DUMA, West Bank — As our bus entered the agricultural Palestinian village on Sunday afternoon, passing beneath a large banner with the photo of slain baby Ali Saad Dawabsha and the words “Occupation is the biggest crime,” Matan Fischer had a strong sense of deja vu.
Like now, last summer the 28-year-old social work student from Jerusalem boarded a coach chartered by Tag Meir — an Israeli group created in 2011 to protest Jewish hate crimes — and joined hundreds of fellow Israelis paying their condolences to the Abu Khdeir family, whose teenage son Muhammad was burned alive by Jewish extremists in July 2014.
“On the one hand, I’m not surprised I’m here again so soon, but on the other, I can’t believe that we’ve reached this point,” he said. “Maybe I was naive.”
Over 100 Israelis heeded the call of Tag Meir to come to Duma to offer condolences to the bereaved Dawabsha family. Late Thursday night, 18-month-old son Ali Sa’ad was killed and his immediate family members critically injured by Molotov cocktails thrown into their home, apparently by Jewish extremists who spray-painted “revenge” and “long live the Messiah king” on the home’s exterior walls.
The condolences were never offered, though, as tensions were deemed too high for the Israelis to risk entering the traditional mourners’ tent. Instead, the stunned visitors circled the small Dawabsha house, peering in through broken windows. They lined up to enter the charred cavity, gently touching the incinerated furniture and a discarded child’s tricycle.
Like at the Abu Khdeir tent, Israelis stood sheepishly outside the Dawabsha home in Duma, their heads bowed, as local Palestinian villagers blasted them for not taking a strong enough stand against Israeli government racism. “Where were you when we were called small snakes who need to be killed before they grow bigger?” one man asked, referring to a Facebook post written by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked last summer.
“Not everyone in the Israeli government realized that these are Jewish terror gangs that operate systematically, with a worldview, according to the book,” said Gadi Gvaryahu, head of Tag Meir. “They have spiritual leaders, websites, and guidance manuals.”
Back in 2009, Gvaryahu asked Israel’s attorney general to investigate the religious book “Torat Hamelech,” a treatise penned by two rabbis from the settlement of Yitzhar that sanctioned the killing of Palestinian civilians in certain situations.
“The attorney general’s office investigated the matter for three years and then told us that it’s a halachic (Jewish legal) essay,” he said. “The book’s final footnote says that individuals don’t need permission from the sovereign power to take revenge against ‘the evil kingdom.’ An entire chapter deals with harming innocents, including children and babies. What more do you need?
“Now everyone is rolling their eyes and calling this a horror. Where have you been for the past six years? You had all the materials!” he said.
Meanwhile, the recent wave of violence seems to have shaken some religious leaders out of their silence. Rabbi David Bigman, head of the Modern Orthodox yeshiva at Ma’aleh Gilboa, said that expressing sympathy in Duma was the least he could do “in these very troubling times, when the image of God has been so desecrated.”
“It is very important to show both our neighbors and our own people how concerned we are for the well-being, the dignity, and the life of all human beings,” Bigman said.
Even though violent acts go “completely against the grain of Torah,” religious leaders have the obligation to examine the spread of violence within their communities, he added.
“Unfortunately, these primary values in our culture have been neglected for many years, especially in Israeli Jewish education,” Bigman opined. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
For Azi Nagar, secretary of the Labor Party chapter in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo and an adviser to Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog on social matters, the crisis is essentially political, not religious.
“I came to express my disgust with the settlers’ conduct,” he said. “I don’t want to generalize, but they seem less like stray weeds and more like a forest. This is a threat to Zionism and the Jewish state.”
‘I don’t want to generalize, but they seem less like stray weeds and more like a forest. This is a threat to Zionism and the Jewish State’
A Labor old-timer, Nagar has pleaded with his party leadership to forge political alliances with Israel’s socioeconomic periphery and the Arab sector, and cut ties with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox political parties in parliament.
“These people aren’t partners at all,” he said. “We must simply fight them every day.”
For some, visiting Duma was an act of catharsis. Shiri Navon of Kibbutz Na’aran in the Jordan Valley said she had tears in her eyes when she heard of the attack on the radio.
“Many emotions came up when I heard about this terror attack,” she said. “Sadness, anger and confusion. I immediately searched for something to do with all of this.”
Navon, a 28-year-old informal educator, had visited the firebombed mosque in the Palestinian village of al-Mughayir with Tag Meir last November, and said she yearned for “an encounter” following the attack on the Dawabsha family last week.
“This isn’t just to pat myself on the back. I need this in order to believe that things can be better. I don’t want other people’s hatred to foster hatred within me.”