Don’t Be So Shocked by the Israeli 'Wedding of Hate'

This is what a climate of tolerance and acceptance of violence, racism and hatred looks like.

Stabbing the picture of Ali Dawabsheh (the 1.5-year old baby  burned do death with his parents in the village of Duma) while dancing with knives at a wedding among right-wing activists in Jerusalem.
Courtesy of Channel 10 TV

I’m at that stage in my life where I don’t get invited to many weddings. Most of my friends already got hitched years ago and their children are still too young to take the fateful step.

So for a while I’ve been blissfully ignorant of the latest wedding trends in the community to which I once belonged. From the handful I’ve attended in recent years, I got the impression that the standard Jewish Orthodox wedding hasn’t changed that much, except for a slight improvement in the catering. The wine is still atrocious.

One thing though that has seem to undergone a transformation is the dancing. Back in the nineties, there was a standard medley of biblical oldies, which were regarded as cool just because they were played on a synthesizer and there was only one form of dance. Sweaty circles of three-step-sideways-half-step-jerk-back hora, and that’s it. If you were a close family member you were in the inner circle. Boys and young men did it fast in the middle circle and anyone over 30 plodded along on the outside. It sounds boring, it probably was, but at the time you believed that by being a link in the chain, in the very sweat soaking your white shirt (everyone was dressed identically of course), you were fulfilling the a mitzvah of lesameach hatan ve’kala – bringing joy to the groom and bride. Of course on the women’s side of the hall, there were slightly more varied forms of Israeli folk dancing, but you weren’t really supposed to be looking there.

In my more recent, very occasional forays back into that world, usually at the weddings of much younger cousins, I’ve seen it all change. Bands play a wider array of instruments and styles ranging from 18th Century Hasidic to hip-hop and many of the songs seem to have their own steps. I lack the vocabulary to describe the new religious choreography; all I can say is that after a few minutes, the traditional circles break up and are replaced by, to my eye, frenzied bobbing up-and-down and weird arching pirouettes. Which is fine by me, as my dancing days, such as they were, are long over.

A couple of years ago, at a family wedding, which I hasten to emphasize was the most mainstream affair, held in a (west) Jerusalem hall, and not on some outpost deep in the West Bank, I saw one of my relatives, a devout yet worldly man, rather agitated. “They shouldn’t have played that tune” he said. “Someone should have told the band not to put it on their play list. But at least no one was waving a knife or a gun.” Apparently they had been playing “Zachreni na,” a song based on the last words of Samson, blinded and chained in the Temple of Dagon – “Remember me and strengthen me just once more, God. And let me take one vengeance for my two eyes on the Philistines.”

I hadn’t noticed anything untoward in the way anyone was dancing. Actually, I doubt that at that particular wedding, knowing the crowd, many there were aware it was a song from a sub-genre known as “revenge songs,” with similar biblical quotes, which came into vogue around 15 years ago during the period of the second intifada. I had heard racist anti-Arab songs before, but they were juvenile ditties, adapted from standard religious songs, not a semi-professional production and not the kind of thing anyone would have played at their wedding. But I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear the tune. Not that I believed that any of the guests at the wedding were the kind of people to dance around waving knives and M-16s and wishing actual vengeance on anyone. I thought it was either an in-joke of a few people there or just something the band had on their play list.

I wasn’t shocked because I had been to the hilltops in the West Bank. I had seen what they were like, had my tires slashed, been chased away and come back to try to interview the hilltop settlers. Succeeded on one hilltop, got chased away from another. The difference between this and the wedding was clear. This wasn’t about a silly song but about the deadly serious game being played by teenagers and few charismatic elders who won’t let anyone stand in their way.

On Wednesday evening, Channel 10’s Roy Sharon broadcast a recent wedding video showing dozens of young men dancing to “Zachreni Na” and waving guns. One of them, his face covered, is holding a mock Molotov cocktail, while another slices a knife through a poster of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh, the Palestinian toddler burned to death along with his parents in a West Bank arson attack. This is no longer a case of a silly song known to a few insiders. These are the friends of the suspects currently being held by the Shin Bet security service for the murder of the Dawabshehs.

Sharon’s scoop is quite possibly a ploy by the Shin Bet to shock the Israeli public and throw cold water on the debate over the use of “enhanced measures,” or torture, in the suspects’ questioning. And it worked.

The Shin Bet seems to be doing a better job right now at media management than at extracting a legitimate confession from the suspects. Even most of the settlers’ leaders and their representatives in the Knesset have joined the chorus of denunciation of the “Jewish terrorists” and offered blanket support for the security service. But this is not the conclusion we should be drawing from the bloodcurdling footage.

Torture, whether of Palestinian or Jewish terror suspects is wrong, and as we are likely to see once the suspects are either arraigned or released, usually results in a miscarriage of justice. It’s the song itself which should bother us.

I don’t need any religious politician to tell me that those who sing and believe in its words, and support those who practice them, are a minority within the national-religious community. In some ways they have long ago cut themselves off from the community by openly identifying as non-Zionist and announcing their contempt for the state. But in many other ways they remain part of that community which today is a central component of Israeli society.

Three people told me separately Thursday that they had to give clear instructions to the bands at their weddings not to play “Zachreni Na.” Over 13 years ago Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a founder of the religious Zionist organization Tzohar, instructed his not inconsiderable number of followers not to dance to revenge songs lest “revenge spoil us and we fall in love with it and the evil it spreads in the world.” But the fact that the song is still played at some weddings (even though many don’t understand its deeper darker meaning); that those who dance to it have not been ostracized; and that all the guns waved at the wedding either belong to serving soldiers or are held under license — all this illustrates one thing: No one from the religious leadership or law-enforcement authorities has done anything more serious to tackle the problem than tut-tutting. This is what a climate of tolerance and acceptance of violence, racism and hatred looks like.

Since the “wedding of hate” was broadcast, pundits have been labelling the dancers “JudeoDaesh” and apologists have been explaining how they’re basically poor deluded dropouts who found a home on the hilltops and have been radicalized by seeing their friends murdered in Palestinian terror attacks. Both approaches are disingenuous. This is not a freak mutation of Judaism or a symptom of a sociological problem. And while they are a minority on the fringes of both the political and religious spectra, they are still a part of mainstream Israeli society, a natural outcropping of our failure to recognize how the occupation of another nation has ultimately eaten away at out moral values. It’s much too easy to be shocked at these vile creatures from another world. They’re not that far away.