Gadi Gvaryahu laid two large bouquets of red roses and a jumbo bag of lollipops on the sidewalk across from Rami Levy, a supermarket located at the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank, and headed straight for the weekend shoppers.
Violence had increased over recent few weeks in this settlement bloc, incorporating some 16,000 Jews and the Palestinian city of Bethlehem with its suburbs, Gvaryahu said. On October 31, two masked settlers from Bat Ayin attacked a Palestinian truck driver delivering supplies to the community with a club before turning on two soldiers standing guard at the gate and pepper-spraying them. On November 8, Palestinians hurled a Molotov cocktail at the car of the Khouri family driving near Tekoa, completely incinerating it and moderately injuring the couple in the front seat.
Gvaryahu decided that something had to be done. Two years ago he founded the Tag Meir Forum, Hebrew for “illuminating tag,” a coalition of 39 Israeli organizations serving as the moral answer to — and a pun on — Jewish “price tag” attacks against Palestinians and their property, known in Hebrew as Tag Mehir, or “price tag.”
On Thursday he created a Facebook event calling on supporters to come to the Rami Levi supermarket and hand out flowers along with a prayer for world peace penned by Nachman of Bratslav, an 18th century Hasidic rabbi, translated into English and Arabic.
“We’re here to defend Judaism from those who use its name to sabotage and burn churches and mosques,” Gvaryahu told The Times of Israel. “Israeli authorities like the police and the prosecutor’s office have not been dealing with this phenomenon adequately. There were very few arrests and even fewer indictments following the burning of over 20 houses of worship and hundreds of cases of vandalism in four years.”
“We came here because what else can we do? We can only pray for world peace,” he said.
Ruthie Tal, a resident of Bat Ayin, received a flower from the Tag Meir activists as she was stuffing her shopping bags into the trunk of her car. She said that although she sensed no particular increase in violence, initiatives supporting a more peaceful world should be commended.
“These are sane people who want to bring about an optimal world,” Tal said. “I support what they’re doing. If it was decreed that we [Israelis and Palestinians] must live together on this planet, we can at least do so pleasantly and in peace.”
Tal told The Times of Israel that Bat Ayin was getting bad press because of “two extremist families” that “cannot be controlled.” October’s attack against the Arab truck driver and the two soldiers “was an evil act that should be eradicated.”
“It’s not easy to tackle,” she said. “Sometimes we’re dealing with good families who have a child who behaves this way. We have community meetings. As far as I’m concerned, someone who does this should be sent to an institution for juvenile delinquents. If it’s the parents, they should be expelled from the community.”
But not all the shoppers outside the supermarket were as supportive of Tag Meir’s activity.
‘I feel very uncomfortable seeing people carry out negative acts against the other side. I don’t think that’s conducive to mutual understanding and mutual respect’
Meir David, an 18-year-old resident of the small ultra-Orthodox settlement of Ma’aleh Amos, currently on a gap year awaiting his draft to the IDF, said that upon first seeing the activists he intended to give them a piece of his mind. He said they looked “too peaceful” to him, and he thought they were “leftists.” He said that price tag attacks were justified as long as they stayed clear of the Israeli army.
“Sometimes you have to use violence to prevent more violence,” said David, an Israeli-born son of American parents. “I can’t say I don’t like it, but I don’t like army bases getting hit. If they leave the army bases alone then I think I’m OK with it.”
The frustration of youngsters like David is understandable, said Yitzchak Glick, a medical doctor who divides his time between an emergency center in Cleveland, Ohio, and Efrat, the largest Jewish community in the area.
“I feel very uncomfortable seeing people carry out negative acts against the other side. I don’t think that’s conducive to mutual understanding and mutual respect,” Glick told The Times of Israel shortly after handing out red roses to two veiled young women entering the supermarket. “You’re better off spreading nice things like flowers. Showing good deeds has a much better effect.”
Skeptics, however, existed on the Palestinian side as well. Abu-Wasim, a 35-year-old medical equipment retailer from Hebron, found it hard to believe that the initiative expressed “the true face of the other side.”
“You come carrying a flower in one hand and a stick in the other? This makes no sense,” he said. “As we say, even an animal knows not to come close to humans holding food in one hand and a stick in the other. It’ll be too scared.”
Nevertheless, the simple human gesture of Tag Meir managed to inspire Maurice Sikenyi, a native of western Kenya studying international peace and conflict resolution at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
“This is a great theory of change,” said Sikenyi, who is currently completing a six-month internship with Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem.
“Creating peace and coexistence is not just about dialogue or conferences, it’s about little things like buying a flower and giving it to someone. Maybe it will mean something more to them.”