Shayna Abramson
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Jerusalem, Saturday night

A mixed Jewish-Arab memorial vigil for the Henkins turned into an ugly confrontation with Lehava activists

When I got the Facebook invite to attend a memorial evening for Eitam and Naama Henkin at Kikar Tzion in downtown Jerusalem on Saturday, sponsored by a group called Dialogue in the Square, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The event description offered no political orientation I could see; its purpose was “to sing and to study and to talk and to be close, to honor the memory of Naama and Rabbi Eitam”. That sounded like a worthy purpose, so I decided to go. I also felt that as someone who is slightly-left-of-center, who had gone to a protest against the murders of Mohammad Dawabsha and Shira Banki, if I didn’t go to a memorial for the Henkins, I would be guilty of the accusation of left-wing hypocrisy, which posits that left-wing people only come out when the tragedy suits their political needs, or when the victim is an Arab.

I got to Kikar Tzion fifteen minutes late – in other words, Israeli on-time. There were only two other people there, but soon more people joined. We lit memorial candles in honor of the Henkins, as well as in honor of the two newest victims of terror – Jews who had been killed in the Old City earlier that evening. We were joined by an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, who had written a Facebook status expressing mourning over the terror attack against the Henkins. I’ve long complained that there aren’t enough chances in Israel for Jews and Arabs to talk (other than micro-interactions, like shopping at the same supermarket and smiling at each other’s babies while you wait in line – which is worth something, at least), so I was happy she had joined us. I was also touched that she had come all the way from Nazareth.

People stopped and asked what was happening. We explained and invited people to join. Most walked away; some expressed hostility. One woman yelled that she was from the settlement of Adam, and shouldn’t have to worry about her kids being killed on the highway, and that it was nice that one Arab had come out against Friday’s terrorist attack, but where were the others, and there could only be peace when Arabs understood that Israel is a Jewish country. Our Israeli Arab participant (I’m not using any names because I have not received permission to do so, and this is a public post) took it in with equanimity, replying that she agreed that no one should have to worry about her kid being killed while the family is driving, and saying she would have gone to visit the grieving Jewish family, but was afraid for her safety if she did so. Despite the yelling, the moment ended in a hug between a Jewish settler and an Arab. That seemed like a positive sign.

I’m not really sure when things turned violent; I suppose it began when people from the Lehava protest a few minutes’ walk away started coming over to shout mean things at us, but actually, it’s only once the rally broke up that I began to feel threatened, as the people who opposed our presence began forming a circle around us. One of them trod on the memorial candles, getting wax on my leg. One of them yelled at me to take off my head-covering and at my husband to take off his kippah. They told us we should be ashamed that we’re pretending to be religious, yet we sit with an Arab woman – how could we sit with an Arab when Jews had just been killed? We tried explaining, that this was actually a memorial for the Jews who were killed, but then people asked, “then what’s she doing here?” pointing to the one hijab-clad face. We said she’s mourning with us, but people didn’t believe us, or maybe just didn’t care.

The yelling grew louder: People were chanting racist slogans, and also yelling at us that we’re traitors and not really Jews. One person yelled at me that he hopes I die in a terror attack, and that my kids are orphans. I asked how he could say that to a Jew. He repeated his words. I told him I wished him peace and happiness. He yelled at me some more. He said that he’s not religious, but at least he has values. I couldn’t take it anymore; I replied and said, “I have values too – religious values.”

As people tried to enter the circle to break us up by force, and started throwing things at us, the military police put up barricades around us. But that didn’t stop the spit from getting through. (I really hope none of the people who spit on me had terrible communicable diseases.) One person threw a cold raspberry beverage on me. When I pointed this out to the policewoman in charge of protecting us, she said, “If you don’t want that to happen, don’t be here.” The Israeli Arab who had joined us offered me a wipe, and for a brief moment, I thought that maybe if people saw her helping me, a religious Jew, to wipe myself off, they would stop. I was wrong.

At one point, the police also told our group’s Israeli Arab participant to move, which was met by cheers from the crowd. One person yelled, “Go back to Gaza!” When the participant replied that as a citizen, she had a right to be there, the police took her Israeli ID card and searched her bag, before giving her the card back a few minutes later. Once it became clear that the protestors were engaged in actively trying to force Arabs – and Jews who dare to sit with them – off the street, I asked myself, ““How would I feel if I a mob was protesting a Jew’s right to sit on the street?” After that, I had to stay until the end. Also, I was pretty sure that if I left, the mob would try to beat me up. The only thing standing between me and the angry fists of a hundred people was a police barricade – not that the barricade made me feel so secure. I figured that if spit, a bottle of coke, and a raspberry smoothie could get through the barricade, other things could as well, and at one point, my husband physically shielded me from something being tossed by the crowd.

Throughout this all, we continued sitting in a circle. (Occasionally someone would jump up in shock for a moment when something was thrown at them; I jumped up when someone protesting our presence stomped on a candle and kicked it directly at me.) We sang songs of peace. We spoke to each other – I got to know some people who shared my ideals, and also had the opportunity to interact with people who are different than me – different ethnicities, religions, and political views – and I believe there is value in that. There is value in people who are different talking to each other, and every time that two people strike up a connection, or say words of kindness, the world becomes a slightly better place. I would like to think that just by being there tonight, by talking to each other, those of us in the circle increased the amount of light in this world, and I would like to think that in doing so, we have honored the memory of those who were killed in the darkness of hate.

At the end of the evening, the Israeli military police escorted us beyond the crowd’s reach. They formed a human chain around us, and I was thankful to live in a place where at least we get police protection. I thanked the two policewomen nearest me; they just gave me dirty looks. Once we’d made it to safety, we dispersed. But as I sit here, thanking God that I made it home safely, I wonder: How can it be, that Jews are almost beaten up by other Jews (who are there to mourn the death of Jews) simply because they will sit next to an Arab (who is also there to mourn the death of Jews)? What has our country come to?

It’s time for those of us who believe in liberal Zionism to come together, to shout tolerance from the rooftops, because I’m afraid that our dream is being drowned out by the others’ shouting. By liberal, I don’t mean policies about the West Bank or economics – by liberal, I mean people who believe in a Jewish, democratic state that protects freedom of expression, and the rights of all of its citizens, whether Jews or Arabs. What we need is not for the left-wing to come out (and yes, I admit, the left has its own issues with tolerance and hate speech that it must address) – what we need is for the right-wing to come out, to show others that believing in tolerance and being right-wing are not contradictions, and that it’s possible to support settlements and still be in favor of freedom of expression, and of equality. For the sake of Zion, we must not be silent.

May He Who Makes Peace from on High make peace upon us, and upon all of Israel, and let us say: Amen.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.