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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