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Acts of violence prompt soul-searching in Israel

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JERUSALEM >> On one edge of the Zion Square gathering, an Orthodox yeshiva student was in heated debate with a secular couple over the hierarchy of sin. On the other, young men wearing skullcaps rocked back and forth, reciting the evening prayer. In between, people sat cross-legged on the cobblestones amid an array of memorial candles and banners decrying violence, promoting love, demanding change.

The focal point was a black cloth with simple white chalk Hebrew letters spelling out “Ali Saad Dawabsheh” and “Shira Banki,” the Palestinian toddler burned to death in his West Bank home and the 16-year-old Jewish girl fatally stabbed at a gay pride march in Jerusalem. The back-to-back attacks a week ago, attributed to religious fanatics, set off a national outcry and reflection, with hundreds flocking here each night for a mixture of mourning and protest.

“Both names, Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsheh, are names that are going to be etched in Israeli history as a trigger point,” said Asher Krueger, a guitarist who led the group in songs of grief and hope. “And time will tell. Is this going to be a tearing apart of the conflicts in Israel, or a pivot point of people trying to understand each other, trying to live together?”

This is a time of deep questioning across Israel, after two tragedies that underscored both the endless conflict with the Palestinians and its own internal struggle to balance a rising religiosity with civil rights. Have government policies and rabbinical authorities inspired or at least allowed a radical fringe to reach new depths of depravity? Who interprets Jewish law and Jewish values for the Jewish state? How did it come to this?

The trauma hit during anniversary commemorations of both last summer’s devastating war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and Israel’s contentious withdrawal of settlements and forces from Gaza a decade ago. It comes just five months after a divisive election that yielded the narrowest and most conservative government in recent memory.

For days now, there has been an outpouring of outrage: Israel’s chief rabbis published a newspaper ad declaring, “Violence is not the way of our holy Torah.” Sheikhs and rabbis, as well as politicians from opposing camps, made joint pilgrimages to visit Ali’s badly burned mother and 4-year-old brother in the hospital. Security forces have also reinvigorated their pursuit of right-wing radicals.

There has also been a backlash. The leader of a group that harasses gays and Jewish-Arab couples was recorded declaring that “churches must be burned.” Posters honoring the man arrested after stabbing six people at the pride march — “We pray that all of God’s nation were as filled with awe as you” — appeared in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, where many consider homosexuality an affront to God.

Death threats against the right-wing leaders who vowed vengeance against the arsonists have been posted on social media sites.

And there has been blame. Palestinians and leftist Israelis argue that Israel’s nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank and impunity toward settler vandalism inevitably led to Friday’s firebombing of the Dawabsheh home. Gay rights advocates cannot understand how the police failed to stop Yishai Schissel, who had recently been released from prison for a similar attack at the 2005 pride march and had openly declared his intention to repeat it.

“Israeli society is embarrassed, because we know this is not who we are, it’s not who we want to think we are,” said Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi and the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research and education group. “The interesting question for all of us is, ‘Is this going to be a growth moment or is it going to be another wasted Yom Kippur? Oh, we’ve sinned, and we feel so righteous for saying we’ve sinned.’

“I’m afraid there isn’t a context yet in which this could really create a societal change,” he added. “The core narrative in Israel is still an us-them, they’re-threatening-us narrative, and in an us-them, these are just moments.”

The attack on the Dawabsheh home may have more international significance; the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, reported that the foreign minister had stressed it in a meeting this week with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. But for many in Jerusalem, the stabbing that killed young Shira was equally painful, highlighting the tension in a city where a third of the Jewish residents are ultra-Orthodox.

While Tel Aviv is celebrated as a mecca of gay nightclubs and same-sex couples pushing strollers, Jerusalem remains a place where gay and transgender youths often must choose between their orientation and their religious communities. It was only in 2012, after a decadelong court battle, that the Jerusalem Open House, which runs an HIV clinic, support groups and a drop-in center, secured funding from City Hall. In the years between Schissel’s attacks, the pride march has been marred by Orthodox protesters hurling epithets and bags of urine.

“There’s a very mainstream perception in Israel that gays shouldn’t live openly in Jerusalem,” said Tom Canning, Open House’s director of development. “This is not religious people, it’s also secular people. ‘Why are you marching in Jerusalem? Go to Tel Aviv, you have Tel Aviv.’”

Canning said the group’s top priority is to gain access to public religious schools for tolerance education, and that it pressed for this in a meeting Monday with Naftali Bennett, the education minister, but “he didn’t make any promises.”

Still, Rabbi Noa Sattath, who was chairwoman of Open House at the time of Schissel’s first stabbing, said “the reaction from the community is completely different.”

At that time, a post-stabbing rally drew 150 people and “we couldn’t get one member of Parliament to come,” Sattath recalled. At a rally Saturday night, Israel’s president spoke to a crowd of thousands, she noted, adding, “Our pain has become visible.”

The gathering in Zion Square, a bustling hub for tourists and Israeli teenagers alike, began spontaneously on Sunday after Shira, a pianist who had excelled at biology and theater at an elite Jerusalem high school, died of her wounds. Open House, the city government and other organizations then made efforts to turn it into a public shiva, the seven-day period of intense Jewish mourning, bringing in facilitators to lead structured conversations.

Sarah Weil has been there for hours each night, holding a large rainbow flag with a Star of David. She has been called an “animal” and an “abomination” by ultra-Orthodox passers-by. She has also had “confrontational dialogue” that she described as “raw and difficult and painful,” and “like witnessing revelation.”

“We have young ultra-Orthodox men coming, they’re coming because they’re actually curious, they want to meet a gay person,” Weil said. “We can pass laws and we can stage protests and we can write articles, but the way to open hearts and minds is to talk face to face.”

On Wednesday night, as Krueger crooned on the cobblestones with his guitar, Noam Eyal, 30, whom Schissel had stabbed in the back at the parade, was in the crowd. Uniformed Israeli soldiers leaned on the police barriers surrounding the circle, smoking cigarettes, next to a middle-age couple licking ice cream cones. Inside, someone had painted a new placard that read, “Our hands did not spill this blood,” adorned with red handprints.

Naftali Sirchuk, 20, in the signature white button-down, black pants and black-velvet skullcap of his yeshiva, sat for nearly an hour arguing with Nir Cohen, 30, and Vered Hoshmand, 29, who both have degrees in philosophy. They debated the difference, biblically speaking, between homosexual love and pedophilia. They dissected the gemarah, centuries-old rabbinical teachings. They spoke of the Holocaust and the death penalty and whether murder can ever be just.

Just the sight of Sirchuk engaging with Hoshmand, who wore a spaghetti-strap tank top and short jeans skirt, was shocking in tribal Jerusalem. But after the long conversation, did any of the three think any differently?

“No,” said Sirchuk.

“No,” said Cohen.

“That’s not the right question,” said Hoshmand. “The most important thing is that the conversation is happening, not that we will change our view.”

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