Religion has another message

By Nathan Jeffay, July 10, 2014

For days, people had been telling themselves that it couldn't be true, that a Jew would never do something like this.

But, indeed, suspects had been arrested for the abduction and murder of a Palestinian teenager, Jews thought to have been motivated by anti-Arab hatred. They acted, the authorities believe, in revenge for the kidnapping and murder of the three Jewish teenagers found dead last Monday.

According to the Honenu organisation, which is giving them legal assistance, the six suspected Jewish terrorists consider themselves religious. Only hours before their attack, they would have recited evening prayers, extolling a God who "will make peace" - before they acted towards one of God's children in a manner that would give any normal person nightmares.

The tragedy of being the victim is unquestionable. At the triple funeral for the Jewish boys, I wept while reporting on the event, and left with a tear-soaked notebook.

Unfortunately, for us Jews, this painful victim feeling is not new. But, over the past few days, we have felt something that we are less familiar with, something that many do not know how to process or to vocalise. We know all too well how the actions of others can hurt us. But we are suddenly being forced to confront how much we can hurt ourselves.

The past few weeks should have highlighted to everyone in this region how a culture of violent hatred claims lives on the other side - and how, on our own side, it can eat away at our integrity. They should have hammered home the power that an atmosphere of hatred has to blind us to our own values.

A culture of violence erodes our integrity

I have been reporting from Israel since moving from England seven years ago, and the hardest moment for my Jewish identity came when I least expected it. For an article, I was watching footage of a football brawl in a Jerusalem mall, during which some Arab workers were assaulted. In the footage the rioters were dancing to the very same song to that which my wife and I entered our wedding 12 years ago - We Are Believers, Children of Believers. These racist rioters had purloined one of the most beautiful devotional songs in Jewish tradition. I used to love it, and fondly remember my wedding whenever I heard it - now it makes my skin crawl.

We can repeat again and again, and it is true, that Jewish extremists represent a minute slice of Jewry. But Judaism recognises that the way that its adherents act influences the way that the religion is viewed by ourselves and others.

British Jewry should be full of pride at the fact that its young people are leading a meaningful reaction. After the Jewish teens were declared dead, an Israeli rabbi wrote on his Facebook page that "an entire nation and thousands of years of history demand revenge." This rabbi, Noam Perel, is secretary-general of World Bnei Akiva.

Members and past members of the British branch of Bnei Akiva launched and propelled an international campaign to have Perel fired, in order to make a strong statement that such calls for vengeance have no part in Jewry, especially in religious Jewry.

On the Arab side, too, hatred is undermining integrity and blinding people to their own values.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed a Palestinian academic who took a group of his students to Auschwitz. Such was the abhorrence of Professor Mohammed Dajani's colleagues and management at Al Quds University that he had dared to let his students learn about Jewish suffering, that he subsequently resigned from his post, feeling that the anger against him left him with no other choice.

Next Tuesday, religious Muslims and religious Jews will both be fasting, the former for Ramadan and the latter for the start of the three-week mourning period for the destruction of the Temple. Hopefully, as adherents of the two religions fast in the service of the same God, we will find time to look inwards, even in the hardest moments of victimhood. For our own sakes as well as each other's.

Nathan Jeffay, an Israel-based journalist, will be speaking at synagogues in the UK around the Fast of Av, on themes raised in this article

Last updated: 1:45pm, July 10 2014