The murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir has sparked outrage in Israel, both because of the brutality of the act — the East Jerusalem resident was burned to death — and because, according to media reports, the suspected killers are not extremist settlers, as some believed, but haredi Orthodox Jews.
“The hand that did this murder is impure,” said Rabbi Benny Lau, rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem. “He should not be allowed to put on tefillin,” the phylacteries containing biblical verses that Jewish men put on each morning during prayer.
Lau blamed racist elements in Israeli society and called for a tikkun, or spiritual repair, among Israeli Jews.
“It is unforgivable — how can a person who believes in Torah [the Bible] kill an innocent person?” Lau asked bitterly. “We have to call out to God with a loud call.”
The murder has prompted soul-searching among the population, especially in the Sephardic Orthodox Jewish community, to which most of the suspected murderers belonged, according to press reports. They are reportedly not part of the “hilltop youth,” a radicalized sector of Israelis who live in areas Israel acquired in the 1967 war, but may be affiliated with the Shas Party, the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox party that represents Jews from Arab countries. Three of the original six suspects are minors, and all are classified as “delinquent youth” who live on the fringes of the haredi community.
A leading rabbi associated with the religious right-wing, Elyakim Levanon, said the killers should be given the death penalty. Israeli law allows for the death penalty, but despite the long history of terrorist acts against Israeli civilians it has been imposed only once: on Nazi official Adolph Eichmann, who was executed in Jerusalem in 1962.
Judaism can be used to justify revenge attacks like this one, noted Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
“Judaism, like other religious traditions, has very different stories about how we treat those who aren’t part of the Jewish people,” he said. “I have a whole slew of sources that shape my Judaism starting with the sanctity of all life being created in the image of God. The problem is that there’s chapter and verse in which Jewish life is primary, in which aggression toward others is allowed, vengeance is celebrated, and revenge is celebrated.”
Hartman says he prefers to focus on sources that say “every person is created in the image of God” and the biblical verse that says “you should love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Emotions have been running high in Israel after the bodies of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the West Bank last month were found in a field outside Hebron. In the 24 hours following the discovery of the bodies, more than 40,000 Israelis signed on to a Facebook page calling for revenge.
Hartman says the calls for revenge come from deep feelings of frustration.
“It is our myth and yearning to be a normal people. It’s the same reason that people living on the West Bank hitchhike. They want to believe they’re in a stable environment,” he said. “But when you kidnap our children, when our children aren’t safe, it sets off feelings of revenge and fear.”
Just as many Israelis have condemned the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, many Palestinians, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, have spoken out against the killing of the three Israeli teenagers.
Some in Israel say that the shock waves these killings have caused on both sides may be the painful beginning of new steps toward reconciliation.
“In the Talmud there is a concept that you have to go down before you can go up,” said Orthodox Rabbi Dov Lipman, an American-born member of Knesset from the Yesh Atid party. “I was so proud of the moderate voices over the last few days in Israel, and we are hearing similar voices on the Arab side as well.”
“This is not Arab terrorism or Jewish terrorism,” Lipman added. “It is just terrorism and it must be stopped.”