Over the past week, we marked two important Jewish dates. On Sunday, we mourned Tish’a Be’av, the ninth of the Jewish month of Av, on which the two Jewish Temples were destroyed, the first by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE and the second by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. On Thursday, we marked Tu Be’av, the 15th of the Jewish month of Av, which is celebrated as the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s Day.
According to Jewish sources, the Second Temple was destroyed because of hatred between people. Josephus describes the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple as being fraught with infighting between Jewish sects and groups. When the Romans came and ended the Jewish State, they were only finalizing what had already been for many years. The Jewish State had been an empty shell, with extremists fighting and killing other groups of Jews. There was no real leadership and no one united people.
Tu Be’av, on the other hand, is celebrated as a festival of love. In olden times, the Talmud describes how on Tu Be’av, the maidens of Jerusalem would borrow white dresses from their friends and go out to dance in the vineyards, so that they could be ‘snatched’ by young bachelors. The dresses were borrowed, so that they would not be recognized as belonging to a specific caste of society. The rich and the poor were all equal and all deserving of an adequate match. The Talmud states that ‘there were no better days for Israel as Tu Be’av’.
The story sounds very idyllic, until you know the background for this strange custom of dancing in the vineyards. The source is described in the last chapters of the book of Judges in the Bible, in an horrific tale that could supply material for at least a couple of Game-of-Thrones episodes.
A man’s concubine ran off to her father in Bethlehem and the man went after her to retrieve her. On their way back home, they decided to sleep in a town belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. After looking for someone who would take them in, an old man offered to house them for the night. However, a mob of Benjaminites congregated outside and demanded that the old man put the guests out onto the street so they could be raped. The concubine ended up being sent out and raped to death. In the morning, the man cut up the body of his concubine, and sent one piece to each of the twelve tribes to tell them of the terrible deed that had occurred. In response, the tribes demanded that the tribe of Benjamin turn over the perpetrators, and when they refused, the other tribes declared war. In the battles that ensued, all but 400 men from the tribe of Benjamin were killed. To make matters worse, all the tribes swore that they would not give their daughters to any man from Benjamin, so that there was a real danger of the entire tribe becoming extinct. In order to save the tribe from extinction, without breaking their vow, the other tribes instated an event during which their unmarried daughters would dance in the vineyards and the men of Benjamin could snatch them away and marry them. Not such an idyllic tale anymore.
But there are lessons to be learned from this tale, which are very relevant even today. One, is that this whole fiasco would never have happened if the man with the concubine had treated her better and protected her against the Benjaminites. Another, is that the tribe of Benjamin has a responsibility to educate their men to respect foreigners and guests. And a third lesson is that even after the gruesome rape and murder of the concubine, it’s still a mistake to persecute the entire tribe for the actions of a few. The rapists are solely responsible for their actions and they are the ones who should be punished. Punishing the entire tribe just makes things worse. It is exactly the same hatred and self-righteousness that got the Second Temple destroyed over a thousand years later.
Some terrible deeds were carried out in Israel on Thursday night, as we celebrated Tu Be’av. An Ultra-Orthodox man, Yishay Shlisel, pulled out a knife at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, and proceeded to stab six people, because he believed the parade was an abomination.
The very same night, unknown assailants doused the home of the Palestinian Dawabshe family in Duma, near Nablus, with gasoline and then proceeded to lob two Molotov cocktails at the house, not before spraying graffiti with the Hebrew words “Revenge” and “long live the Messiah” on the wall. The flames consumed the house, killing baby Ali, who had not yet turned two, and seriously wounding his older brother Ahmed and their parents.
Both attacks have been unequivocally condemned by political and Jewish religious leaders across the board (watch Prime Minister Netanyahu’s message in this link– English, 01:27 minutes). I could dedicate the remainder of this post to adding my own two cents of condemnation, piling up superlatives and metaphors about how terrible these acts are and how they have no place in either a democratic or a Jewish state. All that is true, but rather pointless, as the words have been written and rewritten by anyone who owns a computer, shouted out in every forum, article and facebook page. As for me, I try to say the things that haven’t been said yet, or haven’t been said loudly enough.
Following the attacks, many have put the blame on specific groups. Shlisel stabbed gay-pride marchers because his community supported him and pushed him to commit the act, they say. The entire Ultra-Orthodox community has to change its ways and take responsibilities for the actions of one. The entire religious Right-wing has the blood of Ali Dawabshe on its hands, they say. The entire tribe of Benjamin must pay the price, is what echoes back from over 3000 years in the past. The entire Right assassinated Prime Minister Rabin, echoes back from November 4th 1995.
This might have held water if “the Ultra-Orthodox community” was an authority unto itself, with its own justice and police system, and was not part of the rest of the Jewish people. It might be true, if there was such an entity as “the religious Right” that had authority over its members in all matters of life. But it just so happens that we all live together in one country. We are all part of the same collective. We are all subject to the same laws and justice system. If we are to blame the crimes of the one on the collective, then we all share in the collective responsibility together. If we use the crimes of the one to delegitimize our political or ideological rivals, we end up destroying the collective. Killing the tribe of Benjamin is not the solution.
Saturday night, the LGBTQ community held rallies throughout the country, against homophobia, against violence and against hate. But these rallies were filled with hate. Naftali Bennet, leader of the Jewish Home party, whose members have voiced views against the LGBTQ community in the past, was scheduled to speak at one such rally in Tel Aviv, in favor of pluralism and against violence. While on his way to the rally, he was told to turn around. He is not wanted at the rally. Pluralism and solidarity is only meant to include those who belong to the right cliques, apparently. At the same rally, protesters donned gloves painted red and waved their ‘blood soaked’ hands, voicing their hatred against the Ultra-Orthodox community and the entire Rightwing.
I’ve written here before about the meaning of the Jewish Temple. The Temple was destroyed because it had become an empty shell, bereft of meaning. What point is there to the various ways of worshipping God, when Jews are busy fighting each other? In the month of Av in 2015 we should be asking ourselves whether we’ve learnt anything in the past 3000 years, or do we still lust for the blood of Benjamin in order to assuage our own righteous indignation?
One point that should be made about the Ultra-Orthodox community:
Judaism does not condone homosexual relations. It’s written black on white parchment in the Torah. It may make us uncomfortable in respect to our modern values. We can look for ways to settle the tension between our religious beliefs and our liberal modern values, but it is still there. It is therefore unrealistic to expect the Ultra-Orthodox or even the Orthodox community to support the LGBTQ community, against their religious beliefs. In a pluralistic society, it is okay to be against the gay pride parade and even to speak out against having it in Jerusalem. It is even okay to protest against such a parade. The right to parade is not equal to the right to love whomever one wants, which is a personal freedom which does not effect or concern anyone else. The line is crossed when one calls for violence against another human being, or when one commits such violence. Everything else is part of free speech.
The Ultra-Orthodox community is being blamed for inciting the violence committed by Yishay Shlisel on Thursday evening.
This is also not the first time that an Ultra-Orthodox man has stabbed people at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem. A similar incident happened in 2005, when an Ultra-Orthodox man stabbed three people at the same parade. Remarkably enough, the man’s name was – Yishay Shlisel.
Shlisel spent the next ten years in jail for his crime and was released three weeks ago. Since then, he himself has been calling for violence against the parade attenders. And guess what- in spite of his incitement, the only member of the Ultra-Orthodox community to actually listen to Shlisel’s vitriol was Shlisel himself. The Ultra-Orthodox community may view the parade as “Toeva” (an abomination), but the condemnation of Shlisel’s actions was clear.
And a point to be made about the “religious Right” or the “Right” in general: I’m sure that by now, the web is crawling with posts and articles and cartoons depicting Israel and the Jews as bloodthirsty killers, such as this cartoon:
How does one recognize a murderous society?
A society should be judged by the way it treats its murderers. How do we treat the murderers of Ali Dawabshe, or of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir last summer? Does society throw them in prison, or does it pay them and their families a salary for their deeds and “sacrifices”?
Does society view its murderers as the scum of the earth that they are, or does it put them on a pedestal as heroes and martyrs who are to be emulated?
Do their names live on in infamy, or do they get schools and streets named after them?
If the murderers of Ali Dawabshe turn out to be Jewish (they aren’t necessarily. Similar crimes have been committed by Palestinians who sprayed graffiti in Hebrew at the scene in order to make it look like a hate crime), I don’t care to know their names, only that they rot in jail for the rest of their lives. The murderers of Abu-Khdeir are now rotting in prison. Their names are forgotten, their deeds live in infamy. The name of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Palestinian worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the 1990s is synonymous with the epitome of evil, to all but the very fringes of society.
In this 100 year long war between us and the Palestinians, can they say the same? The answer is a resounding no. Palestinians who murder Jews and their families are paid a salary by the Palestinian Authority. The more heinous the crime, the higher the payment. Palestinians who have murdered Jews are awarded streets and schools in their names. Children aspire to be like them.
Thank God that we are nothing like such a society. Thank God that every one of us believes that whoever murdered Ali Dawabshe is no longer one of us, is forever severed from the Jewish collective. After so much blood has been spilt, that is not a trivial thing to say.
But this isn’t a competition of who is more moral or who can count more dead children. This is about us and how we treat such crimes. This is about us and how we continue to function as a society despite such crimes.
Update: Shira Banky, aged 16, who was stabbed at the gay pride parade, has died of her wounds. Yishay Shlisel is now a murderer.
Correction: friends have pointed out that according to the story in Judges, the celebration in which the young maidens danced in the vineyards was an already existing Israelite holiday at the time. The war with the tribe of Benjamin may or may not have been the source of the custom of snatching the girls to be wed, but the snatching was obviously a way to overcome the other tribes’ oath not to wed their daughters to Benjamin men.