‘Do You Know How Much Tension There Is?’
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‘Do You Know How Much Tension There Is?’

In wake of shul murders, fear is palpable in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem — Mourning notices for the “four martyrs” and posters urging tzedakah for their families adorned the hallway of the ultra-Orthodox Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in the Har Hof neighborhood here.

Synagogue regulars pointed to a seemingly innocuous chip in the lacquered wood inside the doorway of the synagogue’s chapel and study room — a scar from the massacre last week when two Palestinians burst into the Shaharit morning prayer service with weapons that included a machine gun and a meat cleaver. A bullet hole was also visible in the glass of the entryway, while smashed-in doors signaled where the Israeli police had searched for more terrorists.

People in the synagogue were accustomed to such attacks happening in the West Bank, but not in Har Nof, a charedi neighborhood with a high number of English-speaking immigrants safely tucked into the western outskirts of Jerusalem. They were used to attacks on soldiers, not on synagogues.

“You can imagine what is going on — people are having a hard time,” said Binyamin Cohen, a synagogue gabbai (ritual assistant) who said he was seconds away from arriving at the shul when the Nov. 18 attack began. “Of all the terror attacks we’ve had before, there’s been nothing like this.”

That seemed to reflect the predominant sentiment as Israelis struggled to adjust to the images of worshippers wrapped in tallit and tefillin lying in a pool of blood. It was as if the anti-Jewish pogroms of 19th century Europe and pre-state Palestine had been resurrected in heart of Israel’s modern-day capital.

The sharp escalation of what many consider an intifada among Jerusalem’s Palestinians has ratcheted up pressure on Israel’s government for a response. There is a sense of fright among the general public, as well as a rise in anti-Arab sentiment criticized by pols and social commentators as racist.

Parents have appealed for stepped-up security at kindergartens while security forces have set up roadblocks at the exits of Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and extra police have been deployed to central Jerusalem. Gun retailers note a spike in sales as the government eases regulations to make it easier for people to purchase firearms.

“I was afraid to come to work today,” said Oshrat Shriki, who works at a souvenir shop in the recently renovated train terminal near the Germany Colony. “After 5 in the afternoon, I don’t leave my house.”

Shriki said that droves of Israeli groups have cancelled Segway tours of the city organized through his shop. Yuval Statman, a tour guide who finds himself with no work, said that the fear in the city is palpable on the streets.

“Do you know how much tension there is in the city?” he said. “I was out with a group on Jaffa Street — suddenly, the police drove by and the entire street froze.”

Indeed, shop owners on Jaffa Street reported ramped-up police patrols. The same could be said at the old train station. The city had already beefed up security at light rail stations, the site of several terrorist attacks by Palestinians ramming cars into Israelis.

At Kehilat Bnei Torah in Har Nof, there was no trace of increased security. And unlike many other Jerusalemites, the regulars at the synagogue say they aren’t clamoring for more police officers.

“Nobody assumed that this place was dangerous. Everybody can’t take their own security guards. That’s no way to live,” said Cohen, the gabbai. The members of the synagogue believe there was some Divine hand behind who fell victim to the terrorists and who escaped. “We don’t know why. God was there. He said this one and that one. It was clear cut he wanted to take certain people for an offering; to atone for the entire Jewish community.”

On the day after the attack, many Palestinian employees claimed they had been dismissed from jobs in Jerusalem by Jewish employers because of the fear. Despite the gaps between Palestinian and Israeli neighborhoods, Arabs are the backbone of the local workforce as drivers, restaurant and construction workers and doctors. Some Israelis fear that a strike or a ban on Palestinian employees would interrupt services throughout the city.

“The two sides need each other,” said Eliezer Yaari, a retired Israeli journalist and former leader of the dovish New Israel Fund who has spent the last two years compiling narratives of Palestinians who live in the Sur Baher neighborhood. Yaari said that despite the disparity in living conditions, Israelis and Palestinians in the city have a symbiotic relationship. He believes that ties could ultimately be leveraged for peace, but that’s not the way things are moving.

“In the last few days the border has been closed,” he said in a television interview. “It’s amazing how quickly they’ve divided the city.”

The sense of panic has spread beyond Jerusalem and has inspired anti-Arab actions followed by criticism that the moves are racist and prejudiced. Political figures such as the mayor of Ashkelon have tried to impose bans on Arab workers employed at public kindergartens, triggering a howl of condemnation by Israeli cabinet ministers both from the left and right. But many residents of Ashkelon expressed hearty support; a poll of Israelis found that 58 percent there support such a ban, according to Israel’s Channel 10.

This week, Israeli pop singer Amir Benayoun stirred a controversy when he posted a song on Sunday to his Facebook page about the smiling university student “Ahmed” from Jerusalem who secretly fantasizes about stabbing Jews; and a second version of “Ahmed” who works near kindergartens. Benayoun told the Israel Army radio station that the song had been inspired by terrorist attacks committed by Palestinians who work in Jewish neighborhoods. The song, which got 64,000 views and nearly 3,000 likes, prompted Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to cancel a scheduled performance by Benayoun at the presidential residence. Hebrew University law professor Mordechai Kremitzer, a deputy president of the Israel Democracy Institute, called the song a disgraceful piece of incitement.

Many Jerusalemites are comparing the sense of insecurity to the peak of the second intifada in 2002, when attacks were common.

Despite the fact that the current wave of violence is much less fatal, and perhaps less organized, than the second intifada, the prevalence of “lone wolf” attacks by individuals is stirring just as much anxiety.

“It’s more terrorizing for the average Israeli. … We are talking about a different kind of threat. It’s people walking off the street,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “In a society under attack,” he said, “it’s not trivial to maintain liberal values.”

Unlike Israelis on the right or left who have focused on the killing to press the government for a particular remedy — whether through a return to peace talks or a crackdown — the synagogue members in Har Hof say they don’t want to wade into politics or national security.

“There’s no discussion of that whatsoever. … People here are not used to giving advice to security experts,” said Yonatan Shperling, a yeshiva student who commutes daily from a neighborhood near Palestinian districts in northern Jerusalem — despite the rising violence that’s spread deep into Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods.

“The more the level of beastliness rises, the more people are strengthened because they understand God is pushing us into a corner more than before. Before there is redemption,” Shperling concluded, “the belief is that God has a period of settling accounts to speed it up.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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