In some ways, it was a brief conversation like any other at Hebrew University. Walking down the hall with my friend Zehava, a woman in a long skirt and head covering smiled and said hello. Zehava smiled and said hello right back. Nothing out of the ordinary, except that the long skirt and head covering were not the ultra-Orthodox but the Arab flavor. We kept walking and then I just had to stop and reflect. It was a beautiful moment, actually, one that is all too rare these days.
Last week, there were protests at The Hebrew University led by Israeli Arab students demonstrating against Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip. They were free to exercise what Americans call their “First Amendment Right to Free Speech.” While they were separated from Israeli Jewish students who were also protesting that which was being shot from Gaza, they were nonetheless able to protest freely and safely. They made the news, just as the protesting Arab Israeli citizens in Um-el-Fahem did. And while some Israeli Arab groups were making their voices heard collectively, other individual Israeli Arab citizen students freely walked through the hallowed halls of The Hebrew University happily going to classes, learning, growing.
This is Israeli Democracy at its very best. Students with completely different views in the same school, in the same classes, receive the same degrees, and express positions on each extreme freely and honestly. While I am not a citizen, I cannot help but be proud of the democratic country I am living in right now. For those screaming and yelling all over the world that Israel is not a democracy, let them come and stand in the hallways of Hebrew University, let them watch the ballot box on election day, let them come and see the composition of the Knesset.
After they are done with that tour, they should go to Bir Zeit or Al Quds University. There too, they will see protests and demonstrations. They will see Palestinian students standing and protesting Israeli actions in the Gaza strip. But they won’t see any other perspectives because they are not allowed – not from Israeli Jews nor from Palestinians with a different perspective. There are no Jewish Israeli students at Al Quds or Bir Zeit, at least not as far as I can tell and if there are Arab students expressing moderate or conciliatory opinions about Israel, they certainly don’t make their voices heard because such a choice leads to beatings, threats and murder…
The above four paragraphs were written a week ago Thursday night before I got an SMS to turn on the television, which is never a good sign in this country: A terrorist attack in Jerusalem on a yeshiva high school. The first major attack on Jerusalem in a long time, this one was perpetrated against children, adolescents. Not soldiers, not the police, not anyone armed (not to say that those would be any more acceptable) but kids studying Torah and getting ready for the month of Adar, a joyous time on our calendar, shot to death by a terrorist. I stopped writing. I just sat in front of the television, watched and wept.
The beautiful moment in the Hebrew University hallway was long forgotten. All that was left was sadness, anger and questions:
Sadness – Sadness over eight lives snuffed out too soon; sadness for the families, for the Yeshiva community, and for the entire Jewish People. How can you not be devastated whether or not you knew the students or their families?
Sadness – Sadness that the promise of Peace, the talk earlier in the year, delusional of course, that a final Peace agreement could be reached by the end of the year, is just that – delusional.
Anger – Boundless anger, rage, the kind of ferocity I am uncomfortable with. It is raw. It shows its ugly face in little ways, like the extra emphasis I find myself placing on phrases like “Blessed are You, Who destroys enemies…” in the silent Amidah, or other places where our liturgy speaks of Revenge and Divine Retribution.
Anger – Anger at the Terrorist and those who funded, supported, and encouraged him. Anger that he held an Israeli citizenship card, a real one not a forgery, and thus a person who enjoys the benefits of living in a democracy, not a perfect democracy, but a democracy nonetheless, where he can vote, make his voice heard, and get the benefits of being a citizen.
Anger – Anger at a world that screams in protest against Israeli “overreaction,” but sits silently when young Jewish Israeli kids are intentionally targeted and slaughtered by terrorists.
Are there limits to Democracy? If so, what are they and how can they be applied here of all places?
Does a dead terrorist deserve a funeral paid for by the State, a benefit afforded other citizens?
If terrorists now come from Jabel Mukhaber (Ja-bel Mu-kA-bear), a neighborhood in South Jerusalem, is it possible to still be a liberal and not consider the Israeli Arab minority a “Fifth Column”?
And what is worse, if they are, if the majority of the Israeli Arab population is part of a fifth column, what does Israel do about it? Which brings me back to the Democracy question…
In the midst of the never ending violence here, we are also on the cusp of never ending renewal, the ending of one book and the immediate beginning of the next book of Torah. Last week, we finished Exodus. This week, we start Leviticus. Last week, we read the last verse of the Exodus and proclaimed, “Hazak Hazak V’Nithazek” “Be Strong, Be Strong and We Will Be Strengthened.” The words meant something different to me last week. There were two different “strengths” in my head – the strength of liberal democracy and the strength of The Jewish People. At the end of the day, all of the awful things that I imagine needing to happen to bring this conflict to an end, at the angriest of moments, are always overtaken by the dual values of democracy and the ethics and laws of our Torah. Taken together, we are strengthened to overcome the anger, to avoid extremism, and to look forward…
This Shabbat, I hope and pray that until there is Peace here that the voices of democracy and Torah always triumph over the voices of extremism and fascism. The other option is too frightening to consider, even in the angriest, deepest recess of my heart.