In the middle of the night, and in front of his three young children, Israeli forces raided the home of Mahmoud Nawajaa and arrested him. It was around 3 AM in Abu Qash, a small village near Ramallah when, according to Mahmoud’s wife, Ruba Alayan, “Around 50 soldiers were there. They broke the doors and the locks, and they covered Mahmoud’s eyes, handcuffed him, and also took his computer and some personal effects.”
Nawajaa is the General Coordinator of the Palestinian BDS National Committee. Alayan said their children “…woke up and they were terrified. We were all surprised by what happened, there was no reason for it and none of us expected it.”
Imagine what those children felt, watching their father being taken away by soldiers in the dead of night. Bear it in mind the next time you hear an Israeli leader or their supporters in the United States complain about Palestinian “incitement.” Ask yourself whether, after that traumatic experience, these children, all under ten years of age, will need any further “incitement” to hate Israelis.
Nawajaa was one of at least 17 Palestinians detained in raids Wednesday night and early Thursday morning.
As it happens, Wednesday night and Thursday are the 9th day of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar, the holiday of Tisha B’Av. It is the most mournful day of the Jewish calendar, with calamities both ancient and contemporary dated on or around this date.
According to the Midrash, the original sin of Tisha B’Av was the Israelites’ lack of faith in God. When Moses dispatched twelve spies into the land of Canaan, only two came back with positive views of the land and the prospects of taking it and turning it into the beautiful homeland God had promised Abraham’s descendants. The people thus despaired and angered God because they doubted his promise. In his anger at the people’s tears of despair, God responded that this day would be a day of weeping thereafter.
From the destruction of the Temple of Solomon through the mass deportation of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp, to the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1994, Tisha B’Av is a day weighted with sorrow for the Jewish people.
One could imagine that on so solemn a day, Israel might refrain from carrying out a raid in a small West Bank town. Instead, it has no effect at all on the injustices of occupation. It is a mark of the effect of nationalism on the Jewish psyche that the solemnity of Tisha B’Av is only focused on the suffering of Jews, not on the suffering we are causing. While we might refrain from eating, wearing leather, having sex, applying oils or lotions, and bathing on Tisha B’Av, it doesn’t occur to anyone to perhaps skip 3 AM arrests for a day. Granted, the activities that are barred on Tisha B’Av are supposed to be those that bring joy. Still, commemorating one’s own suffering while causing it to others seems incongruous and cruel.
It similarly doesn’t occur to the Israeli military to reconsider making an entire Palestinian village homeless. Early Wednesday morning, the eve of Tisha B’Av, Israeli forces entered the tiny West Bank village of Farasin, issuing demolition orders for all the structures in the village and the water well. The complete destruction of Farasin will leave some 200 people homeless and is slated to be carried out in the next few days.
The stories of Farasin and Mahmoud Nawajaa are far too familiar to Palestinians and their supporters. Whether it’s a single home or a small community, Israel controls the legal permissions to build new homes or even add on to existing ones. Israel granting permits to Palestinians for such expansion is rarer than Donald Trump being honest. That leaves vast numbers of Palestinians vulnerable to the kind of demolition order the entire village of Farasin now faces.
Imagine living with the fear that an order which starts the clock ticking on imminent homelessness can come down any day while the same bureaucracy that forced your family to build “illegally” makes it nearly impossible to find alternative housing. The only recourse for many Palestinians in this situation is to move in with other family members elsewhere, overcrowding those homes, necessitating building without a permit, and starting the cycle all over again. The other option is to leave Palestine entirely, which is, of course, the point of the whole process for Israel.
Perhaps a Palestinian would want to try to remedy such injustices. Perhaps she or he would also recognize that the best way to do that is through non-violent economic pressure. They might then become a leader of the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS), designed to pressure Israel into significant policy changes that recognize some of the most basic rights of Palestinians, individually and collectively.
That’s what Mahmoud Nawajaa did. At this writing, Israel has given no indication of what the charges against him are. They are holding him in a Shin Bet (Israel Security Authority) prison, which is holding him incommunicado for at least four days. He cannot speak to a lawyer for that time, a period which can, at the Shin Bet’s discretion, be renewed.
The BDS movement’s co-founder, Omar Barghouti said that Israel is becoming “… a role model for the racist, authoritarian far right,” and stated, “It is high time for States not just to defend Palestinian and other human rights defenders, like Mahmoud, but also to impose lawful, targeted sanctions to end Israel’s war crimes, crimes against humanity and entire regime of oppression of the Indigenous Palestinians. Only that can help us achieve freedom, justice and equality.”
It would not be unusual for someone like Mahmoud to be held under administrative detention for extended periods of months or even years, with no charges brought against him. Vague citations of security concerns are sometimes offered to justify such activities. Will there be some such charge leveled or implied about Mahmoud? Might this be a case where Israel tries to establish that being a BDS leader is treated no differently than being involved with violence?
[NOTE: There is a lot of room to debate the legal issues around how Israel deals with issues they label “terrorism,” where the line is drawn between that and legitimate resistance that is permitted under international law, and what is proper for an occupying power protecting non-combatants against violence emanating from its occupation. That is a different subject and I do not mean to gloss over those serious issues here, as is done so often and so cavalierly. But in this case, because we are talking about BDS, an explicitly non-violent movement, it is important to draw that frame around the question, and distinguish it from other movements that commit or are open to the idea of violent tactics.]
It may be some time before we have the facts in Mahmoud’s case. And it is important to note, his arrest and the demolition orders delivered to Farasin are horrific abuses of power by Israel, both of which undoubtedly affected innocent civilians. That would have been true no matter when these acts were committed.
But their being carried out on and around Tisha B’Av should not be ignored. This is not just another of the many Jewish days of fasting, it is the weightiest of all of them. In some ways, it is more sadly solemn even than Yom Kippur, as it commemorates tragedy.
But what good is mourning if it is selfish? What, aside from self-pity, do we get from commemorating losses if we cannot empathize with the pain of others?
When the bond of religious community becomes exclusivist, it can lead to the dehumanization of those outside that circle of kinship. It doesn’t have to evolve in that direction, but dehumanization of the other is the end of that path when it is taken. Nothing is surer to set a religious community on that path than infusing it with nationalism. That synthesis breeds a violent exclusivity, and it reaches beyond the specific intersection of religion and nationalism to encompass those who are secular nationalists and religious non-nationalists.
Ultimately, that is how Tisha B’Av can be observed by some in Israel by giving a whole village less than a week to evacuate before their homes are razed. That’s how it can be observed by others by putting fathers (and mothers) into blindfolds and handcuffs and hauling them away in the middle of the night in front of their children.
It need not be that. Tisha B’Av could, instead, be a day where we mourn our pain and the pain of others. It can be a day where we recognize that horrible calamities that have befallen us can be eased not by a militant and selfish attitude (If I am not for myself, who will be?) but by a universal and egalitarian sentiment of mourning (If I am only for myself, what am I?).
Israel, by its nature, cannot meld those two sentiments in a productive way. Its entire history, from the pre-state Yishuv to the far-right Netanyahu, has been a consistent triumph of nationalism over egalitarianism. Nationalism, by definition, cannot be universalist.
But there are plenty of Israelis who can help to lead the Jewish people toward a new and different Tisha B’Av. There are many of us who can use Tisha B’Av to reflect on the harm done to us, the harm we have done to others, and the harm done outside our small parts of the world. Of course, as a Jewish holiday it must and should commemorate our tragedies in the most personal way. To do otherwise would be disingenuous.
But the exclusion of others’ tragedies leads us to a Tisha B’Av of home demolitions and midnight raids on family homes. That’s not a light unto the nations. It’s a squandered opportunity.