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There must be consequences for those who engaged in Huwara pogrom

Benjamin Elton
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Published: 7 March 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Chief Rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney writes: this terrible event is calling on us to stand up for what is right and true. It must never be allowed to happen again.

We are living through terrible times in the State of Israel. On January 27, a Palestinian terrorist shot at Jews in and around a synagogue in Neve Yaakov in East Jerusalem, killing seven and injuring three more. It was a horrific attack on people coming from prayer. It was marked in Palestinian areas by giving out sweets and celebrating in the streets, in a revolting display of callous cruelty.

I was also shocked, but sadly not surprised, by the international reaction, or lack of it. If a Jew walked into a mosque and did anything similar there would be an outcry, and quite right, too. Indeed, Baruch Goldstein did exactly that in 1994, and it has never been forgotten, and probably never will be. But when Jews are slaughtered at prayer the world is silent.

On February 26, Hallel Yaniv, aged 21, and his brother Yagel, aged 19 were shot at point blank range as they drove along the Route 60 Highway. They were driving back to their yeshivot to learn Torah and they were murdered in cold blood. The next day, Elan Ganeles, a young man visiting from America was shot at in his car and killed. He was from West Hartford. My wife, Hinda, babysat for him when he was a little boy.

Elan was described at his funeral as kind, open minded, funny, brilliant and humble. He was a loyal friend, interested in the world with endearing cheekiness. He was just 26 years old with a life of promise in front of him. He had just dropped his brother off at a train station and was driving to a friend’s wedding. Hinda stayed up until midnight on Wednesday night to watch the funeral.

These are not distant and detached events. They are happening to our people, our family. These attacks, these murders, are all wicked crimes and should be condemned as such by the whole world, without mealy-mouthed ambivalence. That we can all be clear about. I am grieving and I am angry following these attacks, as we all should be. These incidents present a deep security, diplomatic and political challenge to Israel, but now I want to talk about the moral challenge thrown up by a different event.

Elan Ganeles, who was shot dead in his car by a Palestinian gunman in the Jordan Valley on February 27
Elan Ganeles, who was shot dead in his car by a Palestinian gunman in the Jordan Valley on February 27

My wife, Hinda, babysat for Elan when he was a little boy.

Last Sunday evening Israelis attacked the Palestinian village of Huwara. They marched towards the village chanting “revenge”. According to the London Jewish News 95 homes were torched together with many vehicles. Hundreds of villagers were injured and one was killed. Nine families had to be evacuated from their burning homes. Let us reflect on the horror of what that means: Houses were set on fire with their residents still inside. It is no wonder that IDF Major General Yehuda Fuchs described these events as a pogrom, and if we recoil from that word we should recoil more from the incident it describes.

This attack followed a statement from the Deputy Head of the Samaria Regional council, Davidi Ben Zion, that “Huwara needs to be wiped out today”. After he tweeted this message it was liked by government minister Bezalel Smotrich. Smotrich later urged restraint, but his first response was to endorse a call for an attack on a civilian settlement, a call which the mob took up with deadly consequences. A government backbencher, the Chair of the Knesset National Security Committee, said what was needed was a “burnt Huwara”, and he got it.

The Prime Minister and the President of the State of Israel told the attackers not to take the law in their own hands, but as the Orthodox Union (OU) in the United States rightly said, “attacking a village does not deserve to be called ‘taking the law into your own hands’. This is not the law, this is undisciplined and random fury”.

The OU also said, "We can understand the profound anguish at the horrific murder of young and dear friends … But we cannot understand or accept this” and they called for “absolutely condemning and decrying indiscriminate violence committed by Jews against anyone, anywhere”.

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What I found most shocking, indeed stomach-turning, was that as the village was alight in front of them, when they had no idea how many people were being burned to death, a group of attackers stood in the glow of the fires and prayed.

I will tell you what I found most shocking, indeed stomach-turning. As the village of Huwara was alight in front of them, when they had no idea how many men, women and children were being burned to death, suffocated by smoke, and at the very least losing their homes and possessions, a group of attackers stood in the glow of the fires they had started, and davened Maariv.

They stood there and they prayed. That was the ultimate Chilul Hashem, the desecration of the Name of God. If we know anything about God from our Torah and tradition, it is that He does not want our prayers while we are inflicting violence upon His children.

I am not talking about a targeted and disciplined response by the authorised agents of a democratic government, but, again in the words of the OU, “undisciplined and random fury”. The words of Samuel in this morning’s Haftarah are a stinging rebuke to those who dared to prayer in that place at that time, after what they had done: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command? Obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams.”

I also think of the words of Amos: “I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offerings — or your meal offerings — I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.”

You might ask me, is there not a place in our tradition for vengeance? On Shabbat Zachor, we read in the Maftir of the obligation to wipe out Amalek because they attacked the Israelites as they left Egypt, and as a punishment they were condemned to annihilation, men women and children. Then in the Haftarah we read that King Saul was punished by God for sparing just one Amalekite, their King, Agag. Are these not precedents for the reprisals we have just seen in Huwara?

The first point to make is that the Jewish conscience has been troubled by the command to wipe out Amalek for millennia. We are thoroughly grateful that Amalek has disappeared and therefore the command is inoperative, but we still struggle with it even in theory. That attitude, which we thought and we hoped was essential to the Jewish character, is the polar opposite to davening in the light of burning civilian homes.

What is at stake here is the soul of the Jewish people. There have to be consequences, legal, political and social, for those who engaged in or encouraged this desecration of God’s Name.

The great rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein called the commandment to wipe out Amalek “morally, a frightful thing”. He said ”the only justification lies in it being a response to an unequivocal divine command”. There are no other justifications, Rabbi Lichtenstein said, including military, diplomatic and political considerations; to which we can add, not grief and not anger; especially not anger.

The implication is clear, where there is no direct Divine command, explicit and irrefutable, Judaism utterly condemns actions of this sort. As the Torah says in Devarim, “vengeance is mine”; it is a matter for God, and it is not to be exacted by human beings on their own initiative, even in the case of the greatest provocation.

This does not rule out proportionate, considered, lawful military responses, but it certainly does rule out the attack on Huwara, because it was a moral outrage.

What is at stake here is the soul of the Jewish people. This is a fight for God, for Torah and for Judaism. There have to be consequences, legal, political and social, for those who engaged in or encouraged this desecration of God’s Name, and there has to be a resolution that this will never be allowed to happen again.

This is not because of what we fear other might say and do, but because we care about who we are. This terrible event is calling on us to stand up for what is right and true, and I can only pray that we will be equal to the task.

This is an edited version of the Shabbat sermon delivered by Rabbi Elton at the Great Synagogue in Sydney on March 4, 2023.

Photo: Torched cars in the occupied West Bank town of Huwara on February 28 (Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

About the author

Benjamin Elton

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton is Chief Minister and Senior Rabbi of The Great Synagogue in Sydney.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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