SHUAFAT, Jerusalem — Men in skullcaps and observant women crowded outside the mourners’ tent of the Abu Khdeir family in northern Jerusalem Tuesday to pay their condolences for the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad, burned to death last week, allegedly by Jewish extremists.
“What do we say?” they asked one another, wondering whether there is an Arabic equivalent of the traditional Hebrew formula Hamakom Yenahem (May the Divine give comfort), recited following a visit to a Jewish house of mourning.
Under a blue awning, surrounded by huge posters of the smiling teenager and Palestinian flags, the men of the Abu Khdeir family stood in a row, quietly shaking hands and welcoming the large Israeli contingent, which had arrived in seven chartered buses from downtown Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as part of an initiative of Tag Meir, an Israeli grassroots NGO created two years ago to combat Jewish hate crime.
The unusual gathering was rendered all the more intense by Operation Protective Edge which was launched earlier that day by the IDF against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and by Gaza rocket attacks which hit as far north as Jerusalem and beyond in the course of Tuesday.
Rabbi Yossi Slotnik came to Shuafat from Kibbutz Maaleh Gilboa in northern Israel, where he teaches Talmud at the local yeshiva. He said he was driven by a sense that “something tragically bad happened.”
“This is what we as Jews call Hilul Hashem (the desecration of God’s name). I came to protest and declare that this is not the way my religion goes. I think we should say it out loud: This isn’t what we expect and what we want to happen. We’re looking for a different type of coexistence.”
Slotnik said he was a bit nervous coming to Jerusalem, and especially driving through the Jordan Valley which had witnessed numerous terror attacks in the past, but added that he “pushed that aside because it’s so important to come.”
During a conversation about the murder, the rabbi’s seven-year-old son asked him why anyone would chose to do bad. “I don’t know. There’s nothing in the way I was brought up or in the way I teach my students or children that is connected to this in any way or form. I don’t understand how such a good message like the Torah or Judaism can be so distorted. I can’t explain it; it’s very scary and worrying.”
The brutal murder of Abu Khdeir was allegedly carried out in revenge for the killing by a Hamas cell of three Israeli teenagers, who were laid to rest just hours before Abu Khdeir was seized and killed. Six Israelis are being held for the killing; several have confessed and reenacted it, the police said on Monday.
In the tent, an unidentified Palestinian man took the microphone and thanked the crowd for coming, saying that their presence was the answer to settlement expansion and Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people. Many in the audience moved uncomfortably in their plastic chairs.
“We haven’t allowed government representatives to come here because we felt their condolences were insincere. But we’ve welcomed you because you understand the extent of the crime.”
(The family reportedly refused to receive a condolence visit by President Shimon Peres. The family also rejected a condolence statement made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a relative quoted by the Maan news agency, who said that that “we refuse to accept the condolences of someone who agrees on the murder of our people in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.” The bereaved father, Hussein, asserted on Monday that there was no evidence that the murderers of Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrach, were not Jews.)
Outside the tent, Muhammad Al-Julani, 25, said the Jewish visit was useful in lowering the level of tension between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I congratulate them. I appreciate their good will and support for peace. They oppose settlement activity and what’s happening now across the West Bank,” he told The Times of Israel.
Julani was laid off work as a gas station attendant in Modi’in last week, unable to reach his workplace due to the violence in Shuafat and the ensuing police curfew.
“The burning of a child is despicable. Long ago, Jews have experienced the suffering of incineration with the Nazis, which was despicable,” he said. “Now I feel like these things are happening again to the Palestinians. I reject that, I don’t want it to happen.”
Walking back to the bus, Rafi Meron, a retired economist from the Bank of Israel, said he came to express sympathy with the victim’s family, even though he believed the effect of such a visit was negligible.
“It’s better than sitting at home and remaining indifferent to what’s happening,” he said. “Who knows, maybe Tag Meir’s activities have a cumulative effect.”
Meron said the murder was a result of “consistent incitement, both from the political system and the educational and religious systems.”
“We all have soul searching to do,” he concluded.
Moshe Simchovitch, a 69-year-old Jerusalem pensioner, paid for an obituary for Abu Khdeir in Al-Quds, the city’s most widely-read Arabic daily, last Friday. His words of consolation had touched the family and were read aloud at the mourners’ tent, then translated into Hebrew.
“I’ve been publishing obituaries for years in Haaretz for various wrongs,” Simchovitch said, displaying a photocopy of an obituary he published in honor of doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost three daughters in an IDF strike on Gaza in January 2009.
“‘We must let go of the trigger and press down on the pedal of peace,’” he read from the paper. “Between me and you, it’s nonsense. Things are only getting worse. This will not be the last incident, we’re in for worse. Believe me … these 350 people here are nonsense. They don’t even make up half a yeshiva. Who does this help? Who cares? we’re barely a grain of sand. I’m here to represent myself, no political party.”
Simchovitch’s comments angered Motti, a 27-year-old ultra-Orthodox man from Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood, who works as a literary editor for a book publisher.
“I feel like we’re always forced to explain and apologize for things we aren’t responsible for. This in itself is a terrible predicament. Over the past few years we have one public that stirs trouble and perpetrates atrocities and another public which has to explain the first … the people who did this are closer to Palestinian terrorists than to Jews.”
“In my mind, this murder is highly unusual. Children belong to the nation of children, and are outside the [political] story … We have deteriorated, and things are spinning out of control.”
Even without a personal sense of guilt, Motti said he felt compelled to come and pay his respects, earlocks, black suit, and all.
“The moment I heard about the murder I started looking for a way to come and visit,” he said. “As soon as I understood a channel was opened with the family, I rushed to join.”
Listening to the men’s argument, Ronni Sadovsky, a PhD philosophy student at Harvard on vacation in Israel, said she didn’t believe people would come to the Palestinian mourners’ tent for personal reasons alone.
“If it were just about us, it’s very easy to find someone in west Jerusalem to feel good with, and post comments on Facebook,” she told The Times of Israel. “Anyone who comes to something like this wants to express his feelings, to tell the family how sorry he his. I may not have perpetrated the crime, but I think I have a moral obligation as a member of the group that did.”