As the bereaved families sit devastated by the murder of their loved ones, the rest of us share their pain. We are horrified at the brutal slaughter of innocent people whose sole crime was to pray in a synagogue or wait at a bus stop. We cannot avoid wondering when the terrorists will strike again, who will be their next victim.
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Writing in the wake of the Holocaust, the great leader of American Jewry, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, encouraged us to "not flinch from confronting evil face to face." In particular, he stressed choosing appropriate responses to our troubles, finding "the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes."
On the streets of Jerusalem, a response to our current trouble is evolving. Standing outside Jerusalem's Central Bus Station this week after the attack at the synagogue, I saw a taxi pull up and an elderly Jew clamber in. As he sat down in the front of the car, someone cried out, "The driver is an Arab!" A uniformed soldier bundled the bewildered passenger out of the car and proceeded to kick the car with his boot. The taxi took flight to the cheers of the crowd. My friends' attempts to remonstrate with him were met with jeers of "Leftist."
Shrieks of "Death to Arabs" and "Revenge" echoed through the streets as hundreds of Jewish youth, mostly "religious," ran amok. Draped in Israeli flags, they were carrying banners proclaiming, "There can be no coexistence with cancer."
Mounted police used their horses to prevent the youths from bringing traffic to a total standstill, but the incitement itself went unchecked.
Coming from England, racist demonstrators are not new to me. We grew up with them and we knew if their current targets were black people, the Jews would be next. It was our responsibility to oppose prejudice and to drive its proponents from mainstream discourse. Never did we dream that, one day, we would confront Jewish thugs, dressed in kippah and tsitsit.
Years ago, I scoffed at Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who rejected the idea of the Chosen People because he feared it would create racism. For me, it was unthinkable that Jews immersed in the moral teaching of the Torah would adopt racist ideology, and it was inconceivable that our people who had suffered so badly at the hands of religious zealots, fascists and communists would mimic their persecutors.
There is a great difference between the cold-blooded murder of terrorists and the rowdy, racist behavior of a small group of Jewish youth. Nevertheless, these youth have sunk too low. Their path is dangerous. Their vile rhetoric can wreak terrible destruction.
In Gush Etzion, the youth are more thoughtful and sophisticated. Supported by the local mayor and in coordination with the army, thousands of people – among them many teenagers – formed a human chain from Kfar Etzion to the Gush Etzion junction, to demonstrate solidarity and strength in response to the recent terrorist attacks.
Participants avoided racist slogans and simply expressed their determination to maintain their way of life despite the terror. For this, they are to be commended.
But it's not enough. What they called "a human chain" was actually not a human chain at all, but a Jewish chain. None of their Arab teenage neighbors were invited to join. True, it's hard to speak of partnership in a time of terror, but whatever the political solution, it is only when we learn to live together that can we hope to end the bloodshed.
How magnificent it would have been if the great rabbis and educators of Gush Etzion had joined together with local Palestinian educators in a unified condemnation of terror and violence. Instead, the Jewish human chain sounds like just another assertion of Jewish power in the West Bank.
At a time when we face terrible threats from vicious terrorists, it is tragic that our religious and political leaders demonstrate so little imagination and their responses to terror are so barren. They are neither willing to separate from the Palestinians in a two-state solution, nor to live together with them in dignity. Meanwhile, the death toll is rising.
Terrorists must be apprehended and Jewish lives protected. But where are our rabbis, religious politicians and educators who should be putting our own house in order, forging partnerships with Arab moderates, and searching for peaceful solutions to calm the atmosphere and put an end to the ever-growing heap of bodies on our streets?
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity.