Having just come off the week of Yom Hashoah, when we consciously called to mind memories of the very worst behavior that humanity has ever countenanced, I– like most of us, I’m sure– thought it was safe to “shift emotional gears” and anticipate the joy of celebrating Israel’s independence. But now, of course, I know I was wrong…
When the news of the bombings in Boston broke here on Monday afternoon, we were, from the perspective of the Jewish calendar, at a delicate moment of transition. Here in America, it was still Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers. There is no more solemn day in Israel, for religious and secular alike, and Jews here in America mark it in different ways, some elaborately, some less so. But in Israel, which is seven hours ahead of us, it was already Yom Ha’atzma’ut, the 65th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish State. They were, already, in full celebration mode. That, in and of itself, felt more than a little strange.
But then the calls from Israel and the comments on Facebook started coming in fast and furious, from friends and relatives alike. “We are so sorry.” “We saw the pictures, they’re awful.” “We feel so badly for those innocent runners, and all the bystanders who were hurt just because they were standing there, cheering them on…”
Receiving such heartfelt, empathic expressions of solidarity from our Israeli counterparts in the face of senseless violence and loss felt almost like a reversal of the natural order. That’s precisely the kind of message we Jews in America have so often shared with Israel, particularly those of us with close family there. “We’re so sorry,” “It looks so awful,” “You must be horrified…”
All through the awful years of Intifada, when it seemed like buses, cafes and pizzerias were exploding virtually every day, all we here in America could do was stare at grotesque images of mangled bodies and horrified bystanders and offer inadequate words of sympathy. The horror in Boston turned the consoled into the consolers. They really do understand Boston’s pain.
What Boston’s recent brush with terrorism has done is remind us yet again of the cost of living in a free and open society in the year 2013. If you’re going to allow freedom of movement and access, and remain vigilant in defense of individual freedoms and the sacred right to privacy, you will also, in this increasingly violent world, be exposed to freedom’s dark side from time to time. The forces of evil who would do us all harm– regardless of whether they’re home-grown or foreign– will, whenever possible, take relentless advantage of those same freedoms that we cherish, and use them to advance their sinister goals.
Although 9/11 and Oklahoma City have already taught us this lesson in dramatic and graphic horror, this week’s terrorist incident in Boston jolted us anew out of any illusion of security that we might have enjoyed. A few months of relative quiet does not mean that our struggle with acts of terror is over–not by a long shot. Israel’s experience with repeated acts of terror over an extended period of time has shown us- conclusively- that the courageous resolve of a people to transcend fear is far stronger than the cowardice of terrorists, who hide behind the havoc that they wreak. All indications are that the good people of Boston, who have adopted the mantra of “Boston strong,” are dealing with their sorrow and fear in a most admirable way.
That said, what I’m left wondering about in all this is what “American strong” might mean in the long run. In an age when any person with access to the internet can find multiple web pages with instructions on how to make a bomb, how does one protect society as a whole? With a Senate that can’t see its way clear to even require broader background checks on those who would purchase firearms, or to limit the sale of assault weapons for fear of offending the seemingly all-powerful NRA, how do we even pretend to be able to protect the most vulnerable from random violence?
Yes, of course– our freedom makes us strong. That is the dominant characteristic of the American self-image. But the enduring images of Newtown, coupled with those from Boston this past week, all testify to an America that wasn’t shy about invading Iraq and Afghanistan, but falls far short of the mark when it comes to securing its home front. And that seems to me to be a horrible mistake, reflecting at best an inadequate appreciation of the challenge at hand.
I know you all share my hope that the party(ies) responsible for this week’s outrage in Boston be apprehended soon, and brought to justice. If nothing else, those who lives were forever changed by the violence they perpetrated deserve that. But the truest measure of how we respond to what happened in Boston is yet to be seen. Find the terrorists who did this– and then do whatever is humanly in our power to prevent it from happening again. That’s much harder …
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.