An OpEd by NIF’s Rabbi Ayelet Cohen and Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits
Originally published in the Forward
Many progressive Jews struggle with whether Tisha B’av still has resonance when Judaism has evolved so far beyond Temple service. We wonder whether a full day of mourning for Jewish destruction and exile is still called for when we have a sovereign State of Israel and the accompanying reality of national power.
But the sages say that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam — baseless hatred — and, today, sinat chinam is rampant; it is promoted as a political tool. This, unfortunately, makes Tisha B’Av more relevant than ever.
Today, sinat chinam comes in the form of Presidential and Prime Ministerial tweets, incitement and fear-mongering against “outsiders,” race-baiting campaign ads and laws like Israel’s Nation State Law, which favors Jews over minorities. We are watching as the populist and extremist right actively cultivates sinat chinam to justify discriminatory and racist policy, in America and in Israel. In Jerusalem, where Tisha B’Av began, sinat chinam is bringing about not only the State of Israel’s spiritual decay, but also physical destruction in Jerusalem.
The three-week period of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av began with the destructionof 72 housing units in Wadi Hummus, a Palestinian Authority-administered part of East Jerusalem. After a seven-year legal battle with the state by Palestinian residents for the right to build, IDF bulldozers began knocking the roofs off their homes and pulling apart their walls.
Soldiers set explosives and then watched as what was to be a six-story building, where people planned to build their lives, crumbled. And then they slapped each other on the back in congratulations, exclaiming “Mazal Tov!” while taking photos.
17 residents, including 11 minors, were left homeless. According to B’Tselem, this year, 166 Palestinian people have been left homeless by home demolitions in East Jerusalem alone. That includes 90 children.
“Al ele ani bochiya, ayni ayni yarda mayim” — For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears. (Lamentations 1:16)
We, lovers of Israel, and lovers of all human beings, know all too well that Jewish control of Jerusalem has meant not only renewed access to our tradition’s most historic sites, but also discrimination against the city’s Palestinian residents. Not everybody was celebrating last week’s demolitions; there were those who were doing something different.
Many were working to stop the demolitions and reverse course, because, especially in Jerusalem, destruction and redemption inevitably live together.
Jewish and Arab members of Omdim Beyachad(Standing Together) protested outside the Prime Minister’s home in Jerusalem. And Bimkom, an organization of urban planners advocating for planning rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, is now advocating for an end to the “no-construction” rule that chokes Palestinian life in East Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Talmud teaches us that on the day the Temple was destroyed, “the redeemer was born.” (Yerushalmi Berachot, 2:4) These are some of our redeemers. They have already been born. Even as the destruction is happening, and we look it in the face and cry, we keep working to rebuild. This process is painful, but disengaging only results in further devastation.
Initiatives like the #CloseTheCamps campaign, supported by a strong coalition of our progressive allies, are important for this reason. They combat antipathy and bring attention to the US government’s cruel treatment of those who come to our country seeking asylum.
In these times, we need a whole day of Tisha B’Av, lest we run the risk of allowing sinat chinam as public policy to flourish.
Tisha B’Av gives us the space to mourn destruction. It forces us to remember that the Jerusalem we experience is an earthly Jerusalem, one where people actually live, and that we human beings are able to tear down.
But it should also remind us that we live in a time when Israeli civil society and human rights organizations are rising up to meet each attack in humane opposition.
And so we will continue to fast on Tisha B’av, recognizing that redemption is not complete, but a process of working for a more just world for all humanity. We will allow the day to remind us that the devastation is great and that the work of redemption, healing, and rebuilding is ongoing.
Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen is the Senior Director of the New Israel Fund’s NY/Tri-State Region and Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits is Director of the New Israel Fund’s LA/Southern California Region