When thugs defaced a London synagogue in 1947, scrawling the threatening slogan “We burn” on its walls, a local rabbi was horrified. He responded with a powerful sermon, which my father heard, condemning the perpetrators: “They write ‘We burn,’ and I say, 'Let them burn.'”
That incident happened over 60 years ago, in response to an assault on British soldiers by members of the Jewish militia Irgun. Since then, much has changed. But this week, in we fell victim once again to vandalism at a synagogue in Tel Aviv. This time, those suspected of perpetrating the vandalism are Jews who oppose the Jewish nation-state bill.
The vandals piled burned books outside the sanctuary and spray painted the words "In a place where nation-state laws are passed, books will be burned" on the wall surrounding the synagogue. This was reminiscent of the German writer Heinrich Heine's prophetic saying that "where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”
If the attack on the synagogue was supposed to be a protest against the racism harbored in the Jewish nation-state bill, the previous day's torching of the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem was clearly racially motivated.
The school's mission is to create an oasis of peace where Jewish and Arab children can respectfully communicate in each other's languages. It’s a remarkable institution which has dedicated years to finding ways to bring two disparate communities together. There is something profoundly beautiful and holy about people dedicating their time to ending bloodshed and creating mutual respect among the peoples of this land.
Government ministers have been tripping over themselves to condemn these attacks, but their tears are crocodile tears. The attacks have not happened in a vacuum.
Instead of searching for ways to unite the country, forge peace, or at least ensure our security through just and effective law enforcement and security, our leaders have fiddled about, bashing one another and concocting law after law to boost intolerance in the country. Not satisfied with the dangerous enemies we already face, they have fostered hatred against African refugees, Palestinians, and Bedouin; anyone who does not match their ultra-nationalist image of an Israeli.
Thankfully, they have not managed to crush everyone's idealistic thirst for goodness and peace. Outside the Hand in Hand School hangs a giant banner proclaiming in Hebrew and Arabic, “We refuse to be enemies.” It's hard to imagine a more inspiring statement – that despite all the pressures, we will not hate, we will not attack, and we are dedicated to building a caring society.
This slogan intuits one of Judaism's profoundest religious truths. Conflict is the result of ignorance and foolishness. If war mongers and racists were wise, they would recognize that all people are created in the divine image, all people are loved by God. Only in the direst circumstances and as an act of last resort should we attack others. That's why, according to the Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:2), the Bible links the idea of a Messianic era of peace and harmony to a time of deepened understanding of God; "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
We must reject the preachers of hatred, and the desecrators of synagogues and schools. The perpetrators of the arson attack on the school sprayed their slogan, “there is no coexisting with cancer.” They are right; it is time to eliminate bigoted ideologies from our midst.
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