On July 8, a delegation of 350 Jewish Israelis made a rare trip to the east side of Jerusalem to pay their respects to the mourning family of Muhammed Abu Khudeir, a Palestinian murdered last week by Israelis. They were hoping the gesture would open a door to peace and understanding between two divided communities.
They made their way to the mourning tent on a small side street in the middle-class Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat, passing rubble, broken glass, and burned-out train station ticket machines that testified to the violent demonstrations that swept through here just days before.
But while they found some moments of understanding, there was also anger and distrust. The experience of the Palestinian mourners and their Israeli guests demonstrated the limitations of symbolic gestures at a time of growing tension and anger on both sides.
“I feel like I was duped,” says Jerusalem resident Ronny Berman, who walked out after one of the speakers in the condolences tent called the Knesset evil and invited his visitors to join Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation.
Mr. Berman has been studying Arabic for moments like this and says he was glad to be able to tell Muhammed’s father, “I wish you well” in his own language.
“I came because it is abundantly clear in the Arab world that Jews condemn the murder of Israeli Jews. But it is not abundantly clear that Jews condemn the murder of innocent Arabs,” he says. “That’s why I came, to make a statement.” Instead, he complains, Palestinian speakers “turned this into a political event.”
The elders of the family welcomed Berman and others graciously. But from the perspective of some of Muhammed’s younger relatives on the fringes of the event, the Israelis’ motives seemed political. (This paragraph was updated to better reflect the range of views among the family.)
“We were against this concept,” says Yazeed Abu Khudeir, a 20-something cousin of Muhammed who like others interviewed by the Monitor saw it as a PR exercise to cleanse Israel’s image in the world’s eyes. If anything, he says, it should have been held up as an example of the family’s tolerance to welcome the other to their home after such a heinous crime.
He criticized Israeli peace activists as self-serving, attributing their work for Palestinian rights as an attempt to prevent an implosion that would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.
“They work for peace for the continuance of Israel, not for the rights of Palestinians,” he says bitterly. While he was involved in peacebuilding as a young teen, he cut off all contact with his Israeli friends when one by one they joined the army at age 18, a move he saw as incompatible with activism for peace and human rights.
Gesturing toward the tent where the last few Israelis were filtering out to catch a bus back to West Jerusalem, he said, “I can bet on my life that not a single one of them refused to serve in the army.”
Gadi Gvaryahu, who heads the Tag Meir coalition that organized the visit, says he understands the bitterness that some of the relatives expressed.
“There is an expression in Hebrew that you don’t judge a person when he is suffering,” says Mr. Gvaryahu, whose coalition opposes “price-tag” attacks by extremist Jews on Palestinians and other minorities.
“We care about them. We think about them as equal human beings; God creates only one man, He didn’t create man and then a Jew,” he adds. “We were there not because of our image but because we want to live together and we don’t see any other solution than living together in peace.”
To be sure, some good came of the meeting.
One Jewish women tells of how she took the hand of Muhammed's mother and they both cried together. One woman's face was stained with a week of tears over her 16-year-old son killed by Israelis, the other struggling to have children of her own and imagining the pain of losing a son after trying so hard to become a mother.
“[Suha Abu Khudeir] told me, ‘I hope you will have a child and know what it’s like to be a mother, and that nothing will happen to your child,’ ” recounts the Jewish woman.
It was something of a cathartic moment, she adds, on condition that she not be named due to the personal nature of fertility treatments.
“What happened is toxic, but sharing grief with someone feels … holy and cleansing,” says the woman.