The evening of July 30 should have ushered in a joyous day on this year’s Jewish calendar. That Thursday night and Friday, July 31, was Tu B’Av — the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, and the Jewish festival of love. It’s traditionally a holiday dedicated to putting aside our habitual mourning over history’s disasters and celebrating love in all its earthiest, most human dimensions, from romance and marriage to bonds of friendship. But this year the holiday brought us only new disasters and new mourning.
In the space of a few hours that began on the afternoon of July 30, two horrific crimes of murderous hate were committed in Jerusalem and the West Bank, respectively, both of them apparently in the name of a twisted version of Judaism. The first was a deadly rampage by an Orthodox Jew who plunged into the crowd of marchers in Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride parade, stabbing randomly, wounding six people. One, 16-year-old Shira Banki, later died of her wounds.
The second was the deadly firebombing of a Palestinian family’s home in the village of Duma, just south of Nablus. It was apparently — so Israeli law enforcement authorities believe — carried out by a gang of militant Orthodox Jewish settlers. Eighteen-month-old Ali Saad Dawabshe was killed in the flames. His parents and 4-year-old brother were gravely wounded.
The crimes have left us bereft, heartbroken. Jews around the world, and people of goodwill everywhere, are stunned that such hateful violence can erupt in a nation that prides itself on its love of peace. Thousands of Israelis gathered in protest rallies across the country in the days that followed, to declare that actions such as these have no place in the Jewish state.
Sadly, their words don’t seem to match the actual case. It appears those actions have indeed found a place. The question isn’t how they could possibly occur there, but why they are indisputably occurring there, and what to do about it.
Cynics ask a different question: Why, in a region wracked with the most appalling violence, is so much attention focused on a handful of incidents in Israel? Why single out the flaws of Israel, a relative island of tranquility in the turmoil of the Middle East, while Syria and Iraq drown in their own people’s blood?
And, for good measure, why insist on pointing out the suspects’ Orthodox affiliation? After all, we don’t identify every Reform or Conservative Jew who’s arrested by the congregation he or she attends. Why only Orthodox suspects?
The answer to the last question is simple: Both the assailant who attacked the Gay Pride parade and the presumed arsonists in Duma were acting in the name of their versions of Judaism, offshoots of Orthodox Judaism. Most Orthodox Jews may want to argue that they are not legitimate Orthodox Judaisms, that they don’t grow out of the same theology. But they do, and that fact must be faced. And because they are variants of our shared religion, we claim the right to protest. We won’t allow Judaism to be hijacked, and we insist on the right to say so.
The answer to the other question — why focus on Israel’s troubles when others’ are greater — is not as simple. It is true, as the cynics imply, that some of the fascination with Israel’s warts arises from hostility toward the Jewish state. There are those who take a perverse delight in spotlighting every flaw they can find, however great or small, because they think it proves their claim that Israel’s very existence is flawed.
On the other hand, it’s also true that some defenders of Israel try to portray every criticism of Israeli behavior as an attack on the Jewish state’s very legitimacy, in order to avoid having to answer the critics. They turn the campaign against delegitimization of Israel into an all-purpose whitewashing of reality. Rather than acknowledge what’s broken and help to fix it, they try to silence the critics and pretend all is well.
Most who counsel silence do so out of an exaggerated sense of Israel’s fragility. They worry that any breeze might blow down the house. They’re wrong, but not sinister. There are those who simply dismiss criticism because they secretly sympathize with the haters’ motives — homophobia, Greater Israel irredentism — if not with their criminal methods. More often, though, the impulse is more benign. It’s important to know the difference.
It’s crucial, though, to speak out. Friends of Israel who want it to live up to its best ideals, to be a Jewish state in the truest sense, must not be intimidated into silence. Israelis who share our values need our voices behind them.
It’s important, too, to understand what’s at stake, and what isn’t. Yishai Schlissel, the Gay Pride assailant, acted alone. The rest of his Haredi/ultra-Orthodox community dismisses him as a “psychopath,” as numerous Haredi journals have put it. It’s true that the homophobia that drove him is embedded deep in Haredi Judaism. Finding a common language between that growing community and Israel’s tolerant, liberal majority may take generations, or it may come suddenly, as has happened in America in recent years. Either way, it’s an urgent dialogue, not a war.
The Duma assailants are a different story. All available intelligence indicates that they’re part of a shadowy network of militant settlers, an offshoot of the mainstream settler movement. These people plan to continue and escalate their attacks with the aim of bringing about the Apocalypse. They want a war. They must not be allowed to have it.