Last night at synagogue, my rabbi made several brief references to a certain incident that occurred on Tuesday morning. But only once did he mention the city where it happened, Jerusalem. Hearing that name, I broke down – quietly of course. I simply put my hands over my face so nobody could see the intense pain that the mere mention of the name had given me. And there I kept my hands for a couple of minutes, while the rabbi went on to talk or sing about something else. I had stopped paying attention. For truly, to be Jewish this week is to think that any topic is difficult to focus on when the alternative is to think about Jerusalem.
Yes, the city had seen violence for weeks prior to Tuesday. Things haven’t been the same since the lead up to the Gaza War this summer. But Tuesday was a game changer. The scene was a synagogue. Men were at prayer, and not just any men, but teachers, leaders, scholars, rabbis – one in particular was as close to Jewish royalty as anyone in the world. Then, suddenly, their prayer was interrupted by two cousins who were also fellow cousins of Abraham. These cousins entered the prayer-room carrying weapons galore. And in no time at all, the synagogue turned into a scene from a Tarantino movie. There was so much blood that one person slipped, fell down a flight of stairs, and broke a bone. He was one of the fortunate survivors.
In his classic, “American Pie,” Don McLean sang about “The Day the Music Died.” Tuesday in Israel was “The Day the Prayers Died.” They were replaced by images of blood, guns, axes, knives, and above all else, human reactions. Oh, how I am haunted by those reactions. Hamas, the duly elected government of the Gazan people, officially referred to the event as “an appropriate and functional response to the crimes of the Israeli occupation.” On the streets of Gaza, passers-by handed out sweets and wielded axes of their own as a tribute to the men who did the deed in Jerusalem. Street celebrations were also held in the “little town of Bethlehem.” And on Palestinian radio, the heroes du jour, Rassan and Uday Abu-Jamal, were referred to as “martyrs.”
Another reaction, that of Jordan’s Minister of Parliament Hussein al-Atta, was to read a Qur’anic prayer in the memory of Uday and Rassan. Al-Atta went on in his facebook page to call the attack “a natural response to the Zionist occupation against our people in Palestine.” Note the similarity between al Atta’s reaction and that of Hamas: both place the blame for this slaughter on the “Occupation.”
I’m sorry, folks, but that explanation is not going to cut it. The men who were killed on Tuesday weren’t “occupiers.” They weren’t soldiers. They weren’t politicians. They were Jews who were worshiping on the western edge of Jerusalem. Nothing in what they were doing or in what they represented should have been controversial – unless of course you simply think that Jews should die because they are Jews.
Now yes, I understand the way many in the western media would like to depict the victims in this story. According to the conventional western picture, these victims weren’t simply ordinary non-combatants; they were members of that exotic sub-species of humanoid known as the “Orthodox Jew.” Some reporters even went as far as to depict them as “Ultra-Orthodox Jews,” as if the word “Orthodox” alone didn’t properly convey how bizarre, anachronistic, and unenlightened these men were.
But I’m not buying into the relevance of that distinction. To me, it matters not if these were Orthodox Jews praying in an Orthodox yeshiva or Reform Jews praying in a Reform rabbinical school. They were Jews at prayer. And according to what appears to be a significant fraction of the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people, that alone is a capital offense.
Do all Palestinians support the position of Hamas here? Not even close. But if you’re a young Palestinian, and if you recognize the legitimacy of both the Jewish and the Palestinian claims to the holy land and you’d like to see a two state solution, what can you do to work for this goal? How are you going to take on the ruthless lords of Hamas? Or the Islamic Jihad? Or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine? How vocal do you dare get in showing empathy for the plight of the Israeli people?
It’s easy for Jews to sound off against “the Occupation” and announce their sympathy with the Palestinian narrative – for they can do so without fear of physical retribution and find organizations of Jews (like Jewish Voices for Peace) who support their every word. Life is not the same for Palestinians. There, you have a choice: violent resistance or non-violent resistance. But both involve resistance – and not just to the Occupation but to the very existence of a Jewish State.
One of the things that died this week is the myth that “this conflict is not about religion, it’s about politics.” Those Jews were killed because of their religion. And the killers, allegedly, were motivated by the threat that the Israeli government was going to jeopardize the Muslim monopoly over what the Muslims call “al-Haram ash-Sharif” and the Jews call the “Temple Mount.” That piece of real estate is so important to Muslims that Mahmoud Abbas, the so-called “moderate” Palestinian leader of the West Bank, had previously called for a “day of rage” because of perceived Israeli threats to al-Haram ash-Sharif.
We’ve seen that rage, alright. We’ve seen it in the work of Rassan and Uday Abu-Jamal. But again, don’t focus too much on the rage. Focus on the reaction. Look at the pictures of the celebrants on the streets of Gaza. They didn’t seem enraged at all. They seemed to be calm, joyful, even serene. For them, it was just a nice day to be alive.
The banality of evil, indeed.