It took at most a minute to realize that the sirens I kept hearing from my apartment off of Hebron Road Saturday morning weren’t rushing to tend to an “ordinary” emergency. As their wailing loomed and then faded, only to be followed by another siren’s cry, and another, and another, I went to check my phone. Sure enough, as I flipped through news sites I found a report: “Another shooting attack: two seriously wounded near the City of David. The terrorist, 13 years old, was neutralized.” The victims were a father and son.
It was upsetting but, unfortunately, not surprising. It’s clear that we are plummeting into a period of severely escalating violence, given Friday night’s heart-wrenching terrorist attack in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Newe Yaakov where a terrorist killed seven outside of a synagogue; the IDF operations in Jenin of the previous few days; the rockets from Gaza and Israel’s response; and the broader context of all that’s been happening with its many fronts and actors.
Who are this wounded father and son? And who was this 13-year old, who had hidden behind a car to shoot them?
As I wondered this I realized that sirens were still sounding on Hebron Road, one after another. It’d been at least 20 minutes. Maybe there had been a second incident? I searched the headlines for a possible explanation and am stopped short by a story about two of the victims of Friday night’s attack in Newe Yaakov, a husband and wife, Eli and Natali Mizrahi. They’d been sitting at their Shabbat dinner table when they heard shots and shouts. They leapt up and ran outside to help, only to be shot at point blank range by the gunman.
The story carries a picture of them on their wedding day – Eli tall and thin, smiling with bashful delight into the camera; Natali with a soft face and smile, large brown eyes, her blond hair braided in a crown around her head with tresses falling around her shoulders. They’d married just two years ago. They were 48 and 45 years old when they died. I can’t help but wonder how they felt about finding a life partner at this stage in life.
I was still hearing the wailing of continual sirens (has it been some 40 minutes already?) when another headline caught my eye: “A 25-year-old mystery: who is the serial stabber who murdered the terrorist’s grandfather?” It turned out that Eli and Natali’s murderer, Khairi Alkam, was the grandson of a man whose name he carried who had been murdered 25 years ago in Jerusalem while heading from morning prayer at the mosque to the construction site where he worked. He was one of a series of Palestinian victims of what security officials deemed to be nationalistically motivated attacks conducted to avenge the murder of two yeshiva students, all over the course of several years. In an unusual move, then-President Weizman paid a condolence call to Alkam’s family, and even called for the state to recognize him as a victim of terror (though it’s not clear whether the state did so, as I have read several differing media accounts on this).
The serial killer was never found, though there were a few attempts to do so. One was the arrest of Kahanist activist Chaim Perlman in 2010 who was ultimately released without conviction, though he was forbidden by the court from associating with certain right wing activists – including Itamar Ben Gvir.
In the hours following Alkam’s Friday night attack in Newe Yaakov, Israeli security forces arrested 45 suspects, most of them his family members and friends living in his Jerusalem neighborhood of A-Tur. How many houses did they have to raid to arrest the suspects? I have friends whose son just finished his IDF service, which included conducting raids as part of security operations in the West Bank. I know how worried they’d been for his safety, and that alongside knowing that such operations were preventing attacks that would have harmed innocent Israelis, they worried about the ways that harm against Palestinian innocents was also inevitable. And I have Palestinian friends who live in East Jerusalem and bemoan the fear, anger and hate which raids and harsh treatment by Israeli soldiers generate, and the way that is recycled into support for violent retribution. These are not equivalent, but they are intimately interconnected.
I suddenly realized that the cacophony of passing sirens has stopped. It must have been a full hour since they’d started. Shabbat silence and warm sunlight again blanketed our neighborhood.
Bibi issued calls for people not to take the law into their own hands, and Israeli security officials expressed concerns about Jewish retaliatory “price tag” attacks against Palestinians. And indeed it wasn’t long before reports of such attacks started appearing.
My 11-year old daughter is now afraid to take the bus, and I worry for each of my three children as they leave the house. Security forces have been put on highest alert, but I know there’s little we can do to ensure that they won’t find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time in the days and weeks to come.
There is a certain rhythm, rhyme and roleplaying which unfolds with each wave of violence. The attacks, counterattacks and counter-counter attacks, which each side always blames the other for starting. The heroic fighters and fiery politicians whose words do more to provoke than to reassure. And most of all, the tragic victims and their bereft mourners whose lives will never, ever be the same. I can’t look at their photos without my own tears choking me.
But there is one critical role missing in the public eye: that of the people trying to change this situation. That’s not to say they don’t exist. They do. But it doesn’t seem to include anyone serious at the political level. And of those involved from civil society, we don’t hear their stories often enough, and when we do their message is varyingly attacked, disparaged or dismissed.
Many people react with anger when you show empathy to the other side while on your own side blood is flowing and people are suffering. Understandably, in many ways. But we seem to have fewer and fewer breaks between violence and tragedy. And when things are relatively quiet, calls for negotiations or improving the situation, or even “mere” empathy and dialogue at the people-to-people level, are generally met with hostility or just an apathetic shrug, because “what difference will it make?” Our political leaders have refined the tools and rhetoric of war, and abandoned even the pretense of addressing the issues propelling these cycles of violence.
But this is what I have come to understand. “Us” and “them” are inseparable. Neither side will give in, give up or go away. We are all here to stay. The same set of facts can generate different stories not because people are lying or manipulating the facts – though there is plenty of that too – but because your position within the event determines your experience, and therefore your telling of the story.
Truth is to be found hovering just high enough above the event so as to be able to integrate all of these perspectives of ordinary human beings, Israelis and Palestinians, who are afraid and angry and fed up. Who wish the violence and harm that is endemic to this entire situation would end. Who want to be able to leave home every day without fear. Who want to be treated fairly and be able to pursue a decent life. This understanding will be at the heart of any successful attempt to create greater security.