Rising from the Ashes

When the rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in Haifa last week started searching for vendors to help repair the damage caused to his shul by the fires that ravaged the city, he quickly found a carpenter willing to do the work pro bono. But the carpenter could not also take on the cost of the raw materials. So he started contacting lumber suppliers to get a cost estimate to pass on to the rabbi.

Among the vendors he called was Walid Abu-Ahmed. And as soon as Abu-Ahmed learned what the lumber was needed for, he decided to donate the supplies needed for the reconstruction project.

When asked why he, a Muslim Israeli, would do this for a synagogue, Abu-Ahmed replied simply: “Jews and Arabs live together in Haifa, and there is no discrimination. We must continue with this co-existence and encourage peace.”

But the significance of this gesture was not lost on Rabbi Dov Hiyon. “I had tears in my eyes when I heard what was happening,” he said. “It was so emotional to hear that Muslims were asking to donate to a Jewish synagogue. I’ve invited them to evening prayers to personally thank them.”

For all of us who may sometimes wonder whether Israeli society has been irreparably damaged by generations of conflict, by years of divisive politics, or by the increasingly inflammatory language coming from Israel’s political leaders, the grace shown by Abu-Ahmad, the carpenter, and Rabbi Hiyon is evidence to the contrary.

And they are not alone. In the midst of the days-long crisis, and in the reconstruction that has started in its wake, Israelis of every background joined together to fight the flames, to take care of one another, and to pick up the pieces of their lives.

This is happening irrespective of the actions of Israel’s political leaders. As the fires were raging, some of these leaders claimed that the fires were caused by arson and amounted to a new form of terror. Clearly implying that Palestinian-Israelis were behind the fires, they promised to revoke the citizenship of those found guilty. Video footage of alleged perpetrators was shared with the media. Dozens were arrested.

But now that the fires are out, it appears that the politicians’ talk of an “arson Intifada” was premature. Only 2 indictments for arson have been filed; one of them for burning trash. Most of those arrested have been released unconditionally.

What do we make of this? What can we learn from the fact that many Israelis are coming together precisely at the moment when their top leaders are stoking divisions? Might it be that Israelis are learning to not only ignore, but also to compensate for, the counterproductive actions of their political leaders?

I hope so. Because Israel’s current government continues to stoke the flames of conflict not only by pitting Jewish and Arab Israelis against each other, but also by deepening Israel’s hold over the West Bank.

Just yesterday the Knesset passed in a first reading legislation that would allow settlements built on privately-owned Palestinian land to stay. This bill strips Palestinian land owners of property rights. It encourages West Bank settlers to engage in more land grabs. And, most concerning, proponents of the law have said that it is a first step in annexing the West Bank. It is no surprise that the U.S. government warned that the law would be “profoundly damaging to the prospects for a two-state solution.”

Also on the Knesset agenda for next week is draft legislation that targets mosques within Israel from sounding the call of the muezzin. Nevermind that existing laws, properly enforced, can ensure that excessively loud muezzin calls are curtailed. Israel’s leaders are preparing to single out the 18% of Israel’s citizens who are Muslim for extra restrictions.

This is the complexity of today’s Israel. On the one hand, we see a political leadership that stokes tensions and that seems uninterested in defending the vision of a two-state solution. On the other hand, we see Israelis — like Walid Abu-Ahmed and Rabbi Dov Hiyon — crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries to stand together in all of the ways that really matter.

Our role in this complex reality is clear: to help those Israelis who are working for a better Israel — an Israel that is inclusive, an Israel that is marked by equality and democracy, an Israel that is at peace with itself and its neighbors. We will always stand with them. They need us to be there for them.

Daniel Sokatch International CEO

January 2017