Galilee Diary: On Violence

January 22, 2014Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein
...There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still small voice...
    – I Kings 19:11-12

About a year ago I wrote here about my experience as one of the representatives of Judaism at an interfaith day at an Arab high school. Recently, I participated in another of these events, co-sponsored by the Interfaith Coordinating Council in Israel and the Ministry of Interior, in the village of Abu Snan, a village with a mixed population of Druze, Christians, and Muslims, not far from Acco. The format of the day, dictated by the Druze retired army officer who coordinates this project: Panels of clergy representing the different religions fanned out for a session with 10th grade homerooms, followed by planting a "peace tree" in the courtyard, followed by a concluding assembly for the whole grade, with an interfaith panel of clergy.

The proceedings were in Arabic except for the presentations by the rabbis. In the homeroom session there were segments when one of the teachers translated for me, quietly, and other segments when I had to get along on body language and the few key words I recognized. Actually, this wasn't so difficult, as the presentations were pretty predictable. We had been strictly instructed to speak only about what our religion has to say about interfaith tolerance, and not to stray into other topics. Needless to say, all of us tried to outdo each other in presenting a convincing case regarding our religion's commitment to toleration. The students listened politely, and asked a few questions, in the direction of: "If all your religions teach peace, how come there is so much interreligious strife, even violent strife, throughout history?"

In the assembly, the assigned topic was: What does each religion have to say about verbal violence? I was the rabbi on the panel. My fellow panelists gave impassioned sermons, and there seemed to be a good deal of restlessness in the audience. I tried to be brief and focused, telling the story of Elijah, who found God's voice in silence, not in pyrotechnics, and mentioning the Talmudic prohibition of "whitening the face" of one's neighbor. There was some scattered applause. Then there were questions from the floor.

One girl addressed a question to me that aroused a stir: "If you are opposed to violence, how do you explain the violence with which the Israeli police responded to the recent demonstration against the Prawer plan [a proposal, since shelved, involving settling Bedouin land claims in the Negev, including involuntary resettlement of thousands]?"

My answer was easy: "I may be Jewish, but I am not here as a representative of the Israeli police, or the government. In a democracy, differences of opinion are important, and sometimes may need to be expressed in demonstrations; I too sometimes have demonstrated against government policies. In any case, I am certainly not authorized or competent to defend – or condemn – the police's behavior at this demonstration.

Everybody went home smiling. But on the way home (as often happens) it occurred to me what I should have added (but which might have spoiled the atmosphere): There seems to be a widely held assumption in Israel, among different groups that see themselves as oppressed, that if you are in fact the victim of oppression, you are not bound by the limits of peaceful protest. If you see yourself as the victim of violence, then you are justified in responding with violence. So demonstrators sometimes throw rocks and bottles and burn tires, and then cry "police brutality" when the police respond with violent crowd control measures. The students' assumption was that rock throwing was an acceptable way to demonstrate, and that protesters who were arrested were victims of discriminatory repression.

It is tricky to preach non-violence to people who perceive themselves to be victims of establishment violence, especially when you are a member of the establishment. Everyone, presumably, has a red line, a situation in which s/he can imagine him/herself resorting to violence against an unjust power (isn't that the logic behind the Second Amendment?). Perhaps the problem around here is that for too many of us, that line is too easy to reach. That is a huge civic and educational challenge.

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