The last weekend in February 2023 saw two crises in the Jewish world: a “National Day of Hate” proclaimed by fringe antisemites, and the killing of two Israeli Jews in the West Bank followed by significant rioting and property damage by Jewish settlers in the Palestinian city of Hawara. The first was announced earlier in the week, the other arose unexpectedly but predictably. Both reveal some uncomfortable realities about Jewish life in 2023.
After a neo-Nazi group in Iowa declared Saturday, February 25 to be a “National Day of Hate,” Jewish inboxes and social media feeds saw a regular stream of reminders of the declaration, efforts to rebrand the day as #ShabbatofPeaceNotHate, security alerts and deepened anxiety. As it turned out, there were no major incidents or an epidemic of vandalism: some small white supremacist protests and antisemitic flyering in a few communities, but nothing out of the ordinary. To be sure, antisemitism, even online armchair warrior antisemitism, is nothing to dismiss – witness the radicalized shooter in Los Angeles who blamed Jews for his challenges and shot two of them just a couple of weeks before. But I suspect that the real damage that was done was by the fear that we spread ourselves. If one small group making an internet statement can cause such a reaction, there’s no reason they won’t “cry wolf” again soon.
On Sunday, February 26, two Jewish Israeli brothers, aged 19 and 21, were shot and killed in the Palestinian city of Hawara. It is thought to be revenge for an Israeli raid to apprehend militants in nearby Nablus the week before, which resulted in significant Palestinian bystander casualties. Later on Sunday evening, a mob of around 400 Israeli West Bank settlers descended on Hawara with rage and fire. Dozens of houses and cars were torched, with almost a hundred wounded. Even the most right-wing members of Israel’s governing coalition were forced to remind their own supporters not to take the law (aka the monopoly on violence) into their own hands. If the whole situation sounds like a murder followed by a pogrom, a inter-ethnic riot of a dominant group against another, well, maybe it is.
This is the paradox of Jewish life in 2023 – we are both powerful and vulnerable at the same time. We feel besieged enough to react very strongly to any threat, however remote, from a small fringe neo-Nazi group in Iowa, fearful that their semi-secret network will activate to cause those near us to attack our property or ourselves. Yet we are strong enough that law enforcement, the political establishment, and our own institutions work to ensure our security every day, and thousands of non-Jewish defenders came and would come to our aid. Palestinians and Jewish Israelis live on a knife’s edge of potentially deadly encounters, yet neither is going anywhere and the realities on the ground suggest the future is some kind of co-existence rather than full separation. The more each side denies the other’s basic human and national rights, the more tension and violence we will see.
Under these conditions, is it brave or foolish to be planning a trip to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel/Palestine in December 2023? Probably a bit of both. In my experience, Israel provides a mirror in which we can understand, by comparison and by contrast, our own Jewish experiences: identity, security, community. Our trip organizers are well aware of current events, and we will never be in personal danger. Those who live there and work for positive results on all sides of today’s conflicts need our encouragement. We cannot change the facts on the ground, both there and here, but we can understand them better.