It is chilling to see Jewish stars smeared on Muslim graves and Palestinian homes in Hebron, with the word vengeance (scrawled in Hebrew) also defacing the home. What do these images summon? Swastikas painted on Jewish graves and Jewish homes by anti-Semites. What do these images signify? That some Jews, however few, have become mirror images of our worst enemies, with their degrading intent made visually obvious. It shocks, it hurts, and it’s indefensible and wrong.
This said, we cannot proceed to draw the typical black-and-white line that so often accompanies the ethical condemnation of tactics of misguided Jews. That black-and-white line would have us believe that in Hebron all the rights are on one side and all the wrongs on the other. Many in Israel and abroad believe that extremist and radical settlers have gone off the deep end, while princes of virtue oppose them. Not only is this an oversimplified picture, it masks the underlying cause-and-effect behind the disturbing and dangerous actions of Jews — mostly teens — whose Torah teachers have clearly failed them.
Why the rage in Hebron? Why do Jewish youth violently attack Jewish, Israeli soldiers who, under court order, evacuate them from a disputed house in Hebron? The answer is twofold — a long-range and a short-range answer.
The long-range answer is the Israeli government’s failure, since the prime ministership of the late Menachem Begin, to assert with pride the ancient Jewish right to live in Hebron and to control its central holy place, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was buried in this cave; then Abraham himself; followed by their successors Rebeccah and Isaac; and by their successors Leah and Jacob. These are the founders of the Jewish people.
With respect to the burial plot of these founders, the Muslim authorities who controlled it before 1948 forbade Jews to pray inside, and even forbade them to ascend beyond the ninth step on the stairs outside the tomb. This blatant denial of human rights and of Jewish rights has not been forgotten by those who zealously assert the right of Jews to control the Tomb of the Patriarchs today.
Also before 1948, in 1929 to be exact, Jews were expelled from Hebron via an Arab pogrom in which 67 unarmed yeshiva boys and their teachers and families were slaughtered in cold blood. This, too, has not been forgotten by those who zealously assert the Jewish right to live somewhere in Hebron today.
All this would not be of great note were it not for the fact that the Israeli government speaks and acts as if there were no Jewish rights in and to Hebron. Plain and simple: Push good people to the wall tell Jews in Hebron that every Jew they give birth to there is a sin, and every house they buy (not steal, not occupy, but buy) there is an obstacle to peace and the conditions for the current, ugly, unjustifiable behavior are created. As the late Abraham Joshua Heschel once said about Vietnam, Some are guilty, all are responsible. The guilty parties in Hebron are the breakers of the law, the smearers of the gravestones, the resisters of the soldiers, the shooters of Palestinians. The responsible parties, however, are much broader, including the current and several past Israeli governments.
The short-range answer for the rage in Hebron is the Israeli government’s failure to own up to the disaster of the withdrawal from Gaza in August, 2005. This withdrawal, hailed at the time by Ariel Sharon and current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and their political allies as a new, unique, effective, unilateral move for peace, has brought no peace at all. It has brought war — thousands and thousands of missiles fired from Gaza onto Israeli cities, mainly Sderot. Is it any wonder that residents of Hebron, now told by this same political group that they will be evacuated from Hebron under any Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, say to themselves: We were too meek in August, 2005? Our behavior then did not do the State of Israel a favor. And we shall not now repeat the same mistake!
The Israeli government can agonize from now until next Yom Kippur about how ashamed it is over the behavior of a few settlers in Hebron last week, but until the same government and its allies begin to agonize and feel ashamed over its own, strategically damaging withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, there will be no meeting of the minds.
Some like to speak of root causes. The proximate cause, and the guilt, for last weeks Jewish violence in Hebron rests squarely with the perpetrators of the violence. May we never see a Jew deface a cemetery so reminiscent of the despicable behavior of the Jordanians in the Old City of Jerusalem after 1948 — again! The root cause of the behavior, however, rests squarely with an Israeli government that has lost its Jewish soul and lost its Jewish compass. May it meet its demise in the upcoming February election!