Some events stay in your mind for a long time, they monopolize your thoughts as you try to make sense of what you saw, what you experienced. It may be quite difficult to rationalize when two events that present obvious similarities can be so different in their intent, their unfolding, and their meaning.
Zichron Yaakov, August 9, 2023
On that beautiful Wednesday, my wife Annie and I, on our way to a wedding up north stopped in Zichron Yaakov, one of Israel’s cutest villages, for coffee. Walking from the parking lot to the town center, we passed by the Ohel Yaakov Synagogue, justifiably called “one of the most beautiful Synagogues in Israel”.
Zichron Yaakov was founded in 1882 on a land legally purchased, then the synagogue was built in 1886 by Baron Rothschild who named it after his father. Zichron Yaakov is not just a nice place for tourists to visit, and the Ohel Yaakov Synagogue is more than a beautiful place of worship, they are vibrant embodiments of the Zionist dream, of the “two-thousand-year hope to be a free people in our land”.
Let us go back to that Wednesday August 9th.
As we approached the Synagogue, we saw a protest, a march as they called it. It was indeed hard to miss. Across the street from the Synagogue were approximately 20 to 30 men, women, and children, several of them with powerful megaphones. They were holding a number of Israeli flags. But the largest flag, the one that was held prominently at the front of this group had the colors of the rainbow. The noise was deafening, the slogans impossible to decipher, the shouting went on non-stop.
The protesters did not stay in place, over and over they acted as if they wanted to cross the street and storm the Synagogue. In fact, some of them repeatedly planted themselves in the middle of that busy street in aggressive postures.
Fortunately, a small groups of Border Police officers, carrying automatic rifles, were standing guard in front of the Synagogue. They must have felt threatened because later we saw another group of the same unit also carrying weapons hurrying to support their colleagues.
Scattered religious families with strollers and small children, men wearing knitted yarmulkas, were looking at this scene with incredulity. Indeed, it was very difficult to make sense of what was happening:
Jewish soldiers in arms were defending a Synagogue against other Jews who seemingly wanted to enter it by force and with a hostile attitude.
We could not believe what we saw. This was way beyond gratuitous hatred (שנאת חינם), it showed total contempt for everything religious, a complete denial of Jewish history, and a reneging of the Zionist project.
Who were these people full of hate, so sure of themselves and still so confused in their message? There was no way to know what they were trying to convey. How could they plant themselves underneath the Israeli Flag and still try to do harm to a Synagogue? There were rumors that this may have been in relation to the Judicial Reform protest movement, there was so much noise and confusion, It was impossible to know for sure.
Indeed, the symbolism was heavy and left many people, us included, with a lasting negative feeling: how can Jews behave like this, how can they position themselves in aggressive postures in front of a historical Synagogue, so much so that armed soldiers were required to protect this holy building?
There are no excuses. No cause can justify this behavior, Jews against Jews, Jews against a Jewish house of worship.
Hebron, August 14, 2023
On that beautiful Monday, 5 days only after the dreadful events of Zichron Yaakov, Annie and I participated in the Hebron Day Celebration, a yearly event masterfully coordinated by the “Israel is Forever” organization. This was a French speaking event specifically targeted at French speaking Israelis, new immigrants, and soon-to-be new immigrants from France. Well over a thousand people came from all major cities in Israel to participate.
This was not a protest, this was a march, but not only. It was an educational event punctuated by speeches and conferences by government officials, Knesset members and others, and animated by very enthusiastic, very knowledgeable historians such a Nili Kupfer and Haim Berkovitch among others.
Over a thousand participants marched for 45 minutes under an unforgiving sun in the streets of Hebron, carrying countless Israeli flags. There were megaphones of course, how else can you address such a large crowd? But no shouting, no anger, no aggression. Just an immense feeling of pride to be among Jews celebrating our history, our heritage, our culture.
We visited a house of study and worship, the Shavei Hevron Yeshiva. Unlike the protesters in Zichron Yaakov, we did not show aggressive posturing, we did not try to storm it. We went in with respect and order and with all the deference owed to such an institution. The same behavior presided over the later visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Of course, that event was set up to deliver a message. And the organizers did that clearly and effectively: we were all there to affirm our attachment to Hebron as the burial place of our patriarchs, a place that was dutifully purchased and that therefore has belonged to the Jewish people for thousands of years, a place that has continuously harbored a Jewish presence since that time, a place repeatedly mentioned in our most ancient and revered scriptures. We were there also, by extension, to affirm our attachment to many other Jewish holy places, villages, and territories. We were there finally to show our support to the families, individuals, and institutions that maintain and bolster the Jewish presence in Hebron, Kyriat Arba and many other such places in Judea and Samaria.
There was also a number of police and border patrol officers clearly visible throughout the day. But, whereas in Zichron Yaakov they were there to protect Jews and Jewish sacred places against threat from other Jews, and in the process were the recipients of copious verbal abuse, the situation in Hebron throughout that day was drastically different. The armed forces were there in Hebron to prevent terrorist actions, presumably by arabs. In fact, it was very heartwarming to see throughout the day, but especially at the conclusion of the event, the large number of participants that came in person to thank the police and border patrol officers for their service, their protection, and their kindness.
What a difference five days make!
I would have loved to be able to say that the events of Hebron Day made me forget the negative feeling I harbored after that day in Zichron Yaakov. Unfortunately, it is not the case. I am not about to forget the hatred I saw and heard that day. I am not even close to understand how Israeli Jews can exhibit so much negativity for everything religious. I am not ready to accept their rejection of Zionism and of our two-thousand-year dream to return to Zion.
Just five short days later, I loved being in Hebron with one thousand people of similar thoughts, of nearly identical values, and of complementary and compatible cultures. I realized that day that the Zionist project is well and alive through people like us and with the help of G.d will be even more vivid in the lives of our children.
I hope and pray that we can someday soon find the common ground that will let all Jews (including the marchers of Zichron Yaakov and the marchers of Hebron) live in peace, friendship, mutual respect, and common prosperity in the land of Israel as one indivisible Jewish nation with the umbrella of our common heritage, history, tradition, and beliefs as our eternal protection.