Keep­ing watch over Cit­i­zen Cain

The mes­sage of Tishah b’Av reaches be­yond the Jewish tragedies it com­mem­o­rates

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY RABBI JONATHAN WIT­TEN­BERG Jonathan Wit­ten­berg is se­nior rabbi of Ma­sorti Ju­daism

THE ROADS are blocked with bro­ken ma­sonry, the paths through the city are twisted: this sounds like a war-shat­tered city in the 20th cen­tury; in fact, it’s Jeremiah’s de­pic­tion of the deso­la­tion of Jerusalem 2,500 years ago. The He­brew Bi­ble, which opens with a ma­jes­tic paean to cre­ation, is not afraid to de­scribe the bru­tal re­al­i­ties of de­struc­tion. Towns were at­tacked and pil­laged then; towns are at­tacked and pil­laged now. Tishah b’Av asks us to pon­der the mean­ing of such de­struc­tion.

Cities are by def­i­ni­tion homes to many peo­ple. They en­com­pass dif­fer­ences, if not of cul­ture and re­li­gion, then of wealth and at­ti­tude. There will al­ways be po­ten­tial fric­tions. There­fore the art of city-liv­ing is to fos­ter tol­er­ance at least, and har­mony at best, across sig­nif­i­cant di­vides. Oth­er­wise, the frag­ile re­la­tion­ships which make city- life pos­si­ble are li­able to col­lapse.

To ex­plain the de­struc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple and the en­tire city of Jerusalem by the Ro­mans, the Tal­mud tells the well-known story of Kamza and Bar-Kamza. A man makes a feast and in­vites his friend Kamza. In­stead, his en­emy Bar-Kamza is brought. De­spite the lat­ter’s of­fer to pay for his food, in­deed the en­tire cost of the party, the host throws him out.

Bar-Kamza feels all the more ag­grieved be­cause the rabbis present do noth­ing to pre­vent his hu­mil­i­a­tion, im­ply­ing their ap­proval; he there­fore de­ter­mines to li­bel them to the Ro­mans. The story may con­tain con­tem­po­rary ref­er­ences to spe­cific per­son­al­i­ties, but it is nonethe­less an al­le­gory of the col­lapse of tol­er­ance. Vengeance tri­umphs. Jerusalem is de­stroyed be­cause of sinat chi­nam, gra­tu­itous hate.

This is a dan­ger en­demic to the very na­ture of cities. Ac­cord­ing to the To­rah, the first city-builder was also the first murderer, Cain: “He built a city and called its name Chanoch, af­ter his son”. The poet Ger­schon Ben-David, who spent the post-war years search­ing in vain for his mother who per­ished in the death camps, wrote the haunt­ing line: “Am I the keeper of my brother Cain?” It’s a star­tling in­ver­sion of God’s orig­i­nal ques­tion, which is ad­dressed to the per­pe­tra­tor about his re­spon­si­bil­ity to the vic­tim. In­stead, Ben-David im­plies, we are all re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing guard over the po­ten­tial murderer who lurks among us, in our souls and in our cities.

That murderer has been let loose re­peat­edly in mod­ern times.

An eye-wit­ness in Dres­den ob­served, af­ter watch­ing the sy­n­a­gogue burn on Kristall­nacht, that the fire would re­turn: “It will travel in a great cir­cle and come back to us”. His prophetic words were re­mem­bered af­ter the Al­lied Air Forces fire-bombed the city in Fe­bru­ary 1945; and were cited in a memo­rial ser­vice in the city’s Alt­markt. A plaque placed in the re­stored Kreuzkirche reads: “We failed to recog­nise in [the town’s Jews] our broth­ers and sis­ters”.

The marginal­i­sa­tion, dis­pos­ses­sion and mur­der of one part of a city’s pop­u­la­tion by another is a form of frat­ri­cide. Once such vi­o­lence is un­leashed, killing leads to killing. As his­to­rian Fred­er­ick Tay­lor noted, whether or not they con­sid­ered the bomb­ing jus­ti­fied by the bru­tal de­mands of war, when the fight­ing ended peo­ple in the vic­to­ri­ous na­tions “started to turn in shamed amaze­ment and ask: Did we re­ally do that?”

In a re­mark­able di­ary, Mladen Vuk­sanovic doc­u­mented the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the com­mu­nity of Pale, from where the Ser­bian army shelled the help­less city of Sara­jevo below. Within weeks, Mus­lims and Chris­tians who’d lived to­gether for cen­turies, shar­ing schools and busi­nesses, were ruth­lessly di­vided When the Mus­lim men were taken away, for­mer neigh­bours stole their fur­ni­ture, live­stock and homes. On July 3 1992 Vuk­sanovic noted: “More peo­ple ask: ‘Are there any Mus­lim houses around here?’ My wife says, rais­ing her voice: ‘No, there aren’t! Nei­ther Mus­lim nor Croat ones! There were only hu­man houses here.’”

Jerusalem has re­cently been re­vis­ited by the bit­ter edge of vi­o­lent ha­tred, not just rain­ing down from the sky as rock­ets, but along its streets: ha­tred of Arabs for Jews and Jews for Arabs. Mobs throw stones at Is­raeli po­lice. Graf­fiti by Price Tag in its cam­paign of vendet­tas in­sult and in­tim­i­date peo­ple of other faiths. Such ac­tions un­der­mine the very pos­si­bil­ity of com­mu­nity; through them cities are even­tu­ally de­stroyed.

The sur­vival of cities de­pends on an in­clu­sive vi­sion of hu­man­ity. They can flour­ish only as long as it is un­der­stood that the “other”, be it Jew or Mus­lim, black or white, is an equal cit­i­zen too. We must all be the guardians of the Cain who can so eas­ily take over our streets.

In the af­ter­noon of Tishah b’Av the mood moves to­wards hope; God will bring com­fort to Zion and re­build Jerusalem. The essence of that re­build­ing, wher­ever in the world it takes place, will not be stones but hearts, not tower-blocks but com­mu­ni­ties of co-ex­is­tence, re­spect, part­ner­ship and ul­ti­mately, we pray, true friend­ship.


Anti-Arab grafitti in East Jerusalem ear­lier this year; it reads ‘Non-Jews in Is­rael are en­e­mies’

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