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Benjamin Birely
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Fear and loathing at Damascus Gate

When the teen bullies at the Flag March saw me filming them, they surrounded me and cursed me out, never mind that we all wore the same kippot on our heads
Fear and loathing at Damascus Gate. (courtesy)

Jerusalem Day has probably given me the most disturbing glimpses into the dark realities of hatred and incitement in Israel.

(courtesy)

For the second year in the row, I’ve witnessed pockets of young religious Israeli boys and teens (sometimes young men as well) in the march chanting “Death to Arabs,” “May your village burn,” “A Jew is a neshama and an Arab is a ben zonah” (i.e., a Jew is a soul and an Arab is a son of a b****), along with other hateful slogans, outside of Arab homes in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Sometimes, they’ll also bang on the Arabs’ gates, doors, and windows, or throw plastic bottles (last year, I witnessed a few glass bottles being thrown as well).

These boys and teens do not represent the Flag March as a whole, and the vast majority of participants in the Flag March every year are peaceful and blissfully unaware of the darker elements of it.

And that is the problem. Good, decent people — especially rabbis and educators — are unaware, or choosing to remain silent.

Significant segments of the religious world in Israel have been corrupted and perverted by racist, hateful, and mean-spirited sentiments that regularly go unchecked. It is not the majority, but it’s more than enough for people to be able to realize there is a problem.

Last year, at the New Gate, I watched a violent mob of young guys in kippot surround and throw plastic bottles, sticks, and other objects at an Arab family’s car, while chanting anti-Arab slogans. The mother of the family and her toddler were stuck in the back seat of the car and the police had to intervene so that the husband could retrieve them.

Naively, I started arguing with some of the religious teens and young men who had thrown plastic bottles and chanted racist slogans. I thought I could use a dati/frum (religious) angle to at least shame them

“There was a mother and child in the car! Bottles and sticks are being thrown. This could have endangered that child’s life.”

One responded: “But it was an Arab child, who cares?”

Arguing with them was a waste of time and only escalated to insults.

This year, I was filming a group of religious boys and teens — some of them wearing t-shirts from their religious schools — at the entrance of an Arab home near Damascus Gate . They were banging on the entrance and cursing at the Arabs on the second floor.

I didn’t intervene this time. Arguing didn’t get me anywhere last year. Instead, I stood on the other side of the street and filmed on my phone.

Once they noticed me filming, within 30 seconds, I was surrounded by a dozen boys and teens.

“Lefist!”
“Delete it now!”
“Traitor!”
“Give us your phone!”
Ben zona!”

Wearing a kippa and tzitzit, nothing about me was out of their ordinary. They had no idea who I was, what my views are, or why I was filming. At that point, I hadn’t said a word. But in true mob-mentality fashion, once one boy said “He’s a leftist!” they all decided I was the enemy.

“Wh*re!”
“Shame on you!”
“You’re a shame to the Jewish people!”
Ya efes (i.e., loser)!”

The crowd grew, and within minutes, around 20 young teens encircled me. Other boys and teens passing by — without knowing what was happening! — jumped in and joined the chorus, apparently without thinking.

“Take off your kippa!”
“Piece of s***”.
“Your mother is a wh*re!”

If the police hadn’t been there and hadn’t stood in front of me at one point, I’m sure they would have taken or broken my phone.

Stupidly, I repeated last year’s mistake. I got worked up and tried arguing with them.

“You’re cursing a random stranger and a religious Jew for no reason.” I tried to convince them. “This is baseless hatred, this is insanity, this is not Jewish, where are your parents, teachers, and rabbis? This is Torah? This is Judaism?” I yelled back. “I’m just filming, I’m probably your parents’ age; this is unacceptable behavior,” I insisted.

(courtesy)

It all fell on deaf ears. They’d already decided I was as an enemy and that was enough for them, and for other teens passing by, to jump on the bandwagon.

A few smarter ones realized what was happening and tried to stop their friends. “He’s one of us! He’s Jewish! He’s not against us! Don’t touch him.” That didn’t convince the majority.

Normative, religious adults passing by would stop for a moment, listen and walk on. Going back over my footage of the incident, I’m surprised at how many. As if they’re wholly apathetic or desensitized to this kind of behavior.

Only after about 25 minutes of this, one elderly religious man jumped in.

“What happened to you all? Are you all crazy? This is a misunderstanding!” he tried convincing them. “He’s a Jew! Look at him! A Jew! One of our own!”

(courtesy)

They seemed to take him more seriously and slowly began to disperse.

After what felt like an eternity of crazy-adolescent-hateful-insanity, I walked toward the Damascus Gate — disturbed and exhausted — and asked one of the high-ranking police officers standing there where I could find whoever was in charge of the area, where could I find the right person to turn to if I wanted to, etc.

He shrugged and just pointed up — to the sky — and said, “L’ma’alah,” up there.

About the Author
Benjamin made aliyah in 2011 and lives in Jerusalem. Over the past decade he served as a lone soldier, completed a B.A. and M.A. in Ancient History at Tel Aviv University, and worked in Israel's tech industry. He will begin his PhD in Fall 2024. See his account HolyLandSpeaks on TikTok and Instagram.
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