At Zion Square in Jerusalem’s downtown a group has set up memorial candles for the three kidnapped boys, now dead, buried, mourned throughout the country. A woman is leaning over, her hand reaching out to what they have created on the ground. They yell at her not to touch. “I don’t understand,” she says in a soft voice, “why death to Arabs?” Around her people laugh and in hate-hardened voices they start to yell: “Death to Arabs! Death to Arabs!” A few others in the crowd join in the laughter and chants.
Another ring of people stands around the first. Watching. Only the woman speaks out, confused: “But why death to Arabs?” Several in the inner group come right up to her, their faces up against hers, their bodies close to hers. The outer ring of observers presses in closer, as though to be ready to intervene and protect her if necessary. But still silent.
Suddenly several police appear. They surround the woman and gently but firmly escort her away from the group. “But why me? Why are they allowed to do this?” she asks in dazed voice. “I am ashamed.” The police’s low-voiced explanations as to why she is removed and the others are allowed to stay are lost in the noise around us.
My husband and I are heading to the demonstration of Tag Meir, a response to these violent calls for vengeance. The day before, at the time of the funeral of the three kidnapped boys, hundreds of Israeli Jews marched in the streets of Jerusalem with shouts for vengeance, “death to Arabs”, and “No Arabs, no terror attacks”. The next morning the 16 year old Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and killed in what seems to be a retaliatory vengeance killing.
En route to the protest we have come upon this. And yet, although Abu Khdeir’s murder suggests that the calls for “death for Arabs” are being actualized, it seems freedom of expression protects their rights to such speech. Of course, the surrounding crowd also has the freedom to express opposing views. But from the spectators who are not joining in the hateful cries there is only silence.
I too am silent. I am horrified by the harshness and the glee in their voices, their bodies, as they cry out death to Arabs. Every instinct tells me that any effort to speak up and counter their words will be drowned out by their violent shouts, or, worse, met with physical violence. Judging from the faces around me, I am probably not alone wrestling with this. But when exactly is the right time to stay silent, and when to speak out?
A few hundred meters away the demonstration of Tag Meir is taking place, and with relief we join hundreds who have gathered to speak out against the violence. A friend tells us about a news report of an Arab woman and her child who were thrown off a bus in Jerusalem that day. And of those who did not take part in kicking them off, how many opposed this and were silent? What would I do in their place? What would I and my fellow spectators do if a group of antagonists like those I just witnessed at Zion Square, with voices and bodies radiating their hatred, began to harass an Arab for being Arab, ready to spring into violence?
These are not philosophical dilemmas. They surround us, confronting us in changing shapes from moment to moment. Israel has just started summer break and earlier this same day multiple people, both Jewish and Arab, told me how they forbade their kids to leave home for fear they will be victims of the violence taking place. Arab women who choose to wear the hijab told me they stayed at home, fearing to be so obviously Arab on the streets. On my street, in a Jerusalem neighborhood which is both Jewish and Arab, dozens of police have been posted since Wednesday. An Arab colleague tells how at the supermarket the cashier poured out her wrath on her; it seems that even the laws of economics are being challenged.
In conversations I have throughout the day people – Arabs and Jews – express the wish for a normal environment in which they can live at peace both with themselves and with others.
We have choices. Jews and Arabs alike. On both sides there are factions who want violence, and factions who want to find a place of compromise with which we can all live. Whether as co-workers or cab drivers, politicians or bus drivers, we make choices every day. We can confront hatred or celebrate it. We can recognize those who have the courage to speak out against hatred, on either side, or we can condemn them as insufficient, unrepresentative or foolish. We can amplify the voices of hatred or the voices promoting genuine mutual respect and understanding. We can speak out or remain silent.
Silence is a vacuum which others will be quick to fill. Whose voice do you want to fill that void? The choice belongs to every single one of us. May we choose wisely.