An anti-Arab attack in East Jerusalem, and this week’s parasha about Abraham in Sodom
David Be’eri is a man of action. A career officer in the Israel Defense Forces, in the 1980s he was the deputy commander of Duvdevan, an elite unit dedicated, in large part, to arresting Palestinians by dressing up in Arab garb and infiltrating the alleyways and marketplaces of the West Bank’s villages and towns. On one of his sorties, he visited Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem, adjacent to the Old City. A student of Jewish history, Be’eri knew that the same streets now crowded with old women and small boys were once the site of King David’s palace and, more recently, had housed Jewish families forced to flee when the Jordanians seized eastern Jerusalem. No sooner had he hung up his military-issued kafiyeh than Be’eri took it upon himself to reclaim the ancient land. That the ancient land was teeming with modern life mattered not at all. Duvdevan’s motto, after all, taken from the Book of Proverbs, is Ki be’tachbulut ta’aseh lekha milkhama: by deception shall thou wage war.
Enter the Absentees Property Law: Passed by the Knesset in 1950, it gave the newly minted Jewish state the authority to claim for itself the property of those Arab residents of Palestine who had fled their homes during the war. A masterpiece of creative legislation, the law stated that even if said Arab residents happened to return to their homes after the war and become Israeli citizens, the very act of having fled nullified their right to their property, no matter how well documented. These unfortunates were termed, in the tart language of the law, nokhakhim-nifkadim, or absentees who are present. In a state like Israel, where the greatest natural resource is irony, few thought this law absurd.
Some soon learned how to use it as an engine. In the mid-1980s, with Ariel Sharon presiding over the Ministry of Housing, Be’eri saw his chance. He formed a foundation called Ir David—Hebrew for the City of David—dedicated to promoting Silwan as a destination for Jewish tourism and settlement. Under the auspices of the Absentees Property Law, Be’eri claimed that many of Silwan’s Arab residents qualified as absentees who are present and therefore were not entitled to their homes. Officialdom did little to investigate: Be’eri’s claims were supported without so much as a visit to the actual site. Many families in Silwan, Israeli citizens for decades, were told that the homes that had been theirs for generations weren’t really theirs at all. Incensed, the Arab residents protested loudly. Few in Jewish Jerusalem paid any attention. The state continued to support Be’eri.
And Be’eri, for his part, delivered the goods. In 2008, the last year for which data is available, his foundation succeeded in bringing in more than 450,000 visitors to the historic neighborhood, an astounding number for a country in which the tourism industry, both international and domestic, is struggling. Construction was booming, too: By 2004, more than 50 Jewish families were living in Silwan, nestled in beautiful new homes built by Be’eri and his associates. A year later, the Israeli government announced its decision to demolish 88 homes in the al-Bustan section of Silwan, making room for several other of Be’eri’s projects, including a state park.
To the Israeli Arab residents of the neighborhood, this was a baffling turn. Aware that their property was coveted, they appealed to Jerusalem’s city government to stop the land grab. Nothing, claimed the municipality, could be done without an official proposal. The Arab residents drew one up. The city rejected it. Nothing, it seemed, could be done to stop Be’eri and his men.
Which might not have been so stinging if it weren’t for the fences and the guards. A dedicated soldier, Be’eri surrounded each of his construction projects with walls and entrusted Silwan’s Jewish newcomers to the care of sentinels. Arab kids who played or loitered next to one of the Jewish constructions were told to leave. Arabs began to demonstrate. The police showed up in full force. Anger turned to rage. Rage turned to violence.
Last Friday, David Be’eri and his teenage son were driving down one of the neighborhood’s streets en route to western Jerusalem. A group of boys and men—the youngest 12, the oldest 21—were standing by the side of the road. What happened next isn’t exactly clear. This is: The boys pelted Be’eri’s car with rocks, and Be’eri ran them over. Some were hurt. None were killed.
The incident was captured on camera. Watching the video, it appears that Be’eri is gunning for the kids, swerving to the left and heading straight into the children instead of veering to the right, away from the fusillade. Be’eri has been silent, but, directly after the incident, he told the police that he was hit by a rock first and then, in panic, turned the wheel the wrong way. That may be true, but it is, in one important sense, irrelevant: The real drama of the roadside rundown isn’t the moment—looking like some ghoulish ballet—of collision between car and child; the real drama is everything that has happened for the past four decades to bring Be’eri and his victims to that particular street on that particular day with those specific consequences.
To understand the true scope of the story, we need simply to read press reports of Be’eri’s conduct alongside this week’s parasha. First, the former. Reporting about the case, most of the Israeli media stressed that Be’eri’s life was in danger, and that all things considered—the former officer, noted some pundits, was armed and could have easily stopped and fired at the children rather than simply plowing them down with his car—the incident could have ended with more bloodshed. A day or two after the incident, I called a host of friends and family members in Israel and asked them about Be’eri. A good guy, most of them said, a decorated soldier, an educator, a benefactor of Jerusalem. So, he ran over some kids. So, what? You would’ve done the exact same thing if you’d been in his place, pelted with rocks with your son by your side.
No one seemed concerned with Be’eri’s background, with his tireless work to deprive families of their homes, with his imperious conduct in Silwan, with his penchant for Kafkaesque legal loopholes. His life, they seemed to suggest, was much like the incident itself: Given the circumstances, there was little else he could have done but trick and take, fight and win. There was no other way.
But there is. There has always been. It’s detailed in this week’s parasha, as Abraham, a truly courageous Jewish hero, grapples with God. The Almighty is fixing to strike down Sodom; Abraham is moved. What, he asks God, if there were 50 righteous men in the wicked city? Would you spare the rest for the sake of 50? The Lord agrees, and Abraham, emboldened, continues to plead: Would 45 do? Would 20? Would 10? At every turn, God is moved by Abraham’s outburst of mercy to spare Sodom his wrath.
In a book as momentous as the Bible, there are few moments more profound than this. By taking a principled stand, Abraham enters into what the philosopher Susan Neiman has called resolute universalism. “The Abraham who risked God’s wrath to argue for the lives of unknown innocents,” she writes, “is the kind of man who would face down injustice anywhere.”
It is never a good idea to compare any living man to the patriarchs. We all fall short of Abraham, of Moses, of Isaiah. But it is our duty to continue and strive to lead our lives according to the examples these men had set for us. Abraham, seeing strangers—evil strangers, sinners the lot of them—was willing to take the Creator to task to try and spare their lives. Be’eri travels on the opposite side of mercy. For him, the strangers in his path are targets, rivals, foes, fit for conquest but not for compassion.
Which one of these men we choose to emulate is a matter of our own conscience. Israel, it seems, has already made its choice. After the incident, the Israeli police briefly questioned Be’eri and then let him go. An indictment was drawn up against the oldest of the rock throwers.