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Everything and Nothing Has Changed

Just one year ago this week, Israel began Operation Shomer Homot (Guardian of the Walls). Early last May, violence broke out in Jerusalem over potential evictions of Palestinians from homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Then violence broke out on the Temple Mount. The long-running dispute over property ownership in Sheikh Jarrah is considered a microcosm of the Israeli–Palestinian disputes over land since 1948. But, of course, this is much more than a real-estate dispute. This is about identity, power, and ideology.

As the violence escalated in Jerusalem, Hamas got involved and began firing rockets into Israel.

As the attacks and retaliations ensued, violence broke out in Israel’s “mixed cities.” By May 13th, exactly one year ago today, communal violence including riots, stabbings, arson, attempted home invasions, and shootings were reported in cities across the country including in Beersheba, Rahat, Ramla, Lod, Bat Yam, Nahariyah, Tiberias, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Acco. In the course of the riots, Arab rioters set 10 synagogues and 112 Jewish homes on fire, looted 386 Jewish homes and damaged another 673, and set 849 Jewish cars on fire. There were also 5,018 recorded instances of stone-throwing against Jews. By contrast, Jewish rioters damaged 13 Arab homes and set 13 Arab cars on fire, and there were 41 recorded instances of stone-throwing against Arabs. One Arab home was set on fire by Arab rioters who mistook it for a Jewish home.

The violence that manifested inside Israel broke a longstanding societal norm of sometimes tense, but generally quiet relationships. Deep societal divisions overflowed into the public sphere prompting ‘I told you so’ reactions from some, and simple shock from many in Israel’s mainstream.

The world put Israel/Palestine under a microscope and the discourse around this round of violence turned into an ugly slugfest across the internet, breaking barriers and boundaries. People who had never before expressed interest in Israel or the Middle East were sharing memes and slogans, and the lines between criticism of policy and hatred of Israel quickly blurred. Many were left hapless and confused, and more and more fuel was thrown on the fire to call for an end to the State of Israel.

What has changed in a year?

In reflecting a year later, what, if anything, has changed?

Everything and nothing.

  1. Nothing:

According to the IDF, the purpose of Operation Guardian of the Walls was to restore security and ensure the safety of Israel and its civilians.

While the Operation ended the violence for the moment, everyone knows that Hamas could strike out again.

Last week, Hamas’ Gazan leader, Yehiye Sinwar, gave an impassioned speech in which he called for Palestinians to take up butcher knives and axes to attack the infidel enemy. Coincidentally or not, a few days later at the end of Yom Haatzmaut, 3 Jews were murdered by an ax-wielding terrorist in the city of Elad after a month-long string of attacks killing 19 Israelis.

In case you’re not up on the reputation of current Hamas leader Sinwar, he is, to quote Golda Meir, “not a nice guy.” Channel 12’s crack Arab affairs reporter Ohad Hemo described him as having megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur, and genuinely believing his own messianic fundamentalist religious rhetoric. He is known for personally killing 22 Palestinians accused (but not proven guilty) of being collaborators with Israel. He carries the reputation of being a brutal and ruthless inquisitor – waging holy war against everything that isn’t Islam (pornography, alcohol, immodesty, etc.) – and the relentless punisher of anyone who conveys even a hint of collaboration with Israel. A veteran of Israel’s prison system, where he rose to the ranks of senior Hamas leadership, Sinwar is not looking to return to negotiations with Israel.

News interviews on the Palestinian street indicate that Hamas is king and Sinwar is the supreme ruler. Many interviewed see Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas as a stooge of Israel and an ineffective octogenarian without a succession plan who is holding the West Bank together with chewing gum and scotch tape. His own party is split between his loyalists and those who follow former Fatah chief and an ex-PA security minister Muhammad Dahlan, currently exiled in the UAE. With Palestinian elections canceled just prior to last year’s violence, there does not seem to be a lot of room for optimism here.

The situation is extremely volatile. Having passed the tense days of Ramadan on the Temple Mount, we are still facing reactions to the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. We still have to get through Land Day (aka Nakba Day) on May 15th and Yom Yerushalayim on May 29th – both of which are known to cause clashes. Any spark has the potential to be a match in a tinderbox, because, hey, it’s the Middle East.

  1. Everything Has Changed. (h/t Taylor Swift)

Last year, in a matter of days since the end of the violence and a cease-fire, Israel elected a new President, formed the most unprecedented governing coalition ever (which, as of this writing, has lasted more rounds in the ring than most expected), and has achieved increased diplomatic successes in the region hosting a Negev summit with the Gulf States.

The Islamic party Ra’am and its leader Mansour Abbas have now doubled down on their commitment to remain in the Bennett-Lapid coalition, also unprecedented, and work is being done to restore relationships through Israel’s mixed cities.

Here, on the other side of the pond, the polarization continues, as Rabbi Donniel Hartman pointed out, “One of the strange paradoxes is that as Israel becomes a major player in the international community, more people are questioning or denying its basic legitimacy.”

Amnesty International’s report calling Israel an Apartheid state has successfully inculcated this highly problematic term into the mainstream lexicon of the far left-wing, and we have even seen young people calling for “Israeli actions of Apartheid to be more integral to our Reform summer camp curriculum”(!).

A year later, the North American scene, driven by social media and progressive politics is divided around how we see these looming questions and how we approach factual events on the ground.

Dr. Rachel Fisch, writing in the Sapir Journal, summed it up nicely:

“…the crucial postmodern contribution to the attack on Israel is its insistence that what is at stake in the search for truth is not actually truth, but merely competing narratives that — in theory, at least — are all equally valid. It follows that those who insist on the value of seeking objective truth based on provable facts are to be regarded as merely pushing their favored narrative — a narrative that inevitably favors the strong over the weak, the wealthy over the poor, and the West over the rest. …

…It, therefore, becomes the moral obligation of the intellectual to wield the new narrative as a weapon to strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. Suddenly, it turns out, as Orwell would have put it, that all narratives are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

As we look inward to the place of Israel in the North American Jewish community, we remain faithful to our commitments: justice, truth, equality, and Israel as a Jewish and democratic State – and that those values are not a contradiction.  More on this next week, as we examine American Zionism as part of Jewish American heritage month.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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