Terror attacks in Jerusalem: Is there a Jewish response to tragedy?

"We may not always have control over the events and tragedies that befall us, but we can control our next steps.”
Israeli police investigate the scene of a shooting attack near a synagogue in Jerusalem on January 27, 2023. (Photo by Oren Ziv/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Our team at Unpacked is devastated by the news of the two terror attacks in Jerusalem and our hearts are with the families of the seven victims — Rafael Ben Eliyahu, Asher Natan, Shaul Hai, Irina Korolova, llya Sosansky, Eli Mizrahi, and Natali Mizrahi. We pray for a refuah shleimah (speedy and complete recovery) to those injured. We are thinking of all of our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel at this time.

Watch our video on the terror attacks on Today Unpacked:

Israel is reeling and preparing its response after two terror attacks — including the worst violence Israel has seen in years — killed seven people and injured at least five others.

On Friday evening, a Palestinian terrorist killed seven people and wounded at least three others near the Ateret Avraham synagogue in the Neve Yaakov neighborhood in Jerusalem. Police killed the gunman, a 21-year-old resident of East Jerusalem, as he opened fire on the officers and tried to escape. 

It was the deadliest Palestinian terror attack against Israelis since 2008. The seven victims were Rafael Ben Eliyahu, 56, Asher Natan, 14, Shaul Hai, 68, Irina Korolova, 59, llya Sosansky, 26, and married couple Eli, 48, and Natali Mizrahi, 45.

The next morning, a 13-year-old Palestinian shot and wounded two men — a father and son — outside Jerusalem’s Old City. According to the IDF, the son was an off-duty paratrooper, and he managed to shoot and injure the attacker despite his wounds. The gunman was an East Jerusalem resident.

At an emergency meeting of the security cabinet on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed a “strong, rapid, precise” response to the attacks.

“We will seal and demolish terrorists’ houses in an expedited fashion, in order to exact an additional price from those who supported terrorism,” the prime minister said.

“On behalf of all the citizens of Israel, I would like to send my heartfelt condolences to the families of those murdered in the heinous and terrible attack in our capital, Jerusalem. This is a criminal attack at the entrance of a synagogue on International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Netanyahu added.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Israel “will act decisively and forcefully against anyone who threatens our citizens… Every terrorist will either go to court or the cemetery.”

Police raised the national alert to its highest level and increased forces across the country, as well as in the West Bank and along the security barrier. Police also arrested 42 people in connection with the Friday attack.

Tensions have been high since Thursday morning when IDF soldiers raided the Jenin refugee camp to arrest people suspected of planning a terror attack on Israelis. Ten Palestinians were killed — most of them were members of an Islamic Jihad terror cell, although at least one was a civilian, the Times of Israel reported.

Here’s how Palestinians and world leaders responded to the terror attacks. Plus, what is the Jewish response to tragedy and how could we all respond right now?

How did Palestinians respond? 

Palestinians joined celebrations of the synagogue shooting across East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian media reported.

Videos of the celebrations, posted and shared widely on social media, showed fireworks, horns honking, and people cheering and handing out treats.

In a statement on Saturday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to condemn (and did not even mention) the shootings, instead saying that he holds Israel “fully responsible for the dangerous escalation” in violence.

Meanwhile, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad praised the attacks. Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said the synagogue shooting proved “the resistance knows how to find the appropriate response” to Israeli “crimes.”

However, not all Palestinians reacted this way, and the best example of that was Fadi Dekidek, a Palestinian Muslim from East Jerusalem. Dekidek was the first Magen David Adom paramedic to arrive at the scene of the deadly terror attack on Friday. He entered the synagogue to check the pulses of the victims and treat the injured, even as gunfire was still audible nearby.

Dekidek told Channel 12 News: “I’m sure you and the public all know that Magen David Adom is a state all of its own for co-existence. Jews save Arabs. Arabs save Jews. I think it’s an example for the whole world.”

Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist, also strongly condemned the attacks as well as the Palestinian celebrations.

“There is something deeply broken in a Palestinian street culture that honors violence against innocents, a culture in which some were filmed dancing in the streets and handing out candies after the 9/11 terror attacks,” he wrote in a Forward op-ed. 

“It is this: Multiple generations of Palestinian young people have been taught to hate Jews and Israel’s allies, and to equate attacks on civilians to attacks on military targets… Enough is enough. Palestinians and all those who truly support us must stand for humanity.”

Reactions from world leaders

Israel’s allies around the world condemned the attacks. U.S. President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Netanyahu to express his condolences. The President made clear that “this was an attack against the civilized world” and said that his team would remain in constant touch with the Israelis, according to a White House readout of the call.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. “condemns in the strongest terms the horrific terrorist attack.” Blinken is set to travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

In a statement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that he “strongly condemns [the] terrorist attack by a Palestinian perpetrator outside a synagogue in Jerusalem” and “extends his heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims.”

“It is particularly abhorrent that the attack occurred at a place of worship, and on the very day we commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” the statement added. “There is never any excuse for acts of terrorism. They must be clearly condemned and rejected by all.”

The European Union said it was “horrified” by the “appalling terror attack in a Jerusalem synagogue…as they attended Shabbat service” and by the second attack. “The EU strongly condemns these acts of insane violence and hate.”

U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said: “To attack worshippers at a synagogue on Holocaust Memorial Day, and during Shabbat, is horrific. We stand with our Israeli friends.”

The UAE, Turkey, Ukraine, and many other countries also condemned the attacks.

Is there a Jewish response to tragedy?

How should we respond in painful moments like this one? Judaism does not prescribe one single way to respond to tragedies. Consider the ways different characters in the Torah respond to tragedies. At the moment that Aaron lost his two sons, his immediate response is silence. The Israelites, on the other hand, cry out to God as slaves in Egypt. Many other characters cry out to God in times of distress as well.

Although there is no one way to respond to tragedies, one theme in Jewish tradition is the idea of focusing on how we respond.

During painful moments, we remember the Jewish concept of yefashfesh b’maasav (examining our own actions). We may not always have control over the events and tragedies that befall us, but we can control our next steps.

Throughout the ages, many rabbis and Jewish thinkers have expressed this idea in different ways. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (commonly known as Rav Kook) said that in times of darkness, righteous people look to add light.

Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that the proper Jewish response to tragedy is not “Lama?” “Why did this tragedy happen?” — instead, it is “L’ma?” “Toward what end ultimately? What is our response meant to be?”

Viktor Frankl expressed the idea this way: “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What this looks like will be different for everyone: some of us might pray more or study more Torah, while others will want to give more Tzedakah or carry out an extra act of kindness. Yet, by making this intentional shift in the most difficult moments, each one of us can follow the footsteps of the Jewish tradition, which is to help improve our communities, be kinder to each other, and be responsible and look out for one another (areyvut).

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