A year ago today, I would have been hard pressed to feel positive. I was emotionally spent from the funeral of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah on the previous day. After weeks of prayer and mourning I thought I had no more tears left to shed. But then I woke up to the news of Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder, and felt broken all over again. A sixteen year old kid, beaten and burnt by my own brethren.
So why did Mohammed’s death hit me so hard? For some, the very idea that Jews could commit such an atrocity was heartbreaking, even unbelievable. Others felt that the murder was our fault, a direct result of racist sentiments and statements. I don’t belong to either group. Jews can be murderers too. And how can we be held responsible for the actions of a mentally unstable man and two minors?
For me, the murder was so painful because it underlined an alarming trend. A day earlier, I watched video footage of a Jewish mob running around town hitting random Arabs. In the torturous weeks before that, I heard many truly wonderful, loving people make sweeping and hateful comments about all Arabs, regardless of innocence or guilt. I was horrified to see what terror was doing to us, how it instilled hate and made our hearts cold.
The Gaza war officially started six days later, bringing with it new kinds of anguish and pain. It also unleashed ruthless debates within Israeli society. People from both left and right hurled bitter accusations. If you expressed sympathy for the innocent people in Gaza, you risked being branded a traitor. If you said “I’m glad our army is defending us, despite the innocent victims,” you risked being Internet-lynched as an unfeeling racist. In some anti-war rallies, demonstrators were physically attacked.
Put together, all these experiences were a brutal wake-up call. They forced me to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict in a different way. Regardless of my opinions about the conflict itself, I could no longer ignore its negative effect on our own integrity as individuals, and on the cohesion of our society as a whole. The conflict isn’t about to disappear any time soon. Terror, sadly, is again on the rise, bringing with it heartbreak and justified anger. So if we don’t want to lose our compassion, if we don’t want our society to come apart at the seams, we must make a conscious effort to battle its negative effects.
Looking back a year later, I have seen progress in several areas. The trauma remains but even though the events were tragic, they triggered positive changes in Israeli society which I would like to share here.
Ready to Talk
After the summer, many people devoted themselves to open discussions across party lines. Some do so on Facebook. Others started going out to Jerusalem’s center of town on Thursday nights to talk to the kids there. All of them try to actually listen and respond, instead of hurling accusations back and forth. Such conversations lay the groundwork for a less bitter future. I hope that the next time we have to deal with a major crisis, we will be less likely to hate and negate the other side.
A Model to Follow
The families of the kidnapped boys inspired millions with their dignity and faith. And after Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder Rachel Fraenkel, Naftali’s mother, was one of the first to speak out, drawing a clear line between justice and revenge:
Even in the abyss of mourning for Gil-Ad, Eyal and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood in defiance of all morality, of the Torah, of the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country…Only the murderers of our sons…and not innocent people, will be brought to justice: by the army, the police, and the judiciary; not by vigilantes. No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents.
Rachel Fraenkel gave us a glowing model to follow. She showed us that strong political convictions can and do come hand in hand with a caring heart. If she, who lost her own son, could remain compassionate and just, so can we.
Standing Up for Tolerance
The public space, both physical and virtual, is usually dominated by people on the extremes. They are louder. They doubt themselves less. They have fewer reservations holding them back from speaking out. In this kind of environment, many people (myself included) chose not to speak out.
After last summer, we realized that we can’t afford to relinquish our place in the discourse, even if our opinions can’t be turned into a straightforward slogan. On July 2nd 2014 I took my kids to an anti-racism rally in Jerusalem. It was amazing to see so many people from all groups and camps coming together to reclaim the public space in the name of tolerance and compassion. Since then, I made a conscious effort to speak out, be it here with my blog or in real-world conversations. And I see many other people from both left and right doing the same.
Last summer reminded us how powerful unity can make us. Even though it crumbled somewhat under the pressure of the war, even though it didn’t encompass all of us to start with, millions of Israelis and Jews around the world united behind the families of the kidnapped boys. They prayed with them, visited them, and came to comfort them when the bodies were found.
The families decided, as Renee Ghent-Zand wrote here in TOI, that “Jewish unity would be their sons’ legacy, and that they would dedicate themselves to raising awareness of the importance of unity every day, and not only during times of crisis and conflict with the nation’s enemies.” They turned their sons’ yahrzeit into an official “Unity Day”. A month ago Jews around the world marked this special day, and three organizations dedicated to togetherness and dialogue received the first annual “Jerusalem Unity Prize”.
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I hope that our society will continue to evolve in these directions. The conflict is here to stay for now. But we can strive to remain compassionate, respectful, and unified as we deal with it.