On August 17, a mob of several dozen Israeli Jewish teenagers — some reports say as many as 50 — assaulted four Palestinian youths in the center of Jerusalem in an attack that the Jerusalem police have labeled an attempted “lynching.” The young people shouted “death to Arabs” as they chased down and beat the Palestinians. One of the four victims remains in critical condition after being resuscitated.
Some of the alleged perpetrators have already been arrested. As the indictments and trials proceed, it is likely that a story will emerge of a few “bad apples” who don’t represent Jewish youth as a whole. But this incident holds up a mirror to the faces of those of us who consider ourselves part of the global Jewish community.
Over the past few years, we have become accustomed to “Price Tag attacks” — violence or vandalism carried out by settlers, primarily against Palestinians, as retribution for Israeli government policies perceived to threaten the settlement enterprise. It can be easy to write off these incidents as the work of a few radical settlers who do not represent the Israeli populace, and certainly do not represent the American Jewish community.
But this assault was different. It took place in Zion Square, in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, where every tourist to the city has stopped to eat a falafel or to browse displays of tallitot and goofy T-shirts. According to some eyewitnesses, as many as 100 people — presumably ordinary Jerusalemites and tourists — watched without lifting a finger to stop the violence. This attack was also not a one-time event. It comes just a few months after a group of Beitar soccer fans, mostly teenagers, stormed the Malha Mall — the major mall in Jerusalem — yelling racist epithets and attacking Arab workers and shoppers.
What does this have to do with American Jews? A century ago, the lynching of Leo Frank, a Southern Jewish businessman, forced the American Jewish community to face the reality of anti-Semitism and to take a more public role in combating bigotry. The lynchings of African Americans, from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era, galvanized many young American Jews to join freedom rides and marches. In both of these cases, the Jewish community recognized that lynchings are not the work of a few “bad apples,” but rather reflect deeper undercurrents of racism and violence in the broader society.
Will these attempted lynchings in Zion Square and Malha Mall prompt the same level of soul-searching? The same level of activism?
The worldwide Jewish community complains often about anti-Semitism within Palestinian communities. And we are right to do so. It is frightening and infuriating to see old anti-Semitic tropes re-emerge in the context of contemporary political struggles. The Palestinians have their own unfortunate culture of violence that has produced brutal attacks against Jews.
But we also have to take a hard look at how we ourselves talk about Palestinians. Within the Jewish community, I regularly hear descriptions of Palestinians as a group that would be condemned as virulent anti-Semitism if one were to substitute the word “Jew.” I hear questions about whether they love their children. I have seen offensive caricatures of Palestinians hanging in synagogues. I often hear dismissals of Palestinian identity claims and casual disregard for their history. I have heard racist jokes told by rabbis and other Jewish leaders. No wonder some children have gotten the memo that hatred toward Palestinians and Arabs is acceptable.