Lod Counts Its Losses: Torched Synagogues and Coexistence in This Jewish-Arab City

The images of people rescuing Torah scrolls have become a symbol of one of the most difficult weeks in the history of a mixed city that erupted in violence last week amid Israel's flare-up with Gaza

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Bar Peleg
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Torah scrolls being removed from the Ohel Yehuda synagogue in Lod last week after it was almost totally destroyed in an arson attack.
Torah scrolls being removed from the Ohel Yehuda synagogue in Lod last week after it was almost totally destroyed in an arson attack.Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The scars left by the firebombs and stones are still evident around the houses of worship in Lod. Days after the unprecedented destruction, looting and violence that took place in this mixed Jewish-Arab town, the damage to the symbols of religion is visible to the eye and seared in the memories of residents.

The images of people rescuing Torah scrolls have become a symbol of one of the most difficult weeks in the history of this central Israeli city, one of several mixed towns that erupted in violence last week, amid military hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

“When the firefighters, the police and the soldiers go home,” said city resident Nader Azbarga, “the ones left in the city are the residents.”

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Not far from his home in the city’s Ramat Eshkol neighborhood is the Dosa Synagogue, part of which went up in flames last week. It’s not the only one. Another synagogue was burned down, and four others were damaged by fire or stone throwing. A premilitary academy with numerous holy books was torched, too.

The Dosa synagogue in Lod this week.Credit: Hadas Parush

There was also damage to Muslim sites including a mosque that was pelted with stones and a cemetery that was vandalized. “No less terrible than the torching of synagogues is the coexistence that was destroyed,” said resident Shabtai Katash.

The rioting began on Monday of last week and first in the line of fire was the mechina, the premilitary academy in the heart of Ramat Eshkol, a symbol of the entry of Jews into the neighborhood. The front windows are sooty, classrooms are burned, and blackened pages of holy books are strewn around. The torching of the mechina was the opening round of an assault on other religious buildings in the city.

The Dosa Synagogue was firebombed several times; the fire didn’t get to the main sanctuary because firefighters were able to bring it under control. But the entrance door, a playroom and a cabinet with Judaica were destroyed.

Despite the tensions, no one had expected such attacks.

“We have excellent ties with our Arab neighbors, there hasn’t been any harm done in recent years to the synagogue, certainly not for nationalist reasons,” said Neria Weingot, who was involved in reopening the abandoned synagogue in 2014. “We were not concerned about the synagogue or about our safety there.”

He said the families who attend the synagogue were shocked by the aggression against them and the house of worship. “We thought there was a consensus not to touch it.”

Azbarga echoes Weingot’s comments. “No synagogue has ever been burned in this city,” he said. “Everyone has his religion and his obligation to go to a house of worship. We must return to routine.”

Weingot isn’t despairing. “This is a crisis from which we’ll grow,” he says.

Those passing the synagogue now would have a hard time believing that it was a disaster area just a few days ago. On Sunday, before Shavuot, dozens of volunteers came to remove the debris and fix the place up, even expanding the synagogue with metal walls. They destroy, we’ll expand, said some residents.

A classroom at the premilitary training academy in Lod that was set on fire last week.Credit: David Bachar

Azbarga has a hard time with the terms “us and them.”

“I was born here. We lived our whole lives together, Jews and Arabs,” he said. “I have no problem living with Jews, it’s a shared city.”

Not far from the Dosa synagogue is Ohel Yehuda, which most people call the Moroccan synagogue, or what’s left of it. It was almost totally burned down. At what’s left of the entrance there are signs warning of exposed asbestos. On nearby Tzahal (IDF) Street, which perhaps ironically had been turned into a war zone, one can see evidence of the street battles between Jews and Arabs in the early days of the disturbances; there are still marks from the rocks that were thrown and parts of stun grenades strewn on the street.

Even clearer evidence can be seen outside the Yeshuat Hashem synagogue, the Georgian congregation. A smashed Molotov cocktail is still on the ground, and there are two burned areas in the courtyard. Avichai Arbel, who prays at Yeshuat Hashem, said, “There had never been nationalist-oriented violence here, but the fact that a synagogue was attacked changes a lot. This is new and worrisome. I have very bad feelings and I say this as a city resident who wants, or wanted, to believe we lived in a city of coexistence.”

Another spot on the map of violence is the Beit Eliyahu Synagogue. The car that was torched alongside it blackened one of the walls, and the big black stain remains, days after the car was towed away. One witness said a firebomb had been thrown at the building, but it doesn’t look like it did much damage. This synagogue remains relatively intact.

A kilometer away from the focal point of the disturbances is the Neveh Nof neighborhood. The local synagogue, Beit Shaarei Aliya, which belongs to the Chabad movement, was targeted. Residents say there was an effort to break into it, and its large windows were smashed by stones.

Not only synagogues were damaged. Stones were thrown at the Dahmash Mosque, near the city’s Palmah Square, smashing its colorful windows. “We were inside, praying, we still hadn’t eaten [because of the Ramadan fast] and they threw stones at us,” one of the worshipers said at the time. “It was 9 in the evening, they knew when to come.”

Firebombs were also thrown at the Muslim cemetery, near which Jews from West Bank settlements have come in recent days to “strengthen the residents.” During the night between last Thursday and Friday, unknown attackers tried to start a fire at the cemetery; the next morning firebombs were found and several gravestones had been smashed.

A grave vandalized last week at Lod's Muslim cemetery. Credit: Heidi Levine/AP

On Wednesday afternoon a Lod resident whose relatives’ gravestones had been damaged came to the cemetery and started to paste the stones back together. “We don’t have to get to such situations,” he said. “This is awful. Synagogues, mosques, cemeteries. Why do this? People here have been dead 200 years. What do they have to do with the war?”

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