It was at the end of my time away, which included a spiritual retreat and vacation time with my extended family, that I opened up my email to get caught up, only to learn that our building has been once again targeted by graffiti. Someone had scrawled “Free Palestine!” on one of the large columns to the left of our main entrance.
I was returning in a day or two, so I asked that nothing be done in the meantime—I wanted to see it for myself. Upon my return to Olympia I looked at it, took photos and dutifully went off to the police station to report the vandalism. As it was last time this happened—a year ago when someone wrote “What About Palestine?!” on our readerboard—there was little the police could do to find the person responsible, but they were appreciative of the report so they can track vandalism and see if any patterns emerge. I thought it important that there is a formal record of the synagogue being selectively targeted.
Because that is what it is, the synagogue—a visible Jewish structure—being targeted with a message meant directly for us. This wasn’t a tag of a name, or an artistic rendering . It was a message meant to target, upset, challenge and unnerve Jews. And to deliberately target a minority group with the express purpose of challenging and unnerving them, through violating their private space, is an expression of “malicious harassment” (as our Washington State law terms it).
The irony of this act of graffiti is that, in my own way, I support the message. I believe that we as Jews need to be concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, and need to confront head on the role Israel has played in the perpetuation of an unjust and oppressive system. I want Palestinians to be free. What I don’t support, of course–and what no body should support—is the transmission of that message through harassment, through the violation of Jewish space.
I will grant that the message in its content does not directly target or threaten Jews qua Jews. But the means of conveying the message can inspire fear and vulnerability. Plus the message conflates American Jews and Israelis in unhealthy and oftentimes erroneous ways, makes assumptions about political attitudes that may not be founded in reality, treats Jews as some monolithic “other” and trades on classic anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish dual loyalty.
This act of graffiti is another reminder of our potential vulnerability. As we Jews rightfully join the fight for racial justice, we also remember that in the Charleston shooters manifesto, Jews were second on the list behind African-Americans.
This Sunday is Tisha B’Av, a holiday set aside to commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples in Ancient Jerusalem. These buildings hold an important place in the religious imagination of the Jewish people because of their importance and centrality in the life of our ancestors, and because of the spiritual power contained within. Their destructions—first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE—are marked by mourning and lamentation. It has become a day to mark not only these specific events, but the idea of communal destruction in general.
While outside armies toppled the buildings, the rabbis in the Talmud decades later sought to determine reasons for the destructions. In their mind, the external destruction must be in response to an internal weakness. The first destruction, they suggested, was because of sinful nature of the Israelite community in their lax observance of ritual law and sexual practices. The second, they suggested, was based on ethical lapses, primarily the prevalence of sinat chinam among the community.
Sinat chinam is an interesting term, and it is usually translated as “groundless hatred.” That is, hatred that does not have any basis in reality, hatred without cause. Maybe there are those we dislike for good reason—they wrong us or hold incompatible views. Sinat chinam is just hatred for the sake of hatred, hatred because of who one is, rather than what one does or says. The Jewish community at the time was factionalized, write the rabbis, divided by this groundless hatred, which gave an opening for the destruction of the Temple.
I want to suggest another understanding of sinat chinam. Sinat means “hatred.” Chinam has the connotation not only of “groundless” but of “freely given.” Indeed, the word chinam in modern Hebrew is most commonly found in stores and markets as it means “free,” i.e. “without cost.” Something that is freely given is casually doled out, as free samples in stores, or outdoor festivals or outside ballparks. So what is hatred freely given?
I think our graffiti is an example of such. It is a malicious act done casually, without thought, and without any intention of positive outcome. It does not seek to constructively advance a cause, it rather casually seeks to destabilize others in pursuit of that cause. It is an act done without deep thought which seeks to further alienate and “otherize” an already vulnerable minority population. It is hatred casually doled out. And this can be destructive.
On my way to the police station yesterday I happened to be run into a friend and we shared a quick lunch. I told him about the graffiti. He was sympathetic, and he mentioned that the positive in this incident is that it means that the Temple is a visible, engaged member of the community, and underneath the act of graffiti is a desire to connect, even if the means are misguided. While I still feel shaken and unnerved by the idea of being targeted, I do take some strength from this idea.
Because unlike millennia ago, this act of sinat chinam will not result in the destruction of the Temple. We will continue to be a visible presence in the Olympia community. We will continue to defy and challenge what “the Jews” are supposed to think and feel, providing a model for a dynamic Jewish community. We will wrestle with Israel, with Palestine, with politics. We will continue to observe traditions and deepen our spirituality. And we will continue to be a platform for social justice and peace. We will continue to be a place where people are able to connect—with Judaism, with me and with each other.
The graffiti will be painted over. The column will still stand.