On the meaning of Jewish terror

I was at the zoo in Jacksonville, Florida when I learned that sixteen year-old Shira Banki, stabbed last week at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, had succumbed to her wounds. It is almost embarrassing to admit this, to admit that the frivolous activities that make up everyday life continue in the shadow of horror, but it is the nature of our electronic age that bad news can be received anywhere. And so, in between exhibits of lions and leopards trying to stay cool in the Florida sun, my small iPhone was a window to terrifying and depressing events playing out across the world.

I felt a need to connect, to read, to hear. As even though I knew none of those impacted personally, I nonetheless felt implicated. A Jewish religious fanatic stabbed several people at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, and unknown terrorists who are clearly radical Jewish extremists, almost certainly settlers, burned down the house of a Palestinian family in Duma, injuring many and killing a sleeping baby.

Jewish terrorism is neither unheard of nor new. But it is rare, even as Palestinians have been victims of heinous “price tag” attacks in the West Bank for years, acts of vandalism, property damage and harassment, with little if any consequence for the perpetrators. Yet these two acts of Jewish terror in the same week, against both Jews and Arabs, right after Tisha Ba’av, have particular resonance. Tisha Ba’av is the holiday which commemorates tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people over the centuries but it often focuses on the destruction of the Second Temple, arguably the greatest Jewish catastrophe prior to the Holocaust. The Rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, among and between members of the Jewish community. They teach that we brought this tragedy upon ourselves by mistreating each other, for hating each other with no reason.

I never found that explanation convincing. Although there will always be random killers and criminals, those inclined to do evil, hatred directed towards another group or a lifestyle comes from somewhere. Hatred is cultivated. Hatred is learned. Hatred is nurtured. As Jews we know this well. So many people in so many parts of this world — including many who have never met a single one of us — are taught to hate us. Baseless is not the same as irrational.

And when we look at certain narrow segments of Israeli society, we must be concerned. We hear that the security services are concerned about threats on President Rivlin’s life. We hear a Knesset member say that the Israeli Supreme Court should be bulldozed for ordering the dismantling of illegal outposts. These are explicit, easy to identify, easy to criticize. But then we hear the Minister of Religious Affairs say that Reform Judaism, America’s largest denomination, is a “disaster” for Judaism and questions the Jewishness of its adherents. We hear another leading ultra-Orthodox politician say that Reform Jews “stab the Holy Torah in the back.” Notice the violence in this statement. We hear a far-right member of the Knesset call homosexuality an abomination and then repeat that assertion after the parade stabbing. This is not mere disagreement; it is a form of dehumanization.

It would be the height of irresponsibility to suggest that any of these troubling statements and behaviors in anyway led to the this recent terrorism. I am pointing no fingers at anyone other than those who are directly responsible. But it is also necessary to realize that if you dehumanize a person or group or lifestyle, some deranged individuals may take you seriously enough to act upon it. Indeed, as Jews we make this argument all the time. We rightly argue that Palestinian incitement in textbooks and schools must end so that Palestinian children can be educated in a way which promotes peace. We look at Iran’s mass rallies calling for the Death of Israel and rightly argue that this is not a society which can be trusted, even as many of those attending the rallies will never be in a position to harm a single Jew.

No society should be judged by its worst members. But a society can be judged based upon how it reacts to its worst members. These two acts of Jewish terror appear entirely unrelated but their juxtaposition calls for an overlapping response, a response which somehow accounts for them both. And so how should we react? How should Israel as a nation react? How should Jews react?

Let’s start with the question of homosexuality. The traditional Orthodox view is that homosexuality is a sin. I even saw one comment that while it was correct to condemn the stabbings at the pride parade, homosexuality should also be condemned because according to the Torah homosexuality is punishable by death. This feels like a familiar argument. When the Orthodox establishment is challenged the response is often, don’t argue with me, argue with the Torah, don’t argue with me, argue with Judaism or even God.

Except this reductionist approach is inconsistent with the breadth of Jewish practice. The entire rabbinic/halachic and subsequent tradition modified codes of behavior laid out in the Torah, such as polygamy. Famously, Moses’s wife was not an Israelite and yet his sons were. So it would appear that Moses’s approach to “who is a Jew” is more consistent with contemporary Reform Judaism, which allows for patrilineal descent, than with contemporary Orthodoxy, which does not.

The Rambam famously argued that a literal reading of the Torah could lead to idolatry. It is easy to selectively quote your favorite passage of the Torah or Talmud and then declare the debate over. It is hard to think through the tradition as a whole with all its complexity and nuance. But ultimately religious debates are not the answer because they don’t lead anywhere. Those who argue on religious grounds that homosexuality is an abomination are not going to change their minds no matter what I or anyone else says.

Rather, the fundamental response needed is a democratic one, specifically the democratic injunction towards freedom and individual rights. And it must apply not only to questions of homosexuality but also to questions of marriage and divorce, to conversion, to who can be buried in which cemetery, to questions of which outposts in the West Bank must be dismantled, to questions of society as a whole. The sine qua non of any democracy is the rule of law. A respect for and obedience to the secular laws of Israel must be an absolute and nonnegotiable requirement for any officer holder, including its official rabbis who must accept that sometimes that law will conflict with their understanding of Torah.

When Jews are victims of Arab terror we often hear questions of what the proper “Zionist response” should be. In response to this act of Jewish terror the proper Zionist response is a re-dedication to the supremacy of the rule of law and a promotion of a pluralistic ethic in the diverse society of Israel; this and not the rule of the rabbis or even the rule of God; for alternatives to the rule of law, I invite you to look across the rest of the Mid-East region.

And now we must talk about the killing of children. The killing of children has a dark echo in Jewish memory. In the Torah we find it as a perennial danger. We are reminded of the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. Here God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, only to have an angel stop Abraham at the last moment, sparing Isaac’s life. There is also the story of Joseph, where Joseph’s brothers, spiteful of their father Jacob’s favor towards to Joseph, plot to kill him but instead sell him into slavery. There is Egypt when the Israelites were slaves and where Pharaoh instructs that all Hebrew-boys must be killed. This leads to Moses being put in a basket and sent from his mother down a river to be found and saved by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Throughout history, our children have been targeted and now one or more among us kills the child of another. The killer or killers are Jewish terrorists who seem to believe they are advancing the will of God. Painted on the wall of the burnt Palestinian house it was written, “long live the King Messiah.” Would the same God who stopped Abraham from killing his own son really want to see this baby dead? Would this God want it enough to grant a reprieve for these murderers to violate the commandment, thou shalt not kill?

As I heard the statements from politicians and NGO’s, read the comments on Facebook and other social media and saw the emails sent back and forth on various listervs, two general reactions emerged. From the left, it was argued that the burning of this Palestinian child is simply another example of the wrongness which flows from Israel’s “occupation.” They argued that although this event has captured the consciousness of the Jewish community, it is not fundamentally different from the Palestinian deaths which routinely occur. On the other hand, from the right, there were condemnations, of course, but also a recognition that “we” react differently to “our” terrorists, then “they” do — we won’t name streets after them, we won’t deify them to our children in schools — rather we will arrest them and bring them to justice.

Neither response feels correct. Sadly, tragically, people die due to conflicts in the Middle East all the time — Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds, others. To use an apt cliché, it is a war torn region. But the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is, at its core, a political conflict which will require a political solution. The burning of a child while sleeping in his home is especially horrible and a failure to recognize that is to allow ideology and politics to obscure awful human truths. Some violence transcends politics. To simply say this is “another tragic death” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to misunderstand the conflict and to misunderstand the horror of this event.

For the right, it has been said, but it bears repeating, condemnations are not enough. No one should congratulate themselves for not naming a street after a terrorist. In any decent society that should be assumed behavior. The government has decided to treat Jewish terrorists as they would treat Arab terrorists and use administrative detentions and other anti-terror tools against them. That is all fine and good. But a serious and sustained crackdown of extremist violence in the West Bank must follow. There also needs to be a coming to grips with unchecked extremist elements within the ultra-nationalist community.

Demagoguery at these moments is simply too easy. It is too easy for left wing politicians and commentators to blame what happened on right-wing incitement and as another symptom of “occupation.” And it is too easy for right-wing politicians and commentators to say, see, we are going to treat Jewish terrorists just as we treat Arab terrorists, problem solved. For Jewish people more broadly, Jewish terror undermines our sense of ourselves as people who seek the moral high ground, as people who “don’t do such things.” To me, this must be how we start to comprehend these events, as something truly damaging, to our society and to ourselves.

Recent events in the Middle East — not only these acts of terrorism but the ongoing controversy over Iran’s nuclear program and even a brush fire which threatened Jerusalem — have an almost biblical feel. The stakes are that high. And so perhaps we should return to the Bible for answers. When we turn to the book of Lamentations, the book read on Tisha Ba’av, we read of a Jerusalem that sits solitary but was once full of people. Tonight, from where I sit in Florida, I feel a metaphorical solitariness, of a people whose moorings have become suddenly untethered, of a people who must now look into the abyss and bravely say, “here I am.”

About the Author
Judah Skoff, one of the Jewish Week's 36 Under 36, is a lawyer and writer. He was a Berrie Leadership Fellow and a Fellow at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. His plays have been performed in New York, London and at numerous theatres across the United States. His awards include the National Playwriting Competition, the New Jersey Playwright's Contest, and two Governor's Awards in the Arts. He graduated from Brown University and cum laude from Boston University School of Law where he was named Edward S. Hennessey Scholar and Paul J. Liacos Scholar. The views expressed are strictly his own.