Yesterday, I joined about 350 people--mostly Jewish citizens of Israel--to pay a compassionate condolence call to the family of Mohammed Khdeir (killed by young Jewish extremists), in the tent of mourning in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat, in northern Jerusalem. The visit was organized by the Tag Meir (Light Tag) Forum, a coalition of more than 40 Jewish, interreligious and Arab-Jewish Coexistence organizations from all over Israel, including my organization, the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel .
We were welcomed warmly by the family who clearly appreciated our act of solidarity and embrace. An uncle of the slain boy who spoke to us explained that while the family did not welcome members of the Israel government to their tent of mourning, they were glad to welcome us because they felt that our act of comfort was sincere and not an act of public relations.
The chairperson of the Tag Meir Forum, Dr. Gadi Gvaryahu, who organized this condolence visit in close consultation with the family, spoke eloquently about why we were there:
We have come here to embrace and console. We are ashamed and very sad about the murder of your young son, Muhammed... our Tag Meir Forum has been saying for the last two years that he who burns a mosque will burn a person.... We who are second generation survivors of the Holocaust feel that the burning of people is an inhumane act which makes us feel chilled in our souls...we are here to offer sincere consolation to your family and to mourn with you.
All of us who were there yesterday felt that we were fulfilling an important religious obligation of comforting a bereaved family. We were deeply moved by our welcome by this family, especially in the midst of the escalation of violence in the south of Israel yesterday. Our visit was warmly received by our Palestinian neighbors, who live no more than 5 minutes from where I used to live in the neighborhood known as French Hill, in northeast Jerusalem. They were emotionally moved by our empathetic act of good will.
Most of us remained in the male section of the tent of mourning for the entire visit. However, there were some exceptions to this rule. My daughter, Rabbi Dahlia Kronish and a colleague of hers went briefly into the women's area, and paid their condolences to the mother of the slain boy, and to other members of their family. It was a very meaningful emotional moment. According to Rabbi Dahlia:
The pain in the women's section was far more palpable. Whereas the men conveyed restraint, the women, particularly the mother, were quite emotional. Holding Muhammed's mother's hand for a brief moment, I tried to assert that this act was not done on our behalf and that we were speechless in light of such cruelty.
Our visit to this family was an important one, not just for us, but for them as well. We were told quite clearly by an Israeli Palestinian speaker from Haifa at the event that "this family received us and not the politicians because we have a different message than the politicians." He was correct. We in civil society can offer a genuine gesture of reconciliation that the politicians cannot and do not do. Indeed, we learned during our visit that the family had rejected offers of Israeli politicians to come to their tent of mourning.
Our Tag Meir Forum has been warning for the past few years that religiously motivated hate crimes need to be stopped before something really terrible happens. Well, it has happened and it has led to an outpouring of outrage on both sides. Although the government of Israel has arrested the perpetrators, it is time to also arrest and prosecute their rabbis who are inciting them through their blasphemous teachings of hatred and xenophobia.
In the meantime, we will continue to do all that we can to combat hate crimes that are "religiously" motivated in whatever ways we can. And we will be mindful of the verse that is common to Jewish and Muslim sacred texts: "He or she who saves a single life is as if he or she has saved the whole world."