Readers of this column frequently urge me to write more good stories about Israel, which I’m very happy to do. Israel is a great country indeed, and there is no shortage of success stories to write about, be it high-tech ingenuity, cultural excellence or human endeavor. People who love Israel like these kinds of stories; they strengthen the image of the ideal Israel they want to maintain.
However, when I write something that isn’t so flattering, I get responses like, “Why air our dirty laundry in public?” Why? Because while I love my country with passion, I can’t remain indifferent to its flaws. Here is what happened last week in my hometown, Jerusalem.
After a victorious soccer match at the Teddy Stadium in south Jerusalem, hundreds of jubilant fans of the local team, Beitar Jerusalem, entered the adjacent Malcha Mall, where Jews and Arabs shop together and where many of the workers and employees at the shops are Arabs. The fans were shouting “Death to the Arabs” and quickly a fight erupted, where Arabs were beaten. The Jerusalem police arrived at the scene only 40 minutes after the incident had started, and when they finally did, the fans already took off.
The idea that in a country that aspires to be both Jewish and democratic, Jews should chant “Death to the Arabs” is horrifying. To add insult to injury, those hooligans, who in their fanatic support of their team are capable of such depravity, don’t even know that Beitar, the name of their loved team, stands for a respected Zionist youth movement established 90 years ago by Zev Jabotinsky, who had advocated coexistence between Arabs and Jews sharing the same piece of land.
I could go on reminding that this incident happened when in Toulouse, France, a Muslim killed innocent Jews just because they were Jews. What an uproar this incident generated in Israel and all around the Jewish world. Thank God, nobody was killed, not even badly injured in the mall incident, but still, the relative calm, even indifference, in which this violence against Arabs was received, is appalling.
I’m sure that many of the Beitar fans who participated in the incident are descendants of Jews who came from Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Their parents and grandparents can tell them about the riots against the Jews, say, in Baghdad, in 1941, when in one day in June, 179 Jews were killed in a pogrom, thousands were injured and many houses looted. Is our memory so short? And I restrain myself from stretching the analogy any further into recent Jewish history.
Yet not everybody was silent. Gideon Avrahami, the director of the mall, called the riot “disgraceful, shocking, racist incident” and apologized in person to the Arab workers. Mayor Nir Barkat invited them to City Hall to express his disgust. And on Wednesday, some hundreds of Jerusalemites gathered outside the Malcha Mall, to protest the violent incident, the leniency of the police and the public silence. In the freezing cold, people listened to Osnat Kollek, the daughter of legendary Mayor Teddy Kollek (the stadium carries his name), who was a great champion of Arab-Jewish coexistence in the city. She simply said she was ashamed for her late father.
Zoheir Bahalul, a famous Arab sports anchorman, came all the way from Akko in the north of Israel, to address the crowd. “We Arabs who live here,” he said, “should always think about the memory of the Holocaust which haunts the Jews. But Jews should also think about the Arabs, their worries, their feelings.” He touched the heart of everyone present, and the many who listened to him over the radio.
It was Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish, , the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, who reminded the participants of the rally that we were approaching Passover, the festival of freedom. He was so right. You can’t be truly free in your country, if others are not free as well — first and foremost, free of fea.
Col. Uri Dromi, Israeli Air Force Reserve, is director general of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center in Jerusalem.