Boys’ Murders Test Idea Of Unity

Boys’ Murders Test Idea Of Unity

A year after the deaths, uncomfortable questions about Israel’s divisions.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

A  year ago, at a shallow grave in the West Bank, stone-cold reality set in. There, the corpses of three young men were found, and the “Bring Back Our Boys” campaign had reached the end of the road. They were coming home. But not as we wanted.

It had been almost three weeks since Eyal Ifrach, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists when, on June 30, their bodies were found. The first day of the school summer vacation, July 1, was marked by one of the largest funerals Israel has ever seen — and within days, a full-scale conflict ranged between Israel and Hamas.

The boys’ families have marked their first yahrtzeit by promoting the theme of Jewish unity. Around a million Jews worldwide took party in events for Unity Day, an event they initiated to perpetuate the “spirit of unprecedented unity amongst the Jewish People,” which followed the kidnappings.

These parents, and especially the eloquent and inspirational mother Rachel Fraenkel, are optimistic people who are trying to stress the positive that they saw during their tragedy. And they should be praised for this. But I think that in order to really learns lessons about unity from last summer, we also need to look at the more uncomfortable aspect of that time.

I’m not so sure that the boys’ murders were, across Israel, the unifying tragedy that it has been portrayed to have been. In fact, I think it was felt more in some diaspora communities than in parts of secular Tel Aviv.

In many ways, it was seen primarily as a tragedy of the religious right wing. Elsewhere in Israeli society, some people disconnected from it. Some felt less for the boys because they were studying in the West Bank and settlements are controversial; and there was something of a fixation with the fact that the victims had been hitchhiking.

The emphasis on the hitchhiking was very telling. I remember discussing this with Sherri Mandell, whose son Koby was murdered during the second intifada aged 13, as the search for the boys was underway. She said that the focus on the hitchhiking issue results from the psychological need of Israelis to tell themselves it could not happen to them — that they are different. “There’s often a tendency to blame the victim, like saying that as they did something wrong it couldn’t happen to me,” she said, adding that this is “not just distasteful but dangerous as it’s the denial of the real enemy.”  

Similarly, there were Israeli Jews who took comfort in the knowledge that the kidnapping happened “out there” in the West Bank — a place they don’t visit and wouldn’t send their kids to study — rather than in areas that they frequent, and with this comfort came disconnect from the tragedy.

I remember talking, on the night when the bodies were found, to a Jewish father and son. The father placed responsibility on the boys’ parents for educating their sons in the West Bank and allowing them to hitchhike, while the son, who was in his 20s, didn’t feel any particular connection to the boys on the basis of the fact they were Jewish or Israeli.

I remember, at the funeral the next day, being struck by the extent to which it was an outpouring of grief by the religious-Zionist community, and how others were noticeably under-represented. I interviewed many, many people that day and almost all were religious-Zionists — Israelis who didn’t know the boys personally, but had felt so much solidarity with the families that the simply had to attend. The youth of Bnei Akiva were out in force, but other ideological youth movements of different religious and political stripes were hardly present.

I asked public opinion expert Tamar Hermann to consider my rethinking of how unified Israel really was during the boys’ disappearance. “No one justified the kidnapping, no one justified the murder, but I think that you indicated the fact well that people did not feel deep empathy,” she said. Hermann, who surveys Israelis monthly as part of her work directing polling at the Israel Democracy Institute, went on to comment that in many cases when people felt a connection with the families, it was based on “the universal human basis not a sense of belonging to the same community.”

I don’t blame people for pigeonholing themselves and others, using these definitions in order to less acutely feel the pain of our brethren — it’s a way of rationing our emotions, which is understandable. In general, it’s tiring being a Jew. We can find other Jews embarrassing and annoying. We find ourselves wanting to declare “we’re not like them.”

The rabbis of the Talmud said: “All of Israel are responsible for one another” — but surely they didn’t think there would be 15 million of us. So we make rules in our head, which can go something like this: “I would feel for these Jews, but these ones are too religious, and I would care for these others but they’re too secular. And that lot is too right wing, and the others are too left wing. I would feel for the kidnapped boys if only they weren’t studying in the West Bank, or if only they hadn’t been hitchhiking.”

I think that many Israelis did deeply feel the pain of the Ifrach, Shaer and Fraenkel families, but I don’t think that it was the picture-perfect epitome of unity that it was convenient for media to report last summer, or which we’re most happy about remembering a year on.

It’s easy to unintentionally conflate the response to the kidnapping with the response to the military action. Once the confrontation against Hamas began, large parts of Israel were under rocket fire and fear of tunnel attack, and soldiers were being hurt in Gaza, a sense of national unity did take hold. But this time it was easy to feel for each other — rocket alarms were sounding all over the country and everyone felt like they were under attack by the same threat.

The real test of Jewish unity is whether it kicks in when we aren’t all in the same boat. And if we’re honest, we will honor the memories of the three boys by embracing both lessons from the days after their disappearance — the comfortable one, and the uncomfortable one. It’s easy to feel inspired by the people who pulled together, but much harder to look inside ourselves and see that, just like in the Israelis who kept the plight of the boys’ families at arms length, in each of us, there’s a desire to focus on the differences between us and other Jews and use these to rationalize emotionally disconnecting from them.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

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