What in the world happened in Huwara?

Hallel Yaniv's WhatsApp status was: “What happened to you is not the story. The story is what you do with what happened to you.”
An Israeli settler and a Palestinian argue during a demonstration in support of Palestinians in Huwara in the West Bank city of Nablus on March 3, 2023. (Photo by Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Last Sunday, Palestinian terrorists killed two Israeli brothers — Hallel Yaniv, 21, and Yagel Yaniv, 19 — as they were driving through Huwara, a town in the West Bank. They were residents of the Israeli settlement Har Bracha.

Hallel had just completed his service in the Israeli Navy, while Yagel was a yeshiva student who planned to serve as a combat service in the IDF.

Hours later, dozens of Israeli settlers rioted in Huwara. They attacked Palestinians and set their cars and houses on fire. A 37-year-old Palestinian man, Sameh Aqtash, was killed, and four other Palestinians were seriously injured. The IDF arrived to help evacuate Palestinian families.

There was more terrorism the next day. Elan Ganeles, an Israeli-American who was 27, was killed when a Palestinian terrorist opened fire at his car near Jericho in the West Bank. Ganeles grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, and graduated from Columbia University last May. He was in Israel to attend a wedding.

The attacks came just a couple of weeks after Asher Menahem Paley, 8, his brother Yaakov Yisrael Paley, 6, and Alter Shlomo Lederman, 20, were killed in a car-ramming attack in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood.

Earlier this year, seven Israelis were killed when a terrorist opened fire on a crowd in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov neighborhood.

With the devastating news of more terror attacks along with the disturbing rioting in Huwara, we wanted to unpack the reactions from the Jewish world and share some reflections from our team.

What is Huwara?

First, here’s some background on the Palestinian town everyone is talking about. Located in the northern West Bank, Huwara is the site of a notoriously dangerous highway for Israelis, Route 60. Israelis have to take this road to get to and from four Israeli settlements, including Har Bracha, where Hallel and Yagel were from.

There have been several shooting attacks against Israelis on Route 60 in Huwara. In 2017, there were plans to build a safer “bypass road,” but it didn’t happen. After the recent terror attack, Israel’s transportation minister Miri Regev has vowed to complete it.

Reactions from the Jewish world

Israelis and the Jewish community mourned the losses of Hallel Yaniv, Yagel Yaniv, and Elan Ganeles.

Esti Yaniv, the mother of the two brothers, said, “We have a huge hole in our heart. Nothing will ever fill this hole — not construction, not protests, nothing… This hole will remain, and we will learn to live with it.”

Elan’s mother, Caroline, said that Elan was “the brightest boy in the world…he had never-ending inquisitiveness.”

“He was such a gift in our lives, with so many attributes. He had a whole life of so much potential, he wanted so much to see the world, to soak up every aspect…Our loss is a loss for the world,” she added.

Along with mourning the losses of the three victims, Israeli leaders also condemned the rioting by the Israeli settlers.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said that “violence against innocent people is not our way,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the settlers “not to take the law into their own hands.”

The Orthodox Union and the Jerusalem Post editorial board pushed back on Netanyahu’s remarks, with the OU writing in a statement: “Attacking a village does not deserve to be called ‘taking the law into your own hands.’ This is not the law; this is undisciplined and random fury.”

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz also condemned the settlers’ rioting, writing on Twitter: “Along with the deep and heavy sorrow for the serious [terror] attack, the scenes tonight in Huwara should shame every person and every Jew in particular. This is not our way.”

After the Yaniv brothers were killed and before the settler rampage, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is himself a settler, liked a tweet that called for Huwara to be wiped off the map.

Three days later, when he was asked at a public conference why he liked the tweet, Smotrich said, “Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it.” He also clarified that his support of the tweet was not meant as a call for collective punishment.

His comment drew fierce condemnation within Israel and around the world with U.S. State Department calling it “repugnant” and “disgusting.” Yesterday, Smotrich retracted the remark, saying it was a “slip of the tongue” made “in a storm of emotions.”

Meanwhile, Israelis mobilized to help the Palestinians in Huwara. Within 24 hours, Israelis had donated over 1 million shekels (nearly $300,000) to help Palestinians whose homes and businesses were destroyed.

On Wednesday night, as thousands of Israelis gathered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, they chanted at police, “Where were you in Huwara?”

Outside of Israel, the Jewish world mourned the loss of the three Israelis and Palestinian and decried the settlers’ attack on Huwara. Many stressed that the settlers who carried out the deadly rampage were not Zionists and that their actions are not Jewish.

Others argued that the Jewish community should look at ourselves internally and ask how Jewish schools and institutions could have produced the people who committed these horrible acts.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Tobin, editor-in-chief of JNS, pushed back on the idea that the settlers’ actions reflected a broader trend in Israeli society.

Tobin wrote that critics of Israel portray Jewish settlers in the West Bank as being engaged in “a constant campaign of violence against their Arab neighbors.” However, “examples of Jews attempting to exact some sort of revenge for terrorism are actually rare. Certainly, events on the scale of the riot in Huwara are almost unknown,” he added.

Yishai Fleisher, the spokesperson for the Jewish community of Hebron, wrote that “vigilante behavior is generally wrong.” But he also suggested that the rioting was a “human reaction” to Palestinian terrorism and the IDF not doing enough about it.

Rabbi Elli Fischer strongly pushed back on this, writing, “Don’t believe those who tell you this is a normal ‘human reaction.’ The family and community of the victims did not call for this… and eschew vigilantism in all its forms.”

Reflections from our team

If you’re feeling angry, sad, scared, unsettled, or another emotion in response to the news, we are with you and that is a normal reaction. Here are three thoughts we want to share with you from our team.

1. In a time of tragedy, focus on how you respond.

Hallel Yaniv’s WhatsApp status was: “What happened to you is not the story. The story is what you do with what happened to you.”

Esti Yaniv, Hallel’s mom, had a similar message about how we should respond to this unspeakable tragedy. Her message to the children of Har Brachot was to increase Torah study and undertake meaningful service in the IDF.

The basic idea is this: We don’t always have control over the tragedies that befall us, but we can always choose our next steps.

2. Rioting is in no way representative of Judaism or Zionism.

The purpose of Judaism is to bring justice and righteousness into the world. Hillel, one of the best-known sages in the Talmud, said: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another. That is the entire Torah, and all the rest is commentary.” The Torah would never condone this type of behavior.

Neither would any of the leaders who built the Zionist movement or the state of Israel. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, articulated the purpose of Zionism this way: 

“By these will the State be judged: By the moral character it imparts to its citizens; by the human values determining its inner and outward relations; and by its fidelity, in thought and act, to the supreme behest: ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That is what Zionism is about.

3. Who is responsible for the rioting in Huwara: the individuals who did it or the community they grew up in?

Some argue that it is a small minority of fringe individuals who are responsible. They point out that there are extremists in every group, that these people do not represent our community or values, and that they bear the responsibility for their terrible actions.

Others argue that what happened was the product of the community and education, and that we need to look at how the culture could have produced people who did such terrible things.

In a totally different context, in 1995, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein made this argument. Days after Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist, assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Lichtenstein argued that the Israeli settler community shared the responsibility for the terrible act. 

Amir “grew up in the best of our institutions. A day before the murder, he could have been cited as a shining example of success and achievement, and a source of communal pride,” Lichtenstein said to his students.

“If a day before the murder we would have said proudly, ‘See what we have produced,’ we must say it now as well: ‘See what we have produced!’ It is indefensible that one who is willing to take credit when the sun is shining should shrug off responsibility when it begins to rain,” he added.

We have different opinions on this question at Unpacked, so what do you think? Is it the individuals who bear responsibility for their actions, or is the community responsible for people who do horrible things (and also, great, wonderful things)?

Regardless of your answer, there is no debate about whether this violence is excusable or not. No matter how angry we feel, acts of random violence are inexcusable. There is no place for vigilantism of any kind in Judaism or Zionism.

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