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Jewish Journal

Bearing Witness at The Hague

by Rabbi Avi Weiss

March 4, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Last Monday afternoon (Feb. 23), I stood alongside a rabbinical student named Etan Mintz on a street corner not far from the International Court of Justice in The Hague, holding aloft signs reading, "Stop the Terror."

We were standing at a spot some distance from hundreds of other supporters of Israel who, like us, had gathered in the Dutch capital to raise a voice of moral conscience against the International Court of Justice that was trying the State of Israel for building a fence to protect its citizenry from terrorist attacks. The tribunal had been convened at the behest of the U.N. General Assembly, which had asked it to issue a judicial opinion regarding the fence.

Altogether, approximately 700 pro-Israel demonstrators from around the world gathered in the Dutch capital to bear witness and protest the travesty of justice taking place. Individual Jews have often been victims of show trials, including Alfred Dreyfus and Mendele Beilus to name a few. But this time, it was the State of Israel, itself, and by inference the Jewish people as a whole being put on trial.

Standing right there on European soil 60 years after the Shoah, I sensed a great irony. Sixty years ago, the world was silent as defenseless Jews were taken to their slaughter, while today, with the Jewish people finally able to protect itself, the world is trying to deny Israel the right to self-defense. Moreover, much like the Shoah, where the threat of Nazism was not just to Jews but to the whole world, today we are all vulnerable to terrorism. And if Israel's fence is taken down, terrorism will increase not only in Israel but around the world.

While we were gathering to make our protest, the remains of Bus No. 19, a bombed-out Israeli bus from a recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem, was slowly towed into the area where we stood. Zaka relief workers, who tend to the dead when attacks occur in Israel, removed the canvas that had covered the bus while it was being transported from Israel to Holland. The sight of the charred and mangled remains of the bus injected a powerful sense of reality into the scene.

The reaction of the local Jewish community was not different from what I have experienced again and again over many years of taking part in protests on behalf of our people in different parts of Europe. Everywhere, the local Jews were frightened -- frightened that if we spoke out clearly and confidently on behalf of Israel and the honor of the Jewish people, they, themselves, would become vulnerable.

And yet, despite the palpable feeling of fear manifested by some Jews during the protest, there was a larger sense of common purpose among all of us who had come from so many places to gather in The Hague -- a rare moment of Jewish unity that brought together Jews of the left and of the right, Jews who were religious and Jews who were secular. We formed an extraordinary rainbow, sharing a sense of sacred mission.

Also gratifying was that we were joined by Christians as well. In fact, the 1,200 Christians who marched in solidarity with Israel that day, holding up pictures of all the Israeli terror victims, significantly outnumbered the sizable Jewish contingent.

The fear of the Jewish community of The Hague that violence might erupt was not unjustified. Once Etan and I were taken inside the police station, a woman officer asked us why we had continued to stand there and hold up our signs as the Palestinian protesters were marching by.

"It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull," she said. The implication of her remarks seemed to be that we were somehow to blame for standing in a dignified vigil, while the Palestinians, who appeared ready to attack us, were totally innocent.

Yet we decisively rejected such inverted morality, because, if we've learned anything from the events in Europe 60 years ago, it is that the "sha-shtill" (be quiet) mentality doesn't work. While we may feel afraid, we must never act afraid.

Indeed, on the previous day, less than 24 hours before the opening of the trial, we went to the tribunal site, where we met a group of terror victims from an organization called Almagor, which means "do not fear." Because we had no permit to demonstrate that Sunday, the police pushed us away from the tribunal site, and we found ourselves wandering the cold streets of The Hague with some members of Almagor.

Among them was Avigail Cohen, whose daughter, Rachel, was murdered in a supermarket by a female Palestinian terrorist. As we walked alongside her, Avigail expressed to us her agony that in reports on the attack in the United States media and around the world, the bomber and Rachel were somehow equated -- both portrayed as equal victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Also with us was Shmuel Landau, whose son, Ronen, was killed by a sniper bullet as Shmuel was driving him home. With us, too, was Miri Avitan, whose son, Asaf, was murdered in a Ben Yehuda ice cream parlor as he was celebrating his 15th birthday with his friends. These relatives of victims and others had petitioned the court to hear their testimony, only to be turned away.

As we wandered through the cold and lonely streets, a kind of Elijah appeared. While wheeling his daughter in a stroller, Ian Lane had seen our group and followed us. Ian is from New York and is living in The Hague with his wife, who is working on a case concerning the former Yugoslavia. Ian had seen us at several rallies in New York, and recognizing us that day in The Hague, he invited everyone to his home.

As we entered, he lit a fire and offered hot drinks, as well as aspirin and other medicine to those getting sick from the cold, and even emptied his closets of sweaters, hats, gloves and scarves, insisting that we put them on and keep them. Then right there on that cold Sunday afternoon, the group began to sing. I thought that if we had come to The Hague only to meet Ian, it would have been enough.

On Monday afternoon, following the major protest that morning, representatives of the Israeli Foreign Ministry delivered a series of remarks to those of us who had gathered in defense of Israel. After that, a father described the loss of his daughter to terrorism.

Yet, even as he movingly recounted how he had learned of his daughter's death, several cameramen demonstratively packed up their gear and left the scene. For them, apparently, the victims had simply become numbers.

The next morning, we again gathered at the tribunal site. This time we were far fewer in number, and we sang softly in a more reflective, meditative way. As we left the square, we saw the families of the victims, the Almagor group, sitting with pictures of their loved ones.

Their lawyer had walked to the International Court building to ask that his clients, the relatives of terror victims, be permitted to testify but had been turned away. As he walked back toward us, the police cordoned off the area in front of the tribunal site. The double fence, thick and heavy, slowly closed, cordoning off the area from the public.

How ironic that while a fence was being used to secure The Hague from families of terror victims, inside there was an uproar over Israel's fence to keep out terrorists.

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