Blood spills, and Israel splits in two

By Eric Silver, March 13, 2008

As we often do on Fridays in Jerusalem, last week my wife and I went out for a cappuccino in a coffee shop off Jaffa Road. It was the day after a Palestinian gunman from East Jerusalem murdered eight students in the Mercaz

Harav Yeshivah, the capital’s first major terrorist attack in four years. A memorial service was taking place at the yeshivah, a couple of miles away, in the shadow of the new suspension bridge at the northern entrance to town.

In the city centre, three police armoured vehicles were drawn up in Zion Square. But that was the only sign that anything untoward had happened. If anyone felt traumatised, they were keeping it to themselves. No flags flew at half mast. Israelis were doing their last-minute Shabbat shopping. In the Kadosh coffee shop, anyone arriving after one o’clock had to wait for a vacant table.

The next day, friends visiting from London asked us to take them to Abu Ghosh, an Israeli Arab village off the Tel Aviv road. We wondered whether secular Israelis, who flock there every Saturday hunting for bargains and gorging themselves on grilled meat, would be inhibited this week about visiting an Arab village, albeit one with a unique history of coexistence stretching back to 1948.

We need not have worried. It was as hard as ever to find a parking place on the narrow, hilly main street, with its textile-factory shops, hummus stalls, restaurants, plant nursery and designer candle-maker. In our restaurant of choice, a Jewish family was celebrating a birthday.

Children were playing in the garden.

It is a sad truth that the Mercaz Harav massacre highlighted the fragmented state of Israeli society. Almost all the mourners at the memorial service and the funerals that followed it were drawn from the pro-settler religious Zionist community.

The majority of Israelis outside that camp were not indifferent. The media covered the atrocity in depth and at length for days afterwards. But it did not impinge on most of their readers’ and viewers’ lives. As happened at the time of the Gaza disengagement in 2005, the settlers found themselves isolated in their grief and anger.

It was not only the secular Israelis, either. I went to buy challahs in Meah She’arim on Friday morning. The walls of the Charedi ghetto were plastered with their usual polemical bulletins in Hebrew and Yiddish. But I spotted none mourning the slaughtered yeshivah boys or calling for revenge. They were not “their” victims.

Israel has become a tribal society. Last November, Beitar Yerushalayim football fans booed when they were asked to observe a minute’s silence on the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.

For rank-and-file Beitar supporters, most of them Likud voters of Middle Eastern origin, the murdered Prime

Minister was an Ashkenazi and a leftist who shook hands with Yassir Arafat. Despite Rabin’s record as the army’s commander-in-chief in the Six-Day War and as an elected national leader, even in death he did not merit their respect.

Perhaps Israel has always been a divided society, riven along political lines. In 1965, Harold Wilson hesitated to send the army to quell white Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence because he did not trust British troops to fire on their “kith and kin”. David Ben-Gurion had no such qualms when he ordered the Israel Defence Forces to sink the Irgun Zvai Leumi arms ship Altalena off Tel Aviv in 1948.

Over the past week, the settlers and their allies have reinforced the divisions by using the yeshivah massacre to advance their political agenda. It was legitimate, but hardly designed to win friends and influence people.

Rabbi Ya’acov Shapira, the head of Mercaz Harav, called on Israelis to oust Ehud Olmert’s government and continue to settle the land. The yeshivah was the seedbed of the Gush Emunim movement, inspiring the settlement campaign following the 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Rabbi Shapira reiterated the religious ruling, issued by one of his predecessors, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, that forbade surrendering any of the promised land.

When Education Minister Yuli Tamir paid a condolence call, boisterous yeshivah students heckled her as a “traitor” and a “murderer”. Tamir, a Labour MK, was among the founders of Peace Now. When the Prime Minister’s office asked whether he would be welcome, the answer was a resounding no. Olmert was Ariel Sharon’s principal ally in the Gaza disengagement, a champion of a two-state solution whose manifesto in the last election promised to follow suit on part of the West Bank. Despite their anguish, the Mercaz Harav rabbis saw him as an enemy, not as a head of government delivering the nation’s sympathy.

They cannot complain if they find themselves isolated once again, if and when the crunch comes.

Eric Silver is a Jerusalem-based writer

Last updated: 8:51am, June 3 2008