Fifteen seconds of shame from inside Jerusalem’s Old City

In a piece written and originally published before the tragic deaths at Mount Meron, Jonathan Freedland considers the events of last week in Jerusalem


A Palestinian youth burns tires in the city center of the occupied West Bank town of Hebron on April 25, 2021, following a protest in support of Palestinian demonstration in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. - Israeli police allowed Palestinians to access a promenade around Jerusalem's Israeli-annexed Old City, an AFP reporter said, in a move apparently aimed at easing tensions after days of clashes. A few hundred Palestinians held a rally at the Damascus gate and police allowed them to remove barricades blocking access to the promenade, an AFP correspondent said. Police used a bullhorn to announce the area was open to all. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP) (Photo by HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images)

April 30, 2021 14:11

It’s only 15 seconds long and the camera work is shaky. But I’ve replayed the short video shot in Jerusalem’s Old City last week half a dozen times and I can’t get it out of my mind. Filmed from above, it shows a group of Jewish teenagers — in their black trousers and white shirt, they look like yeshiva boys — in a small backyard, hurling bricks and metal sticks at the Arab house next door. One of the bricks lands with a loud, heavy thud which unleashes cries, which also sound young, from the home under assault. A second later, there is the terrified scream of a very young child. That scream lasts until the video is over.

For anyone raised on, say, Bialik’s epic poem In the City of Slaughter or even the wedding scene from Fiddler on the Roof, such images are jarring. We’re used to seeing the yeshiva bocher as the victim of a pogrom, not its perpetrator. Our brain struggles to take in a kippah-wearing Jew, not a Cossack, throwing stones and metal in the direction of a family huddled together, trembling in fear.

Don’t worry, I know the context. I know that the action of those boys came as the Kahanist Lehava organisation were marching through the neighbourhood, chanting “Death to the Arabs”, partly in response to Palestinian protests in the Old City.

I know too that some of those Lehava marchers believed they were restoring Jewish honour, bruised by a recent spate of TikTok videos of Palestinians attacking strictly Orthodox Jews.

And I know that the Arab-haters of Lehava have been further energised by the arrival of their guru, neo-fascist Itamar Ben-Gvir, into the Knesset, his path smoothed by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu.

Perhaps all that helps you contextualise, and eventually shake off, those 15 seconds of video. We’ve got quite good at that mental trick over the years, don’t you think? We had another chance to demonstrate the knack this week, as Human Rights Watch delivered a 213-page report with a devastating conclusion: that Israel is committing crimes against humanity against the Palestinians, specifically the two legal crimes of apartheid and persecution.

Those charges might trigger a cognitive dissonance every bit as jolting as the video. Throughout our history, Jews have faced persecution: yet now Jews stand accused of being the persecutor. The report draws on the 1973 international convention on apartheid and the 1998 Rome Statute to argue that, in the occupied West Bank, “the imposition of draconian military rule on Palestinians”, while Jewish Israelis live in the same territory with full rights under a different, civil legal system, meets the definition of apartheid under international law — especially when taken together with “sweeping” restrictions on Palestinians’ movement, the “near-categorical denial of building permits”, land confiscations and home demolitions.

I worry that by using the A-word, HRW has unleashed a theological debate focused on that term, rather than the abuses themselves. What’s more, even as I read HRW’s words, I knew the near-reflexive responses that would come. First, there’d be an attempt to discredit the accuser. Admittedly, that task is made easier by HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth, who has shown a tin ear, or even worse, towards antisemitism.

Many have not forgotten his 2014 suggestion that a surge in antisemitism in Europe was “in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza”, as if anti-Jewish prejudice is caused by Jewish behaviour. That’s not how human rights activists usually speak about prejudice directed at other groups.

A next move is to suggest the accuser is unfairly singling out Israel for criticism it does not level at anybody else.

That’s harder to do with HRW, which just last week condemned China for crimes against humanity against the Uighurs, and which used similar language in a 2018 report on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, specifically over torture. In October, HRW branded Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya people as apartheid.

There are other techniques at our disposal. We can place the occupied territories in a separate mental box, telling ourselves that the occupation — soon to enter its 55th year — is only temporary and will end just as soon as a peace agreement, elusive until now, is reached. On this logic, Israel within the pre-1967 Green Line is fine. Look, we say, an Arab party — an Islamist party, noch — holds the balance of power in Israel’s parliament.

So we comfort ourselves that the only Israel that counts is the pre-1967 one, noting that HRW does not attach the apartheid label to that place, even if it does see “institutional discrimination” against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, made manifest in the egregiously uneven allocation of resources.

Or we can just look the other way, preferring to focus on all the good things Israel is doing, starting with the triumph of rapid, effective, mass vaccination.

There are so many different ways we can do it, putting our fingers in our ears as the likes of HRW, or Israeli human rights groups B’tselem and Yesh Din, reach the same grim conclusion. We have become so practised at it, so skilled, we hardly realise we’re doing it.

Because it’s too painful to face the reality that this country so many of us feel bound up with is doing things that would fill us with shame, if only we took 15 seconds to look.

April 30, 2021 14:11

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