Burning questions

burning questionIt’s not every day that religious buildings are burned, which is why the razing of synagogues in the Gaza Strip made headlines today in the world’s major newspapers.

The Los Angeles Times’ piece today summarizes the situation:

GAZA CITY — Palestinians surged triumphantly into demolished Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip early today, torching empty synagogues and firing shots into the air, as the last Israeli soldiers withdrew after 38 years of occupation.

Just a few questions for the reporters behind this story: Why did the Palestinians feel the need to burn synagogues? Why didn’t the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority stop this from happening this way? And why, after bulldozing the homes of 8,500 Israelis, did the government not simply remove the synagogues themselves?

Flaming synagogues seems only to encite further violence on both sides. These are just some of the questions that come up in reading the lead to this piece, so let’s dig in and see if we can find some answers.

Several paragraphs into the story, the Times reporters start to explain the politics behind this complex issue:

In a last-minute reversal, the Cabinet voted to leave intact more than two dozen synagogues in the former settlements, despite warnings from Palestinian Authority officials that they could not ensure their protection. Palestinian officials announced late Sunday that they would demolish the buildings.

Palestinian leaders’ displeasure with the Israeli Cabinet’s decision on the synagogues prompted them to boycott a hand-over ceremony with Israeli commanders at the Erez crossing between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip.

But why did the Cabinet vote to leave the buildings of worship? The political information is nice, but what about the religious significance? Nothing in this piece delves into the religious implications, rather focusing on the political situation.

What we have here is a failure common in — well, ironically — the realm of political journalism. The reporters are assuming that readers know which political/religious blocs Mofaz and Sharon represent. They assume readers understands the history and the importance (or lack there of) of a synagogue to the Israeli people.

The Sydney Morning Herald report also leads with the synagogue-burning and I find out early on a specific reason the Palestinians want to see them burned:

“When I got here it was 12:30 and already there was no one, so we went straight to the synagogue and set it on fire,” Talalka said. “It was an illegal building on our land. The Israeli Jews don’t respect anyone’s religion but their own. I am very happy. The Israelis are out of here. We have more land and we got rid of the roadblocks.”

Not only is that a great quote, but it’s also quite informative. Nowhere in the Times story is there any mention of the Palestinian belief that the synagogues are illegal.

Here is a good explainer piece in Haaretz, a fairly liberal newspaper based in Jerusalem best known for its opinion pieces:

All our oppressors desecrated and destroyed synagogues and all massacred Jews.

And yet, despite that knowledge, our ancestors never once descended to the level of their oppressors. They never pre-empted the destruction of their synagogues by lending their own hands to that destruction.

If you’re curious, read the rest of the piece (it’s quite interesting), because I am going to quickly move onto a related issue. While I understand that space is limited in a newspaper (it’s certainly not on a blog!), the Times Online found room for this bit of detail that I haven’t found anywhere else:

In Neve Dekalim the green flag of Hamas group hung from the roof of the ransacked synagogue and the black flag of Islamic Jihad was raised from a wall in the compound. A Nazi swastika was spray-painted on the wall. Police stood helplessly nearby.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked.

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  • Stephen A.

    I’m guessing, but the “illegal” comment could be taken to mean that now that the land is Palestinian, they are no longer “legal” structures in a Muslim land. Or, some could take it to mean that all Synogogues in “old Palestine” are “illegal” by virtue of them existing at all.

    I suppose the answer depends on which Palestinian you ask – the moderate or the radical. By the way, I didn’t register for the site. Did the article explain what was meant by “illegal”?

    The Haaretz story did just what it should have done – explain a religious view of a synagogue and give context to the decision not to destroy them in Gaza.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    If I may, I wrote about this just before the withdrawal on my blog:


  • Phil Blackburn

    The Haaretz story makes it clear just why the Palestinians would feel they had to destroy the synagogues – they are a sign that the Jews expect to come back. Although this is not necessarily the same as a return to the Israeli occupation, it is close enough that you can see why synagogues are a political symbol as much as a religious one. Good link, it shows the advantage the internet has over traditional print media.

  • Mila

    Daniel Pulliam,

    It is far easier for the Israeli leadership to see Palestinians destroy the synagogues than to do so themselves.

    It is not something most Palestinians in the area would think twice about. When Gaza was occupied in 1967, the Israelis destroyed most of the mosques in villages they ethnically cleansed for their settlements.

    Others – like the ancient mosque in Acre – were converted into nightclubs. Still more were turned into offices for right-wing political parties.

    It’s a heart-wrenching form of indirect torture they’ve been inflicting on each other since the Jews returned en masse following the holocaust in Europe.

    This particular incident is only different because Israel allowed the scenes of Palestinians destroying synagogues to take place in part for their own benefit, and Palestinians destroyed them without blinking – wondering why anyone has even noticed.

  • Donna

    At http://www.altmuslim.com/perm.php?id=1546_0_25_0_M that rarest of birds, a genuine Muslim moderate condemns the synagogue burnings and asks if the Palestinians are mature enough to govern themselves. He also questions why American Muslims do not loudly condemn such actions.

    The answer is clear enough to me. Why condemn their co-religionists when 1000 Western Palestinian symps (such as Mila) offer excuses for any and all mindless and vicious Palestinian atrocity by jumping up and down and screaming “The Jews do it too!”

  • Mila

    It’s not about the Jews and the Palestinians at all, Donna – however, the fact that both sides have done exactly the same thing, although one on a much larger scale, is worth noting.

    You wouldn’t mention Palestinian and Israeli religious extremism without pointing out that Palestinians, especially Muslims and, in a lesser sense, Orthodox Christians and Catholics, have exhibited far more extremism than Israeli Jews.

    Likewise you can’t mention the desecration of sacred sites without pointing out that more than 3,208 mosques and churches have been destroyed in Israel since 1948 – and, what is it up to now? 6-22 synagogues?

  • Erik Nelson

    I don’t know where you get the statistic that Israel has destroyed over 3,000 mosques since 1948. I’ve never heard such a thing. Where did you get that statistic?

  • Phil Blackburn

    I don’t know about *thousands* of mosques and churches destroyed in Israel, but here is a source for about 140 mosques, 100 or so cemeteries and an unknown number of tombs of holy men: http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=622332

  • Mila


    It’s from a brochure printed by the Fakultet Islamskih Nauka (http://www.fin.ba). It’s a very respected institution and their research tends to be carried out with little or no political influence.

    For example, they (accurately, it turned out) established the death toll of the genocide in Bosnia at 116,000-128,000 at the same time that U.S. and World sources believed it to be more than 250,000.

    The institution also has many Jewish donors, as you can see even by the architecture of the building (http://www.fin.ba/fin_info/galery/images/002_1.jpg), there are Stars of David hidden everywhere in the design.

  • Harthorn

    dude you’ve ever heard of refuseniks??

    jewish soldiers who refuse service after being in the jewish military for some time, because of the attrocities that commanders make them do. the quote saying that jewish people never do any wrong to enemy’s is bs to the max.

    refuseniks are becoming increasingly more common.

  • Mila

    It’s not necessarily because of the actions of the Israeli Defensive Forces. Many refusniks simply cite moral reasons:

    1. They side with the international community’s belief that the occupation is illegal and refuse on these terms.

    2. They believe IDF actions in the occupied territories are designed more to impose daily hardship on the Palestinians in a form of collective punishment than actively ensuring Israel’s security.

    3. They don’t wish to offer any support to Jewish extremists in settlements on the occupied territories and don’t wish to risk their lives to defend this small group of people.

    4. They are morally opposed to the actions of IDF in one or more specific incidents. For example, after the body a Palestinian school girl shot by an Israeli sniper was shot up by an IDF commander, seven of his subordinates became refusniks.

    But you’ll rarely hear the word ‘atrocity’ among their reasons for doing so.

  • http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/category/jews-judaism/ Richard Silverstein

    A few comments on your post. First, Jews have never accorded their synagogues holy status AFTER their use as synagogues has ended. You can see scores of synagogues in old inner city neighborhoods which long ago lost their Jewish populations in New York & even Seattle where I live. So for the Gaza synagogues to be destroyed does not generate the kind of moral outrage that might be felt in other religions. In general, we consider Judaism a “portable” religion not very much bound by place or time. This is one of the secrets of the flexibility & survival of the Jewish people.

    Second, part of the reason they were not razed by the Israelis is that the Right hoped they could serve as a rallying cry in the fight to regain Gaza or reoccupy it. The Palestinians, realizing this (& hating the synagogues as the symbol of a religion they view as their oppressor) prob. wanted them destroyed as much as some Israelis wanted them preserved.