Last Saturday morning more than a thousand Copenhageners formed a peace ring around the synagogue where Omar El Hussein shot and killed Dan Uzan.
We picked a beautiful day to show support. It was crisp and blue. A bit cold, but nothing holding hands in a circle wouldn’t fix. The synagogue is located on an old, cobblestone street in central Copenhagen, surrounded by sweet boutiques, coffee shops and charming apartment buildings. News helicopters were circling above, policemen were smiling at us as they patrolled, parents were walking by and explaining to their children what the circle was for.
By the time I arrived, the line had reached far past the synagogue and started to snake its way around the corner. The goal was to make it all around the synagogue’s block and once that first left hand closed around the last right one, the entire chain burst into howls of joy.
And then Dan’s father came down the line, shaking hands and extending appreciation for our support. And there it was. That impulse to say, “yes, I know something terrible happened to you but…” not because there can be a “but,” but because not adding it feels like willfully ignoring a really important part of the story.
I could probably write Omar El Hussein’s biography with 85-90 percent accuracy without ever having met him. The son of Palestinian parents from a refugee camp in Jordan who settled in Denmark, I imagine, as asylum seekers. The son of a Palestinian father whose despair and hopelessness carved a scar so deep that it bled out into the next generation. A homeless son to homeless parents. A son with an explosive mix of youth, testosterone and anger. A young man looking for belonging in a society that doesn’t want him. And in Israel and in America, someone will look at this and say; “they kill us because they hate us; remember that on election day.” And if I don’t tell Omar’s story, then I’m pretending that it doesn’t exist. Good heavens, now even empathy is political.
Dan’s father is not far from where I’m standing. He’s going to be here in a few minutes and I’ll have to say something.
I want to tell him, “checkpoints…and teargas…and poverty…2,000 killed in Gaza…dead children” and then he’d say,”…Hamas…tunnels…human shields…most moral army in the world…” We could write the script out without ever having the conversation.
The thing is, if I let myself grieve with him, I would have to give something up. Anger maybe? Righteousness? Justice? Empathy doesn’t leave room for these other feelings. Or maybe I don’t know how to hold both. And I don’t want to give them up. Not even for a little while. I want to stay here, where life is simple and familiar. This other thing is too complicated.
He’s almost here. What are you going to say?
I remember the time my brother came home from serving in Afghanistan to bury a fellow soldier. I remember sitting at my desk in a different country staring at a newspaper clipping and for a few long seconds thinking I was looking at a picture of my brother’s funeral. I remember sitting there paralyzed by the icicle that had lodged itself in the soft space between my rib cage and my belly. My brain frantically scanning for proof that it’s not true. It’s. Not. True. Please God, please. Please not my baby brother. Take anybody else’s baby brother, please don’t take mine.
My present-day right hand instinctively moved to my heart and then Dan’s dad was there, reaching out his hand to shake mine. I squeezed his arm with my left hand, he grabbed me back and we stood there in a kind of awkward, half embrace. I have my brother back. He will never have his son.
Slicha Abba. Slicha, and may his memory be a blessing.