While the horrible news of 100 people dying from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza this week, even as Gazan missiles fly into southern Israel, may seem like a faraway matter, events in the Middle East often have local repercussions. Just last week, my fiancee and I were rushing off to a Fourth of July fireworks show at San Jose’s Almaden Lake after grabbing dinner in Santana Row when we noticed a crowd gathered at Stevens Creek and Winchester boulevards flanked by a sea of red, white, green, and black Palestinian flags.
At first, I was struck by the irony of the protest’s timing. As we Americans celebrated our nation’s independence, Palestinians are still decrying their inability to establish a state nearly 21 years after the Oslo Accords were set to pave the way for Palestinian self-determination. Yet I later learned that there was more to the story. The event was a candlelight vigil held to commemorate Muhammad Abu Khdeir, whose cousins lived in the Silicon Valley community of Los Gatos.
For the few people who haven’t heard, Mohammed Abu Khdeir is a 15-year-old Palestinian boy who was kidnapped and burned to death on July 2. Six Israeli Jews from the Jerusalem area were arrested in connection with the crime, and three of them were later released after the others confessed to the deed. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the crime as “abhorrent” and said the suspects will be “dealt with to the full extent of the law.” The kidnapping and killing came just two days after the bodies of Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, had been found near the West Bank village of Halhoul after they were kidnapped June 12.
Israeli officials suspect that Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu Aysha, allegedly Hamas members, carried out those crimes. The Israeli military has responded by bombing the daylights out of Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, causing more than 100 deaths and hundreds of more injuries, and militant groups in the Gaza Strip have sent a slew of missiles into southern Israel and even the Jerusalem area. That’s not to mention the mass arrest of Palestinians and raid of institutions in the West Bank leading up to the finding of the teens’ bodies, or the mass rioting that took place in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shoafat following Abu Khdeir’s death. Amidst all the madness, many Israelis are living in fear of rocket fire, and dozens of Palestinian civilians in Gaza are now dead as a result of Israeli military gunfire.
Much of this feels like déjà vu following similar Israeli-Hamas battles in Gaza in 2008-09 and 2012. Both of those operations led to mass casualties in Gaza, and the deaths of several Israelis as well, and fear among southern Israel residents following the launch of Gazan rockets, but no real clear “victory.” It’s easy for Americans to become jaded about the situation, which comes after one failed peace talk after another, but last Friday’s vigil in San Jose was a reminder about how such incidents often hit close to home.
Tampa, Fla. residents also found this to be the case after Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s cousin, Tampa resident Tariq Abu Khdeir, was beaten unconscious by Israeli police. While some have debated whether Tariq was involved in the surrounding protests (which Tariq denies), a video of the beating makes it apparent that police used excessive force. Various Israeli news sources indicate the officer may well be indicted.
Personally speaking, these incidents are close to my heart for other reasons as well. I lived in East Jerusalem from 2002-03, and occasionally visited the Beit Hanina and Shoafat neighborhoods where these incidents occurred. A friend from St. George’s Cathedral who lives in Beit Hanina noted that one of the missiles from Gaza came close to hitting a Jewish settlement that isn’t too far away from her East Jerusalem neighborhood. As the violence continues, and pundits predict that a ceasefire does not appear to be in sight, not nearly enough media reports have noted that brave individuals are seeking to cross barriers and show empathy. A handful of reports have noted that some of Abu Khdeir’s and Fraenkel’s family members have exchanged condolences, and that Tag Meir — a coalition of groups that oppose hateful graffiti on various holy sites — brought hundreds of Israelis to visit the Abu Khdeir family so that they also could offer condolences as well. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian youth involved in the Kids4Peace program, took risks for peace following the violence by gathering together for a communal meal.
It’s also been encouraging to read some blog posts from Jews and Muslims here and abroad advocating for peace. Those include a recent article published in the Huffington Post from Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida calling for both sides to seek peace for the sake of the children, and another article from J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben Ami, proclaiming that there have already been “Enough Tears and Bloodshed.” (The latter article was written before all the madness of the past week.) A Ynet article from a Palestinian principal in Israel similarly has called for “Sane people on each side” to unite.
Meanwhile, Israeli poet Eliaz Cohen has come up with the idea for a ‘Hunger Strike Against Violence’ next Tuesday, July 15, in conjunction with Muslim fasting for Ramadan and Jewish fasting during the 17th of Tammuz, which commemorates five tragic events in Jewish history. The event is being promoted in the U.S. by the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center as well as The American Muslim online publication. One would hope that many people participate in this day of fasting, and that Christians would pray for peace that day as well. For these atrocities, along with the the fears and injustices that foster them, stem from matters of the human heart, and require a God-sized solution.
Lee Weissman, an Orthodox Jewish blogger who lives in Southern California, touched on this in a recent post, comparing the human condition to that of storks. He noted that the stork is called a “chasida” or kindly one in Hebrew, yet it remains a non-kosher bird. Rabbis have concluded the reason for this is that storks are kind to each other, but vicious when faced with outsiders.
“We are storks,” Weissman goes on to write. “We are nice people. We are great to the people around us. We are chock full of the values of mercy and kindness and generosity until we are faced with ‘the other.’ Then all bets are off.”
He pledged to show empathy for Palestinians by getting to know the names of Palestinian victims and by speaking out against those who speak ill of them among other means, and he urged other Jews, Christians, and Muslims to do the same with those who they perceive to be “the other.”
This can be a difficult task, for sure, particularly in light of the long list of Palestinians who have already died, but it’s a challenge that’s worthy of pursuing. As I reflect on my own Christian faith, I’m thankful that God was willing to love me, although I was “the other,” and that God was willing to offer His love through sending Christ, who could fully relate to my humanity. God, through Christ, saw the world through human eyes — through eyes like mine. I must similarly follow this example of divine empathy, so I can truly love my neighbor as myself.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike all must recognize that even as God has compassion on us, we should have compassion on others who are made in God’s image. May we put these principles into practice, with God’s help, even as we pray for peace. In the words of Turkish author Harun Yahya: “Palestinians and Israelis are the lineage of the prophets. Brothers should not fight, but they should make peace and live in tranquility.”