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When ‘Death to Arabs’ Rings Out in Holy City

Israel is consumed with calls for revenge for the murders of three kidnapped students. But some are pushing back against the cycle of hate./Getty Images

The headlines in Israel this week have been overwhelming. First the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers — Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach — were found, buried, eulogized, and mourned by Jews in Israel and around the world. There were calls on both the digital and actual street for vengeance, and for settlement construction in the Knesset, and soon somebody took matters (one could nary say “justice”) into their own hands: The body of an Arab teenager named Mohammad Abu Khdair was found lifeless in the Jerusalem Forest yesterday morning.

The 16-year-old’s death has led to what is arguably the worst violence in East Jerusalem in the last decade, exacerbated tensions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and has palpably darkened the Jerusalem summer sky.

A glimmer of sun, perhaps, through this week’s haze, came yesterday at an event put together by Tag Meir and its partners, an anti-racism organization that has been the loudest Jewish vocal response to price-tag (“tag mechir”) attacks perpetrated most often by radical settlers who attack Palestinians or their property. The event gathered some 1,000 Israelis in Jerusalem’s Cat Square, not one block away from Zion Square where, the night before, some 47 anti-Arab rioters were arrested by Israeli police before they could turn into a full-blown lynch mob, or worse.

Tamar, an art and theater student in yellow earrings and short bangs, told me that she had come to the Tag Meir event because “Yesterday, I experienced something awful.” She had been sitting on her balcony in the center of town when she heard the shouts “death to the Arabs!”

She went down to the street, only to quickly find herself a human shield, situated between the police, a few Arabs, and the mob. “It opened my eyes,” she said. “They had murder in their eyes… In that moment, I didn’t want to be Jewish.” And so, despite being less than politically engaged by her own admission, Tamar came to the event yesterday. She was looking for a way to express her fear and frustration at the violence that is threatening to sweep this city off its feet. She — and many others — weren’t looking for politics. She was looking for light in the darkness.

The event was advertised as nonpartisan, the opening remarks centered on “nehama” (solace) versus “nekama” (revenge), and opposition to racism, violence, and revenge. The signage was equally nonpartisan: “Love your neighbor”, (Duet. 10:19) “Spread the light together against terror”, “We are all human”, “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all of her paths are peace” (Proverbs, 3:17). “There is no difference between blood and blood”. It was a place of prayer more than politics.

When Jerusalem’s Rav Benny Lau rose to speak, he asked that in this time of mourning there be no applause. He closed with the lines from Psalms 122: “May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels, for the sake of my family and friends.” When the coordinators introduced the politicians who spoke (Yitzhak Herzog, Labor Party Chairman and opposition head as well as Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz), they made explicit that they were “not the organizations of the left” and noted that they had extended an invitation to all members of the Knesset, but that the coalition members had all declined. Even when Chairman Herzog got up to speak, his language was non-partisan: “This doesn’t come from a political place,” he said, “we have come together to shine the light.” Even so, during his short speech one bearded and pierced heckler shouted “No politicians! No politics!” It was clear that the crowd was there for love and light, and little else.

When I spoke to Yosef “Pepe” Alalu, the long-time face of the Jerusalem municipality’s Meretz faction, he affirmed this sensibility: Whatever ‘solution’ one might see for this conflict, he said, we all must “realize that we are her together, and that we need to find our place together.” This anti-racism event, he said, was “the minimum we could do.” When I asked Labor MK Michal Biran whether she thought this event should be political, she responded, “The world is political.” But when I asked her how Israel might take responsibility for such terrible acts of violence perpetrated by its own citizens, she put on that same apolitical hat as Herzog: “I don’t know who ‘us’ and ‘them’ are — we’re all in the he same pot.”

This is why people like Tamar felt comfortable coming out in such abundance. These were people exhausted by politics, with no patience for ‘the system’, and disillusioned by successive governments’ inability to produce results, but still felt that if ever there was a time to say something, it was now. One participant named Guy told me he had come out “to demonstrate presence”, a term often used by the IDF in the West Bank to project a sense of power. What he meant was that he wanted to show that there was an “alternative, non-political voice for nonviolence”. This voice, he said, was “another side in this city, [one] that usually clicks ‘attending’ on [Facebook] events like this, but then doesn’t show up. We didn’t click ‘attending’ and we showed up.” Emmanuel, a British émigré to Israel who came to the event before attending the ongoing vigil in Zion Square for the deaths of the three Jewish boys, said that the thinks “we should identify with pain on both sides”, and while he identifies as center-right, he came to show his opposition “against racism of any kind.” Natan, another participant, said that as much as he was against the occupation in order to “building broad, common ground against violence and racism” it was “tactically a bad idea” to make the event political.

Even as Hadash, Israel’s communist party raised its massive red flag and banged its drums to lead the procession on march up to the Prime Minister’s residence, it — along with those in Meretz green and Labor blue — chanted relatively the innocuous and (arguably) apolitical cheers like: “All of us together, without hatred and fear!” “Arabs and Jews refuse to be enemies!” and “No more violence! No more racism!”

And for the most part, that was probably a good idea: those who made the kilometer march up the hill were not interested in elections, polling data, or political expediency. Government, it seemed, could matter less. They were interested in standing in the way of the culture of violent racism that Tamar witnessed first hand yesterday.

“Seventy years ago,” she told me, “we had the opposite situation: Jews were getting beaten up in the streets” Now, she said, we’ve seen “what power does to people.”

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