Two weeks ago, we observed Israel’s Independence Day, with its reminder that after thousands of years the Jewish people now enjoy national sovereignty. I myself, a member of the second-generation of Holocaust survivors, have always held a deeply Jewish distrust of human nature. Therefore, for me and others like me, the existence of a state in which I am free to choose how to live out my Jewishness is a gift beyond comprehension.
Next week, Independence Day will be followed by Jerusalem Day, which celebrates the extension of Jewish rule over the entire city, and symbolizes for us the climax of Jewish sovereignty and the fulfillment of our ancestors’ dreams.
At the same time, Jewish sovereignty entails a heavy responsibility for the Jewish communities of Israel. My power to determine my own destiny now includes control over another population with whom our lives are now entwined, most intricately with Palestinians, for whom our sovereignty only serves to highlight the lack of freedom in their own lives.
My personal identity was forged within Israel’s Hasidic community, a culture formed through sacred tales passed from generation to generation. Some of these stories deal with the problematic relationship between East European Jewish minorities and the sovereign Christian majority. They tell of Christmas and Easter, when members of the Jewish community dared not leave their homes for fear of gangs of Christian youths marching in the streets, cursing and beating any Jew who crossed their path.
Such attacks might occur once or twice a year; the Jewish community otherwise lived quietly with their Christian neighbors and even conducted normal business with them. Still, the Hasidim believed in their hearts that those annual days of violent “carnival” were indications of the true attitudes of Gentiles toward Jews.
Thousands of members of the religious Zionist movements have marched through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City on Jerusalem Day in recent years. The object of these marches is to emphasize Jewish sovereignty and remind the Palestinian minority not only who holds the power, but — just as importantly — who is powerless. Scores of these Zionist marchers go farther and chant, in the name of Judaism, fragments of biblical verses mixed with denigrating applications of those verses to Muslims in particular and Palestinians in general.
“The mosque will be burned, the Temple will be built!” is often heard, and “Avenge me against the Philistines for the loss of my eyes!” (from the Samson narrative, applied here to revenge against modern Palestinians), and also repeated chants of “Muhammad is dead!” In addition to these slogans, the Jewish marchers evoke religious emotions to enflame their zeal and vandalize Palestinian property along the way.
On Jerusalem Day, Palestinian residents of the Old City, like my Hasidic ancestors in the European ghettos, are forcibly confined to their houses until the enraged mob outside has passed by. In their hearts, they perceive that this day demonstrates the “truth” about what sovereign Jews think of them, as Palestinians and as Muslims. The fact that a small minority of Jews march like this through the Muslim Quarter makes no difference, because the Jewish sovereign majority enables this violent behavior by not raising any objection.
When I decided to leave the Hasidic community and join the Israeli army, I promised myself that my personal Hasidic narrative would change. Never would I hide myself in my house and keep silent while Jews were being harmed. It is this promise that makes me grateful, every day, for having a Jewish state of my own.
By the same token, a voice within me must cry out: Why is it that neither I nor my fellow Jewish residents of Jerusalem lift a finger to protect our Muslim neighbors from the same powerless narrative we ourselves once suffered? Year after year, we Jews who claim moral sovereignty in Jerusalem, allow a “carnival” of violence against Muslims to erupt unchecked. How, then, can we expect these same Muslims to work with us toward a different and better future?
Recently, my colleague Rabbi Noa Sattath and I have been approaching countless organizations and Knesset members. Our goal has been to form a coalition of Jews and others concerned for both culture and religion in our society and to create a non-violent presence in the Muslim Quarter on Jerusalem Day that rejects the violence of the marching mobs.
My ancestors in the Jewish ghettos of Europe might have hoped for something like this from their Christian neighbors who had not joined the yearly marches of destruction. Sadly, however, the silent Christian majority did not lift a finger to create a new Christian narrative by protecting persecuted Jews.
The same thing is happening today, but in reverse. Regrettably, our conversations have been fruitless, largely because of the authorities’ fear that the young religious Zionist Jerusalem Day marchers will harm anyone who stands in their way. And we heard even more cynical responses to our idea. One official said: “So what if the Arabs suffer for one day in the year? We have bigger problems!”
The violent Jewish triumphalism of the annual Jerusalem Day March demonstrates that Jewish sovereignty can apparently only be sustained through the erasure of the “other.” The silence of the Jewish society of Israel in the face of this attack on Islam and on Palestinians teaches us, that rather than internalizing the moral obligations revealed to us in the Sages’ tales about Gentiles persecuting Jews, we have merely exchanged roles.