Israelis in soul-searching mood after 'hate attacks'

Hundreds join vigil to mourn 2 young victims whose deaths were attributed to fanatics

JERUSALEM • On one edge of the Zion Square gathering, an Orthodox yeshiva student was heatedly debating the hierarchy of sin with a secular couple. On another, young men wearing skullcaps rocked back and forth, reciting evening prayers.

In between, people sat cross-legged on the cobblestones amid an array of memorial candles and banners decrying violence, promoting love and demanding change.

The focal point was a black cloth with white Hebrew letters spelling out "Ali Saad Dawabsheh", the Palestinian baby burnt to death in his West Bank home, and "Shira Banki", the Jewish girl, 16, 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, drawing hundreds here each night for a mixture of mourning and protest.

"Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsheh are names that are going to be etched in Israeli history as a trigger point," guitarist Asher Krueger, who led the group in songs of grief and hope, told The New York Times.

"And time will tell - is this going to be a tearing apart, or a pivot point for people trying to understand one another, trying to live together?"

This is a time of deep questioning across Israel, after two deaths that underscored both the endless conflict with the Palestinians and Israel's internal struggle to balance a rising religiosity with civil rights.

For days now, there has been an outpouring of outrage. Israel's chief rabbis published a newspaper advertisement 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 burnt mother and four-year-old brother in the hospital. Security forces have stepped up their pursuit of right-wing radicals.

Meanwhile, the leader of a group that harasses gays and Jewish-Arab couples was recorded as declaring that "churches must be burnt".

Posters honouring the man arrested after stabbing six people at the gay pride march - "We pray that all of God's nation were as filled with awe as you" - appeared in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, 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.

Palestinians and leftist Israelis argue that Israel's nearly half-century occupation of the West Bank and failure to deal with settler vandals inevitably led to the firebombing of the Dawabsheh home.

Gay rights advocates cannot understand how police failed to stop the man accused in the knife attacks, Yishai Schissel - he was recently released from jail for a similar attack at the 2005 pride march, and he declared he would repeat it.

Tel Aviv is celebrated for its gay nightclubs and same-sex couples, but not Jerusalem.

"There is a very mainstream perception in Israel that gays shouldn't live openly in Jerusalem," said development director Tom Canning at the Jerusalem Open House.

The gathering in Zion Square, a bustling hub for tourists and Israeli teenagers alike, began spontaneously after Shira died of her wounds.

Participant Sarah Weil is there for hours each night, holding a large rainbow flag with a Star of David.

"We have young ultra-Orthodox men coming. They're coming because they're actually curious - they want to meet a gay person," she 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."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline 'Israelis in soul-searching mood after 'hate attacks''. Print Edition | Subscribe