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This is not a simple question of politics. Reasonable people may disagree about what the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be, where lines should be drawn and how peace negotiations should be carried out. But dehumanizing the other side has no place in even the most heated political debates.
Some commentators have suggested that the riot in Jerusalem may presage a new wave of terrorist acts carried out by Jews. I hope this prediction is wrong. But as a rabbi, I am not willing to leave to chance whether our children — in which category I include young Jews in Israel or in the Diaspora — translate racist talk into violence.
We are entering the month of Elul, the reflective season that leads up to Rosh Hashanah. There could be no more appropriate time to consider how hateful speech, even when couched in the context of a political conversation, can condone violence.
Famously, Jews confess in the plural. When we pray the vidui — the confessional prayer recited on Yom Kippur and in the Selichot period, before Rosh Hashanah — we ask forgiveness not only for our own sins, but also for the sins of the entire community. This gesture acknowledges that we can never entirely wash our hands of other people’s misdeeds as long as we contribute to maintaining a world that tolerates such behavior.
I was not in Zion Square when this horrendous incident occurred. As far as I know, I have no direct relationship to any of the rioters. And yet, I feel responsibility for what happened. I feel responsibility because I, as a rabbi, could do more to ensure that hateful language, let alone violence, has no place in the Jewish community. American Jews can start by making clear within our own communities as well as to Israel that we will not tolerate racist talk, and certainly not lynchings reminiscent of the darkest periods of American history.
In the next few days, we are likely to read descriptions of the perpetrators of last week’s attack as disturbed or easily persuaded teenagers. We will hear condemnation of violence from all sides. But real teshuvah, repentance, will come only when we ensure that our everyday language does not teach our children to hate.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights — North America. Her most recent book is “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-on Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011).