My great grandfather, Zaide Nahum, was murdered when I was 14 years old. He was 98 at the time, living independently in an apartment in Brooklyn. Although one of my brothers carries his name, I have few memories of him, a white haired man with glasses, who hosted an annual family get together on Chanukah, where young cousins gathered and ate latkes and played dreidel.
But there is one image of my great grandfather that has stayed with me all my life, even though I never saw it. When the police found him, he was bound in his bed with his tefillin. It was not clear if it was an expression of anti-Semitism or simply a matter of convenience, but those black leather straps bound a 98 year old man who the police said had put up a fight. And that made the crime all the more horrific. By virtue of that fact, the murder of an old man in a robbery in Brooklyn made it into a little box in the New York Times and there was an item about his funeral on the television news.
The images of murdered Jews wrapped in prayer shawls and wearing tefillin that we so did not want to see yesterday could not be avoided. Social media was awash in crimson and heated debate. “Take the photos down! It’s disrespectful to the dead and a violation of human dignity.” “Please share! Let the world bear witness and be outraged by the barbarism.” If you did not see the victims themselves, you saw the blood-splattered prayer books, prayer shawls, and bookshelves, the pools of blood crying out from the cold stone floors.
Why were the graphic images distributed so widely this time?
For starters, they were made available by the Prime Minister’s Office. The Government Press Office dispatched a photographer to the scene, and the national communications headquarters, which deemed this event to be exceptional, allowed the photographs to be disseminated. In the face of foreign media reports that did not distinguish between terrorists and victims, and spoke of “six killed” in a Jerusalem shooting, the Jewish public was happy to set the record straight as to what exactly had happened at what CNN mistakenly called a Jerusalem mosque. After the images from Gaza this past summer, with heavy hearts, they seized the opportunity to shake the world with graphic images of their own.
The images also conjured up other images from dark days in our history: Jewish men wearing tefillin on hands raised in surrender. A Jew in tallit and tefillin standing in a town square waiting to be murdered. A Jew in a prayer shawl and phylacteries being forced to clean the streets. Images that we swore would never repeat themselves after the founding of the sovereign Jewish homeland. Images that rattle us to our very core.
But there is a much deeper reason. The murderers violated a synagogue. They violated a sacred space of prayer. They stormed a house of worship just as the congregants were reaching the end of the silent Amida, calling on God to grant peace, goodness, and blessing to all of Israel. They raised axes against people wrapped in prayer, whose arms were bound in devotion to God. They struck down men adorned with symbols of their commitment to righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy, felling fathers and grandfathers who had betrothed themselves in faithfulness. And that made this murder all the more horrific.
It must be said: Some places are simply out of bounds, even in this unholy war. An attack on a house of worship is an attack on all houses of worship. Jews praying the Amida in a synagogue should never be a target; the Muslims praying the Fajr at the Tomb of the Patriarchs 20 years ago should have been able to return to their homes in peace. Do not violate our sanctuaries, wherever in the world they may be, for that is where we, like the moderates among you, remind ourselves of values that are universal and noble and holy. An attack on our God is an attack on your own.
A sanctuary must remain a sanctuary.