Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel and Muhammad Abu Khdeir: four names, four faces, four murdered Israeli youths. All were innocent. All were killed because of their ethnicity. Who they were and what they did as individuals was irrelevant. Set against decades of violence between Jews and Palestinians over Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people and the ongoing occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people, it was enough for their murderers that their victims were members of a feared and hated group.
It was enough that Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali were Jews, and that Muhammad was an Arab, to render their basic right to life null and void, for when tribalism and racism govern our perceptions of each another, there are no innocents.
It is then possible to rationalize kidnapping three Jewish teenagers and executing them at point-blank range, or forcing a shy-looking Palestinian boy to drink gasoline and then burning him alive. In the escalating violence between the two groups, atrocities become “necessary acts of war” or “vengeful justice.”
In such dark times, ruled by suspicion, fear and righteous anger, it is difficult for both sides not to give in to despair and indiscriminate hatred. In downtown Jerusalem, hundreds of right-wing Jewish extremists attacked innocent Palestinians and shouted “Death to Arabs,” and “Kahana was right” while the funerals of Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali were taking place.
On Facebook, tens of thousands of young Israeli Jews, including IDF soldiers, echoed the call for vengeance against Arabs. While many called for revenge against the kidnappers, others posted pictures of themselves with slogans like, “Hating Arabs is not racism; it is values.”
On the Palestinian side, after Muhammad’s autopsy revealed that he had been burned alive, violent riots erupted in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods and in Arab towns in Israel. Hundreds of Palestinians clashed with the police, throwing rocks, setting tires and trash bins on fire, vandalizing public property, starting brush fires, and in some cases attacking passing Jewish vehicles with stones and firebombs.
In the face of so much fear, hatred and violence, it is difficult not to react viscerally. It is easier, seemingly safer, to adopt an “us versus them” mentality and treat every person not a member of my tribe as potential enemy. This is the racism of fear, which presupposes that “in their roots” all Jews hate Arabs, and vice versa. This is the imagination ruled by fear, which rationalizes the stigmatization and penalization of individuals based solely on group membership, grounded in the notions of collective guilt and collective punishment.
I reject this mindset. To embrace it is to embrace the tribalism and racism which resulted in the horrific murders of Gil-Ad, Eyal, Naftali and Muhammad. It is to ignore the fact that out of the 6.1 million Jews and 1.6 million Arabs in Israel, at most only a few thousand engaged in rioting and hate speech. The majority of Jews did not cry “Death to Arabs,” and the majority of Palestinians did not cry “Death to Jews.”
We are standing at a moral crossroad, Jews and Palestinians alike. We can succumb to fear and hatred, or we can choose courage and faith. It takes courage to face each other as individual human beings, free from racist stereotypes, and it takes faith to believe that openness to each other will improve relations between our two peoples.
Indeed, courage and faith are most needed particularly in situations of extreme uncertainty, when facing potentially irreversible choices. Bringing children into the world is an act of courage and faith, and so is the choice not to let the murder of innocent children trap us in a cycle of fear, hatred and vengeance. Insisting on the equal dignity of every human being and judging each person on the merits of their character and actions – this is the right moral response to the evil of racism.
Last Tuesday, I paid my condolences for the brutal murder of Muhammad at the mourners’ tent of the Abu Khdeir family in Shuafat, together with over 300 Jews who came as part of “Tag Meir” (“spread the light”), an Israeli group combating Jewish hate crimes against Palestinians, known as tag mehir (“price tag”).
I did not come because I felt ashamed. I am not. My identity as a Jew is not tarnished by the fact that Muhammad’s murderers were Jews. Whatever it means to be a Jew, burning an innocent boy alive is not part of it. Nor did I personally feel responsible for contributing to the social climate that made possible such a horrific attack.
Unlike the head of the World Bnei Akiva movement, Rabbi Noam Perel, I did not demand revenge for the murder of the three Jewish youths, nor did I claim that “the Master of the house has gone crazy at the sight of the corpses of his sons.”
I came because it was my duty as a human being, a Jew and an Israeli. Muhammad’s killers did not simply take his life. They tortured him and tried to obliterate all evidence of his humanity and existence by burning him alive. Publicly acknowledging Muhammad’s life and death by extending my sympathies to his family was a way of reaffirming his humanity. It was also an effort to bridge the rift that the murderers tried to create between Jews and Palestinians.
Ultimately, though, I came because it is my moral and civic duty to publicly denounce the racism of fear and the ensuing violence wherever it appears, affirming instead the equal moral worth of all human beings, regardless of religion and ethnicity.
Muhammad’s atrocious murder did not occur in a normative vacuum. Racist anti-Arab sentiment is growing in Israel, fueled by an unholy marriage of religion and right-wing nationalism. Irresponsible statements by religious and political leaders contribute to the illusion of Jewish moral superiority, while promoting fear of the other.
This creates an evil environment where it is more likely that those individuals with the psychological makeup to torture and murder another human being would feel justified in acting out their violent fantasies in the name of some perceived “greater good,” be it justice, the Jewish people, or the land of Israel.
To ensure that such voices do not dominate Israel’s public sphere, everyone who rejects the racism of fear must speak out and act against its manifestations.
A year ago, in the midst of a wave of hate crimes against Israeli Arabs, an academic colleague told me with a straight face that the attacks were “a moral badge of honor” for Israeli Jews. The reason, he said, was that despite all the justified fear and hatred, the Jewish attackers restricted their activities to spraying graffiti and vandalizing Palestinian property. Well, we’re not just spraying graffiti anymore.
It is easy to be horrified when an innocent 16-year-old is burned alive. But it is the more mundane forms of racism that must be combated if we are to prevent the next sadistic murder. In every nation there are individuals who can and do commit such acts. It is our responsibility to make sure that they do not find legitimacy for their barbarism in the public sphere. It is our responsibility to choose courage and faith and respect for the human dignity of every individual if we are to successfully combat the racism of fear and hatred.
The author is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. For more information on the iEngage Project, go to iengage.org.il.