A curious sight greeted the readers of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Mishpacha on Thursday: a message printed by the editors in Arabic.
“Don’t be startled,” deputy editor Aryeh Erlich wrote in Hebrew beneath the Arabic script. “No Islamic hacker has taken over the newspaper’s computers. The strange text that opens this column is not an act of malice, or a misprint. You can relax. You hold in your hands the Mishpacha newspaper, which publishes in Hebrew and will continue to do so. This is simply an appeal to our cousins who live by the sword, rooted in the hope (a frail one, to be sure) that this magazine may find its way to some influential Arab. Here is a translation of our admittedly slightly bizarre appeal.”
The translation of the Arabic appeal follows: “We, the Haredi public, have no interest in going up to the Temple Mount at this time. We vehemently oppose doing so. Even more: Jewish law severely proscribes such an act — on penalty of spiritual excommunication. Therefore you will never see Haredim ascending the mount, with the exception of one single family, acting on its own, which is condemned for the practice. So even if you have in your hand solid information about an Israeli desire to change the status quo at the Dome of the Rock — which is not true, as far as we know — this has nothing to do with the Haredi public. So please, stop murdering us.”
There is much to unpack in this strange editorial. For one thing, it sparkles with irony. It mocks its own “slightly bizarre” premise that printing such an appeal in Arabic might have an effect.
And despite the pretense that it is begging Palestinians to spare Haredi lives, it is not actually respectful of Palestinians, calling them “our cousins who live by the sword,” both stereotyping them as violent and painting them with a cultural vocabulary reminiscent of the Biblical Esau or the czarist Cossaks.
The final juxtaposition of politeness (“so please”) and morbid supplication (“stop murdering us”) ties together all of the odd appeal’s disparate elements, bringing the underlying irony to the fever pitch of sarcasm.
And yet, interviewed on Army Radio Thursday morning, Erlich explained that there was a very real problem he was trying to address.
“In their propaganda, the Islamists show [a Jew] in religious garb as seeking to build the Third Temple,” he explained.
Asked who “us” was in his request to “stop murdering us,” he said, “’us’ is anyone with a religious appearance.”
The response on Thursday morning was immediate and indignant. Erlich was accused by some of urging Palestinian terrorists to attack non-Haredi Jews.
Yossi Elituv, Mishpacha’s editor and Erlich’s boss, both defended and distanced himself from the column on Twitter. “Aryeh Erlich tried in his way to emphasize the lie in the Palestinian cry of ‘Temple Mount,’ when in practice they murder any Jew, regardless of their view [on visiting the mount].”
Erlich “tried,” Elituv noted, “but I’m not sure he succeeded.”
The column “requires an unambiguous clarification,” Elituv continued. “There are no ‘Haredim,’ there are only ‘Jews.’ Islamic hatred does not distinguish between Jews of all types – Haredim, knit-kippa wearers and secularists.”
But Erlich himself, speaking in his own defense Thursday, pointed to a deeper impulse for what he now calls the “gimmick” that opens his column.
“The wearers of kippot have become the symbols of the current jihad,” he said. “The Islamic Movement tries to paint the struggle as a religious war and calls for violence against those with a religious appearance.”
That sense of special endangerment rooted in their religiously identifying garb lies at the root of his strange column, he explained.
And he’s right. The Haredi sense that they are more threatened by the terror than secular Israelis is very real, and it is rooted in one of the most interesting and least acknowledged facts of this violence: that it is surprisingly hard to tell Jews and Palestinians apart.
That is, when they are stripped of context and religious identifiers, when they meet in plain, Western garb on the street or in the workplace, the supposedly “Western” Jew is often darker-skinned than the “Eastern” Arab. Half of Israel’s Jews, after all, come from the Arab and Muslim world, while Palestinian Arabs are likewise a people of many skin tones, from dark Bedouin in the south to blue-eyed Christians in the north.
This challenge of physical similarity has been a recurring theme in the violence of the past month.
On the Jewish side, the dark skin of the Beersheba central bus station attacker, who was a Negev Bedouin, likely contributed to the mistaken assault by a Jewish mob on an innocent Eritrean asylum seeker at the scene. Similarly, a Jew in the northern town of Kiryat Ata stabbed an Arab man outside an Ikea furniture store – only to discover his victim was a Yemenite Jew.
On the Palestinian side, the problem of distinguishing Jew from Arab drives the basic behavior of the terrorists, who have taken care to direct their attacks at discernibly Jewish victims – either striking at uniformed members of the security services or at those whose religion-specific clothing leaves no doubt about their Jewishness.
Some Israeli commentators have taken this telling peculiarity of this ethnic clash even further, noting that the terrorists often strike the very Jews who support the cause they claim to be fighting for.
“A terrorist’s life is hard,” television anchor Linoy Bar Geffen wrote on Facebook in response to Erlich’s column.
“What does he want, after all? To arrive at the center of town with a sharpened blade and liquidate a few Jews. But in the moment before the blade finds its place, he has to start with the selection: that brownish fellow – maybe he isn’t even a Jew? That elderly religious man – maybe he only looks like a Bennett supporter but is actually a leftist whose death will make The Shadow happy? That wrapped woman – maybe she’s Haredi and opposes changing the status quo and ascending the Temple Mount?”
Erlich’s critics are wrong. He did not seriously call for terrorists to refocus their efforts on non-Haredi Jews. The evidence for that is as straightforward as one might hope: the Arabic text he printed at the top of his editorial is fake. Or, rather, it is the Google Translate translation of his appeal, which was only actually published in Hebrew.
The Arabic is, as one Arabic reader informed Erlich on Twitter Thursday morning, “atrocious.” It is not meant to convince any Palestinian would-be attacker; it is not really meant to be read at all.
Yet it conveyed a tension that is all too real in this conflict. It is not merely foreigners who cannot always tell the difference between “Middle Easterners”; Arabs and Jews in this land often struggle to tell each other apart. This fact pervades the fighting, and gently, persistently points to the tragic irony in its continuation.