The deeply upsetting news from Israel this week that several Jewish extremists are being held in connection with the murder of a Palestinian teenager should not be as shocking as it has been for many, particularly in this country.
For years now there have been very small but dangerously extremist Jewish groups in Israel preaching, and at times carrying out, threats against the Palestinian population. Some were known as The Hilltop Youth, living in isolated Jewish communities in the West Bank and increasingly confrontational with the Israeli army and security forces as well. These and other young people have been associated with “price tag” acts, ranging from racist graffiti to vandalism to violent encounters in retribution for Palestinian — or IDF — acts against the settlements. Some attribute this sense of alienation among young people to the fact that their rabbis preached that the Israeli pullout of Gaza in 2005 would never happen. Disillusioned, they have acted out against the army as well as against Palestinians.
In addition, there have been accusations that Israel’s Border Police are a particularly thuggish group, handling demonstrations with an iron hand. Now, with footage of a teenage American Palestinian cousin of the murdered boy being beaten severely by Israeli policemen, the issue of excessive force is there for all the world to see.
To be clear: we are not equating the behavior of Israeli Jews to that of their Palestinian neighbors. Far from it. As Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear in his remarks on Sunday, the Jewish reaction to the murder of the Palestinian teen was one of revulsion and embarrassment. Statements condemning the act in the harshest terms were immediate, heartfelt and outspoken. This is not the Jewish way — that message rang out from Jerusalem and was echoed among countless Jewish organizations and rabbis around the world with passion and eloquence.
Where large numbers of Arab officials and religious leaders continue to preach hatred of Jews and praise and celebrate violent acts, even against Jewish civilians, including children, Jews mourn the deaths of all innocents.
But not all Jews, we were reminded this week.
And the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, burned alive after being whisked away from his neighborhood, is cause for deep and honest self-reflection. “We need to face up to the fact that our ongoing rule over Palestinians, apart from endangering Israel as a Jewish democracy, is corroding us, blackening our hearts,” wrote The Times of Israel editor David Horovitz in an essay called “A Sobering Moment For Complacent Israel.”
In the Orthodox community, Rabbi Binyamin (Benny) Lau, a widely respected voice of tolerance, this week was planning to organize a day of prayer and fasting on Friday at his Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem. He told us his goal was to have rabbis from the settlements among those participating in an effort to help “break the division between right and left.” (See Editor’s column, page 7.)
Next Tuesday is the Fast of Tammuz, which marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, an annual period of sober reflection in the Jewish calendar, culminating with Tisha b’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in ancient times. But Rabbi Lau said the urgency of the situation could not wait to combine a service marking the death of the Palestinian boy with the Fast of Tammuz.
It is that sense of immediacy that should shake us out of our self-satisfaction. As editor Horovitz noted: “They started it? They’re worse. They all hate us? Well, maybe they did, and maybe they are, and maybe they do. But those arguments don’t help us. Those are not arguments that are going to save our society.”