Waking up last Thursday morning, I switched on my phone to see news of the horrific murder of 13-year-old Hallel Ariel, stabbed more than 100 times in her bed. Images of the bloody scene of a terror attack filled my phone screen.
It was the start of a day when I was to travel to Israel as part of a delegation organised by the Centre for Jewish Life, aimed at enhancing participants’ links to and understanding of the Jewish state.
With talks from former deputy PM Dan Meridor and current security cabinet member Zeev Elkin, a tour of the Kotel tunnels and my first visit to Hebron all within 20 hours of landing, it was always going to be an intense day – ending 40-odd hours after switching on the phone.
But it was an unscheduled stop that will forever be etched on my mind. I will never forget the searing cries that greeting us as we entered the house in Kiryat Arba. It had been Hallel’s home until just a few hours earlier and the cries were those of her grieving mother. Winding our way
from the main road through a field towards the property, we saw in the distance the area from where the terrorist had set off on his evil mission towards the nearest home – a distinct red roofed building.
Outside, I spotted a mattress and bedding. It’s a bit of a haze but it appeared to be stained. I couldn’t help but fear it was the same bedding I’d seen hours earlier in those horrific pictures. Stepping inside, weaving through a pair of IDF soldiers bringing food to the family, I saw rooms including one with the door very slightly ajar, and wondered if that was the crime scene.
The rabbi brothers who lead CJL, Yosef and Mendy Vogel, felt we couldn’t pass through the area without taking the chance to comfort the mourners. Indeed, despite experiencing the worst possible pain, Hallel’s mother appeared briefly buoyed by our visit. On hearing who we were, she expressed how much it meant to her. But still, as we walked back towards the coach, I regretted going in. For entirely selfish reasons, admittedly, but I couldn’t help but think of what had happened there and of those pictures I’d seen.
With the visit still fresh in my mind, we arrived at the Kotel for Shabbat. It was as vibrant as ever for a Friday night, with singing and enthusiastic praying from people religious and not. They hadn’t forgotten the tragedy, or the subsequent fatal attack that ended the life of a rabbi. The victims were still at the forefront of people’s minds as they continued with their lives.
At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of the transition from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Haatzmaut – the days when Israel goes from remembering its fallen soldiers and terror victims with silences and memorial services straight into celebrating its independence. From unimaginable pain to great joy, that is the life of this country. Israelis have no other choice. In one day, I’d seen those two sides of life first hand.
I will be thinking of Hallel and her family and the scenes at the Kotel when Yom Hazikaron moves into Yom Haatzmaut next year.