Keeping watch over Citizen Cain

The message of Tishah b'Av reaches beyond the Jewish tragedies it commemorates


By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, July 31, 2014
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Anti-Arab grafitti in East Jerusalem earlier this year; it reads 'Non-Jews in Israel are enemies'

Anti-Arab grafitti in East Jerusalem earlier this year; it reads 'Non-Jews in Israel are enemies'

The roads are blocked with broken masonry, the paths through the city are twisted: this sounds like a war-shattered city in the 20th century; in fact, it's Jeremiah's depiction of the desolation of Jerusalem 2,500 years ago. The Hebrew Bible, which opens with a majestic paean to creation, is not afraid to describe the brutal realities of destruction. Towns were attacked and pillaged then; towns are attacked and pillaged now. Tishah b'Av asks us to ponder the meaning of such destruction.

Cities are by definition homes to many people. They encompass differences, if not of culture and religion, then of wealth and attitude. There will always be potential frictions. Therefore the art of city-living is to foster tolerance at least, and harmony at best, across significant divides. Otherwise, the fragile relationships which make city- life possible are liable to collapse.

To explain the destruction of the Second Temple and the entire city of Jerusalem by the Romans, the Talmud tells the well-known story of Kamza and Bar-Kamza. A man makes a feast and invites his friend Kamza. Instead, his enemy Bar-Kamza is brought. Despite the latter's offer to pay for his food, indeed the entire cost of the party, the host throws him out.

Bar-Kamza feels all the more aggrieved because the rabbis present do nothing to prevent his humiliation, implying their approval; he therefore determines to libel them to the Romans. The story may contain contemporary references to specific personalities, but it is nonetheless an allegory of the collapse of tolerance. Vengeance triumphs. Jerusalem is destroyed because of sinat chinam, gratuitous hate.

This is a danger endemic to the very nature of cities. According to the Torah, the first city-builder was also the first murderer, Cain: "He built a city and called its name Chanoch, after his son". The poet Gerschon Ben-David, who spent the post-war years searching in vain for his mother who perished in the death camps, wrote the haunting line: "Am I the keeper of my brother Cain?" It's a startling inversion of God's original question, which is addressed to the perpetrator about his responsibility to the victim. Instead, Ben-David implies, we are all responsible for maintaining guard over the potential murderer who lurks among us, in our souls and in our cities.

That murderer has been let loose repeatedly in
modern times.

An eye-witness in Dresden observed, after watching the synagogue burn on Kristallnacht, that the fire would return: "It will travel in a great circle and come back to us". His prophetic words were remembered after the Allied Air Forces fire-bombed the city in February 1945; and were cited in a memorial service in the city's Altmarkt. A plaque placed in the restored Kreuzkirche reads: "We failed to recognise in [the town's Jews] our brothers and sisters".

The marginalisation, dispossession and murder of one part of a city's population by another is a form of fratricide. Once such violence is unleashed, killing leads to killing. As historian Frederick Taylor noted, whether or not they considered the bombing justified by the brutal demands of war, when the fighting ended people in the victorious nations "started to turn in shamed amazement and ask: Did we really do that?"

In a remarkable diary, Mladen Vuksanovic documented the disintegration of the community of Pale, from where the Serbian army shelled the helpless city of Sarajevo below. Within weeks, Muslims and Christians who'd lived together for centuries, sharing schools and businesses, were ruthlessly divided When the Muslim men were taken away, former neighbours stole their furniture, livestock and homes. On July 3 1992 Vuksanovic noted: "More people ask: 'Are there any Muslim houses around here?' My wife says, raising her voice: 'No, there aren't! Neither Muslim nor Croat ones! There were only human houses here.'"

Jerusalem has recently been revisited by the bitter edge of violent hatred, not just raining down from the sky as rockets, but along its streets: hatred of Arabs for Jews and Jews for Arabs. Mobs throw stones at Israeli police. Graffiti by Price Tag in its campaign of vendettas insult and intimidate people of other faiths. Such actions undermine the very possibility of community; through them cities are eventually destroyed.

The survival of cities depends on an inclusive vision of humanity. They can flourish only as long as it is understood that the "other", be it Jew or Muslim, black or white, is an equal citizen too. We must all be the guardians of the Cain who can so easily take over our streets.

In the afternoon of Tishah b'Av the mood moves towards hope; God will bring comfort to Zion and rebuild Jerusalem. The essence of that rebuilding, wherever in the world it takes place, will not be stones but hearts, not tower-blocks but communities of co-existence, respect, partnership and ultimately, we pray, true friendship.

Jonathan Wittenberg is senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism

    Last updated: 10:27am, August 3 2014