Countless words have been uttered in an effort to give expression to the grief and revulsion that all of us who love Israel are feeling this week. The cruel and senseless execution of three young teens whose only sin was to be hitchhiking in a tough neighborhood has left us all stunned, and though words have poured out of everyone who can speak or write, none of them have been adequate to the challenge at hand. The pain is too great, and the implications of the event too present in our conscious minds.
And now, added to the already enormously difficult situation, it appears as if extremists from our own side of the fence have kidnapped and murdered a Palestinian teen in apparent retaliation. Awful begets awful – an act whose only impact is to inflame a situation already volatile and just a moment away from exploding. As of this writing it has not yet been proven, but it appears to be the case that this Arab teen died at Jewish hands.
The difference, thank God, between Israel and the Palestinians is that Israel recognizes its extremists as extremists, and condemns them. Every sane, important voice in the Israeli government, as well as the mother of one of the three teens killed, has come out with statements of horror and grief over this murderous event. Hamas hands out candies when its teens kidnap and kill Israeli youth. We recoil in horror. Shelo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot … We give praise to God for making us who we are and not who they are, even in our worst moments.
It is painful and offensive to hear the endless calls for Israel to respond “responsibly” so as not to further inflame the situation. Really … who or what gives anyone in the world the moral right to tell Israel how to respond? When the flower of your youth is slaughtered in front of your eyes, what is or is not a proportional and meaningful response is a concept that Israel’s leaders do not deserve to be lectured on. How does one, within the context of being a society that sanctifies life and not death, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said in his eulogy of the teens, fashion a response that sends a clear message that Jewish blood is not cheap?
I have long believed, and I continue to believe, that there are two possible scenarios for how this awful war between Israel and the Palestinians might ultimately be resolved.
The first scenario, one that I pray never comes to pass, is what I call the Romeo and Juliet ending. The Montagues and the Capulets were unable to transcend their blood feud until the ill-fated lovers Romeo and Juliet died tragically and needlessly because of it. The horror of their senseless deaths shocked the warring families into reconciliation, because they finally realized that the price of their conflict was too much for them to bear. What would it take — what kind of horror would have to be visited upon Israel and the Palestinians — for them to recoil in ultimate resignation and say “There has to be a way out of this, and we must find it.” The late Prime Minister Rabin tried this when, on the lawn of the White House, he declared “No more war, no more bloodshed.” Obviously, there were parties within Israel that disagreed with him. And one has to wonder, with all the atrocities that have been visited upon Israel, and the cumulative havoc that has been wreaked upon the Palestinians, how bad would it have to get? How much blood would have to be shed? I find it too painful to entertain that thought for more than even a moment, especially given the events of this week.
The second scenario, which has been articulated before but has yet to come to pass, involves isolating and marginalizing the extremists. Until and unless that happens, there will never, ever be peace. Though I am referring primarily to the Palestinians, I hasten to add that Israel’s government also needs to address the issue of the extreme right wing in Israel, which has already, via the “Price Tag” attacks and the murder of the Palestinian teen in reprisal, caused great damage to Israel’s claim to a higher moral ground.
If Mahmoud Abbas has even a prayer of being regarded by Israel as someone who genuinely wants peace, he would need to first of all end his alliance with Hamas, which genuinely doesn’t want peace and has no trouble saying so. It’s either us, or them. This is the critical moment. If he wants to be in bed with the people who hand out candies when their children slaughter our children, so be it, and so, too, will any last pathetic illusions of a peace process disappear. He would also need to summon the collective courage of those Palestinians who are as sick of all this as Israelis are (I am assuming they really exist; I’m told they do) and say to them, “Enough! We cannot let the most violent and extreme elements among us continue to make our lives intolerable. Peace can bring us a measure of dignity and security, and once and for all disengage us from Israel.” Bret Stephens wrote a fine piece in the Wall Street Journal this week in which he asked, rhetorically, where are the Palestinian mothers? Where are the women and men who are strong enough and brave enough to say to their sons and daughters that life is more precious than a martyr’s death? Abbas has to find them, if they exist, and create of them an alternative to the nihilism of Hamas.
But if indeed, as Stephens suggests, those mothers and fathers don’t exist, then that very unhappy fact would place Israel’s predicament in a much clearer light. There is no hope of any light emerging from this darkness if the Palestinian camp is without a silent majority. But it is clearly Abbas’ responsibility, at a moment such as this one, to lead, not to cower, and to ascertain what the true will of the Palestinian people is– and what his will is. Yes, Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to deal with his own extremists. But there will never, ever be even the chance of a better tomorrow without courage shown on the Palestinian side. Now is the time.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.