will continue to have an urge to cross boundaries. But retributive justice alone is not enough. Forgiveness is also needed. So even though God know that yetzer lev ha-adam ra mine’urav – “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth,” God promises to not wipe out all life again – even though they may deserve it. There are times when justice must be set aside in favor of mercy.
This is the challenge that God presents to the children of Noah. Build societies that are anchored by justice and forgiveness.
Although it seems perpetually elusive, that is my prayer for Israel and Palestine. One day, both societies will have leaders who take responsibility for their own actions, as well as for their respective people’s actions. Neither society will tolerate the dehumanization of the other. Both will recognize that justice cannot be administered selectively. The two peoples will recognize and protect each others’ sacred places without feeling threatened. And Israelis and Palestinians will one day be able to hear one another’s stories with a sense of compassion and forgiveness.
For now, as our brothers and sisters are living under the daily threat of terror, we can turn to God in prayer.
Shomer Yisrael — Guardian of Israel,
We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.
Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.
Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one
Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks
Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.
Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.
Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers
And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.
Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.
We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,
Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,
And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.