Rabbi Benny Lau sits at the center of a previous Meeting Place gathering in Zion Square.
(photo credit: NOAM FINER)
Sometimes we need a slap in the face to rouse us out of our complacency. We may catch a headline in a newspaper, or a tidbit of a TV news report about some appalling incident, but then our emotional survival instincts kick in, not to say our desensitized Internet information-saturated consciousness, and we just slip right back into our regular lives.
I recall walking along King David Street some years back, just a few hours before the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade was due to happen, and seeing a large notice in a jewelry store on the street denouncing homosexuality as “an abomination,” and warning of terrible retribution for those who engage in it.
Fast-forward a few years and the worst possible scenario occurred, with 15-year-old Shira Banki violently murdered, and six others wounded, when Yishai Schlissel, a haredi man fresh out of a 10-year stint in jail for a previous similar offense, stabbed parade participants. As wakeup calls go, that was the most shocking imaginable.
Three years after the tragedy, Israeli society still finds itself grappling with deep divides and existential challenges. But, have we made any progress in the interim? Has the killing of a teenager shaken us out of our stupor, and made us inescapably aware of the fact that we really do need to take action, to prevent such an event recurring?
Rabbi Benny Lau believes we are moving slowly but surely in the desired direction. Long-time rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue community and head of the Human Rights and Judaism in Action Project at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, Lau is one of the many high-profile public figures lined up for what promises to be a moving and thought-provoking event which will take place at Safra Square tomorrow, on the evening of Tisha Be’av, shortly after the end of Shabbat. The happening is called “How to Create a Conversation? Tisha Be’av in Memory of Shira Banki,” and is being organized by the Meeting Place organization, along with Shira Banki Way, the organization established by Banki’s family after her death.
The program incorporates a reading of the Book of Lamentations, and at least a dozen discussion circles, including one in English, covering a wide range of burning topics and pressing issues. Lau will be joined by MK Tzipi Livni and Ramot Zion community leader Rabbi Haya Becker in a slot called “Constructive and Destructive Criticism: How the Leadership Deals with Civil Criticism.” Other A-listers include social protest campaign leader Daphni Leef, MK Rachel Azaria, MK Yehudah Glick, religious affairs TV reporter Yair Sharki and outgoing Jewish Agency chairman and former government minister Natan Sharansky. Sharansky, Glick and Yerushalmit Movement board of directors member Tehila Friedman-Nachalon will speak at the English-language discussion which will address the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
“I think we have made some progress, but I say that with caution,” Lau proffers. “I think people are more aware [of the dangers of violence] today.”
Three years ago, just a few days after the murder, I attended a gathering on Keren Hayesod Street, close to the place where the attack took place. Lau was the main speaker at the event, and it was clear that he was speaking from the heart, rather than just reeling off slogans. Awareness is a current theme in Lau’s line of thought, and one which he feels we all need to adopt if we are to prevent a repeat of the tragedy of 2015. “I spoke [in 2015] not about the violent people with a knife in their hand, but about the people I call ‘the silent ones,’ the people who hear things and don’t say anything,” he notes, adding that he feels things are slowly improving. “I think, in general, that with regard to the attitude towards overheated arguments and criticism, we can be a little optimistic. People are being more careful now.”