Stand Up and Be Counted

In the last few weeks, I have party to difficult, surreal, unbelievable, at times ridiculous conversations with colleagues, friends, family and my own children.

A friend that participated in an impromptu self-defense class shared that she was reassured by the fact that ‘we only need to survive for the first seven seconds’ of a knife attack before help will arrive at the scene. Crazily enough, I too found this comforting.

My nine year old relayed a ‘funny’ thought that he had as I kissed him good night on the eve of the two terror attacks in our sleepy home town of Ra’anana – one that involved a terrorist coming at him with the fork instead of a knife demanding he ‘eat his dinner or die’. For lack of anything intelligent to say (“it can’t happen in Ra’anana?”; “it’s not funny?”; “it is funny?”), I sang a lullaby and wished him happy dreams (under the circumstances, not a very intelligent choice of words).

The next day, shared another ‘funny story’ about a ‘friend’ who he saw riding his bike with scissors in his hand. He recounted that when he asked the ‘friend’ why he was holding scissors, the ‘friend’ explained that they were ‘to cut the terrorist who comes to kill him’. I wanted to cry at the thought that at his age, the only imaginary friend that I knew of was Mr. Snuffleupagus, the woolly mammoth fondly known as Snuffy. I cry at the understanding that at his age, my child is deeply afraid.

The older kids have been less inclined to show and share their fears. At 16, 14 and 12 they are more seasoned ‘warriors’ in this fight for survival and each has found their own needed comfort in order to feign normalcy and try to function properly. At school, they were told by their teachers that they must be especially aware, not look down at their phones, and avoid as much as possible the consumption of social media as it is filled with gory sights and false reports intended to instill additional fear.

Like me, they appreciated and were strengthened by messages and calls from friends abroad checking in and saying that they care. Like me, they repeated the mantra that ‘we cannot let them scare us’ from living our lives for that is precisely the purpose of terror. Like me, they knew that the parental response of driving them and their friends around that day was unsustainable in Israeli reality. Like me, they dreaded the first time of returning to the bus stop or returning to their routine of walking to their destination. Like me, they looked around not knowing who to suspect. Like me, they made a conscious decision to trust those around them and hope for the best. Like me, they feign normalcy every day and go about their daily routine, tucking the fear away safely somewhere in the back of their minds.

Here is where it gets really difficult. Like me, they thought that the world sees the reality and will hold those responsible accountable. Like me, they thought that just as people, communities and countries deeply understood the fear for personal safety on the days, weeks and months after 9/11, after the Boston marathon, after the attack on the Canadian parliament, in the aftermath Charlie Hebdo when we were all Charlie, it will be clear that the incitement of spiritual and political leaders must stop. Like me, they expected that significant voices will denounce the manipulative inculcation of hatred of kids by schools and camps. Like me, they thought that western democracies will show their outrage at the killing of unsuspecting, innocent civilians for no other reason than who and what they are – Jews.

I hope that they do not yet understand, like me, that they were wrong, for it is an awful, frightening and lonely feeling. In reality, rather than clearly and unequivocally condemning the incitement to hatred by political and spiritual leaders, much of the international media has elected to report recent events in a manner that hides or confuses the identity of victims and culprits. Rather than clearly and unequivocally demanding accountability from political and spiritual leaders for what they say and do, world leaders and representatives of ‘neutral’ countries and organizations draw moral equations at best, or blame the heinous crimes committed on Israel for actions never committed and words never uttered.

I have written before that growing up, we were taught that if we do not take a stand, we land up on the side of evil. In the school yard, that meant standing up to the school bully. In global politics, it meant to protect the underdog even if unpopular. Generally speaking, it meant to responsibly learn the facts, form our own opinion and speak our mind, no matter the consequences. Growing up, we were told time and again that words have meaning. A product of our upbringing, in turn, we teach our kids to think before they speak and insist that they are accountable for all that they say. History has taught us that words precede actions and pave the path for events too terrible to imagine but not too terrible to have happened.

As Israel mourns the catastrophe of the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin by a fellow Jew, there is no doubt in my mind that we must continue to teach our kids to treat others with respect no matter what,  to never judge another and to to accept every human being as an equal. That has always been and must continue to be the paradigm that we inculcate into future generations.

We cannot, however, be responsible or held accountable for the paradigm that teaches children to hate and destroy anything different than them; the paradigm that celebrates murderers of children as heroes; the paradigm that encourages martyrdom for the cause of annihilating the other; the paradigm that utilizes captions and cartoons disseminated on social media by official representatives to alter history.

Here is where all those that are asking what they can do from far away come in. Your response is crucial. Your voice is critical. Israel cannot possibly challenge this paradigm alone. Each individual, community, organization or country that recognizes this can do something in their circles, in any and every imaginable capacity, to begin challenging this paradigm.

For those that do not think it is relevant or simply do not care, though I understand the temptation, I would suggest the possibility that Israel and what it faces daily is a microcosm of what the entire free and democratic world will face unless it begins to engage with reality and addresses the challenges head on. In the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me.

Plus can change, plus ca reste la meme chose, as the saying goes (the more things change, the more they stay the same). There is no place for the highroad of moral ambiguity in our global reality. It is time to engage, understand, formulate an opinion, take a stand and utilize the very tools afforded by democracy to protect it from those threatening its very existence. In this brave new world, this just may be another dangerous moment of truth which should shake all those that cherish freedom and democracy from their political apathy. Alarm bells should be ringing across the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia and despite the discomfort that this challenge may present, a clear voice must be sounded. Every single individual has the ability and the duty to respond to the sounding bells.

The writing is on the virtual wall. It is time to stand up and be counted.


About the Author
Adv. Michal Cotler-Wunsh is a PhD candidate in Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researching the topic of free speech. She is a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at IDC Herzliya and a board member of Tzav Pius.