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.”
RACHELI HAZON TESLER is one of the driving forces behind Meeting Place which, as its name suggests, brings people together, in the same physical space, rather than jumping on the bandwagon proffered by one side or the other of the political divide in the virtual domains of social media. “It is important for people, especially people with opposing opinions, to meet in the same place,” she says. “It is much harder to be abusive when you look someone in the eye, when you see the person in front of you, and not just some anonymous line on a website.”
With that in mind, Hazon Tesler and a bunch of other like-minded folk decided to get people talking to each other. “The Meeting Place facilitates direct and informal encounters with the ‘other’ in the diverse streets of Jerusalem, in Zion Square,” says the organization’s web site. “There was a lot of pain after the murder,” Hazon Tesler recalls. “Jerusalemites found themselves gravitating to Zion Square – the place we go to for demonstrations, for shows. As a kid I used to go there too. It is a very Jerusalemite place.”
It was a natural process. “People went there straight after the killing,” she says. “It became a sort of public shiva for Shira.”
Many who made their way to the city center were also motivated to take to the street after the arson attack in the West Bank village of Duma, in which three members of the Dawabsheh family, including an 18-month-old baby, lost their lives. “There were two terrible physical expressions of hatred on the same day,” Hazon Tesler observes. “There was a feeling that we need to get out, and to be together. The Yerushalmit Movement took the initiative under its wing.”
“Thousands turned up,” she says. “There were people from all sectors of society – religious and secular Jews, members of the gay community and others. They sat down together and talked together, cried. There were also a lot of haredim, who came to say that it [the killing] isn’t us, and that it doesn’t represent them, and that they oppose violence.”
The gathering gathered momentum and it became a weekly event, with people of all ages, walks of life and religious and ethnic stripes meeting in the square to discuss heartfelt subject and burning topics, every Thursday evening. In 2016 and 2017 the annual Shira Banki event took place there. However, reconstruction work is currently in progress at Zion Square, hence tomorrow evening’s temporary move to Safra Square.
The timing of tomorrow’s event is, of course, designed to coincide with Tisha Be’av, on the day on which both Temples were destroyed. It is said that the principal reason for the second of those two calamities that befell the Jewish people is that sinat hinam, or senseless hatred, was rife at the time. Unfortunately, some of those same destructive seeds seem to be around today too.
Education is an integral factor of what Hazon Tesler terms tikun olam – repairing the world. It is a theme with which Chili Tropper readily identifies, and has been promoting for some years. Tropper is an educator and social activist who worked with youth on the streets of Jerusalem, served as an adviser to then education minister Shai Piron, and currently oversees the Education Department of the Yeroham Municipality. He also helped to found Ma’agalei Tzedek (“Circles of Justice”), which promotes open discussion of socioeconomic issues, and was principal of the Branco Weiss High School in Ramla, which largely caters for youth who have dropped out of other educational frameworks.
Tropper, who, tomorrow, will participate in a circle called “Integration and Inclusion as Educational Challenges Today,” calls Banki’s murder “one of the saddest events in Israel’s history. A Jewish girl was killed at a gay pride parade, in Jerusalem, by another Jew. For me that was a breaking point.” Tropper’s Jewish culprit-victim interface naturally references Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, a also committed by a kippa-wearing Jewish man. “That is a natural association,” says Tropper, himself an observant Jew. “It has an element of civil war to it – about being unfeeling towards each other. It is not a civil war in the sense of everyone being against each other. [Rabin killer] Yigal Amir was one person and here, too, [Banki’s killer] was an individual.”
That doesn’t change the tragic bottom line. “First and foremost there is a young girl here who died, and a family that paid an awful price,” Tropper continues. “And there is a motive, a girl who was killed for her beliefs. That is terrible.”
Tropper is alert to the possibility that, in certain quarters of Israeli society, much may have been made of the seeming religious allegiance of both killers. “For me, the person who killed Shira Banki is not religious. There is something distorted in the murderer keeping Shabbat which, as it were, makes him religious. There is a deep theological question about what makes a person religious but, above all, I think no one is completely blame-free here.”
As an Orthodox Jew, Tropper says he is able to see the difficulties on both sides of the religious divide. “I can understand religious people struggling to accept something which, according to the Torah, is prohibited [homosexuality]. But we should remember that the Torah also says ‘love your neighbor as yourself’.’ I can remind another religious person that the Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred, and that we mark that on Tisha Be’av. We will sit together in the municipal square, we’ll study together and be together. There is a place for everyone.”
THE POIGNANCY of the participation of a couple of MKs and a former government minister in tomorrow’s gathering did not escape the notice of Sara Ha’etzni-Cohen, chair of My Israel, described as “currently the largest national-Zionist movement on the Internet, promoting Zionist activism in the age of the Internet and social media.” Right-wing politics notwithstanding, Ha’etzni-Cohen will join Dr. Ramadan Dabash, a community leader from Sur Bahir, who is running in the upcoming mayoral elections, in a discussion about the possibility of a more harmonious existence between the western and eastern parts of Jerusalem.
For Uri Banki, Shira’s father, mutual acceptance is the way forward. He also feels we – especially the media – need to take more note of positive activity being undertaking by many Israelis in the field. “We have met hundreds and thousands of good people, moderates who are working towards a moderate and tolerant society,” he says. “There are secular people, left wing, right wing, religious, haredi, women, men, Arabs and Jews. The common denominator between them is that their work never opens the news broadcasts. They get on with their work quietly. Moderation is naturally quiet, and it is difficult to draw attention to it.”
Hopefully, some of those good deeds will attract more attention after tomorrow’s event.