Reflecting on recent killings in Israel

Mark Vargo, our State’s Attorney and committed to justice under law, sent to me a copy of a letter written by a close friend. He suggested that this go on my blog—and I readily agree.

Before we all read that letter, I want very much to express my feelings about the murder of a young “Palestinian” boy who was an Israeli citizen just as the murdered three boys were citizens of Israel.

Last Wednesday I participated, online via a live stream, in a Board of Governor’s meeting of the American Jewish Committee—the oldest and most powerful Jewish organization in the United States which was originally suggested by President Teddy Roosevelt to a small group of Jewish leaders from the East Coast—hence the term committee.

As the meeting started a rabbi came to the podium and asked us to join him in a prayer for Mohammed Abu Khedair. He remarked that the week before we were praying for the safe return of “our” three teenagers and noted all victims are “ours”. He then asked us to rise and join him as he recited a traditional prayer for victims and martyrs in Hebrew. While I was in Keystone participating in front of a computer screen, I rose as well and as I stood there my eyes were drawn to the faces on Mount Rushmore—the four founders of values of these United States.

As a Jew, there is no way to reconcile the murder committed in such an especially horrid manner as this young man suffered. When will the madness cease? When will all the youth that suffer across the world be protected against this kind of madness?

As the rabbi said, “These murders are beyond our faith, our traditions, and even the remotest justification.”

I cannot erase from my mind that this was the kind of death handed out to my forbearers, my children’s grandparents that ended—at least when they came to these blessed shores.

British paper the “Guardian” described how some Israelis responded to the murder of Mohammed Abu Khedair:

“On Saturday evening in Jerusalem’s central Zion Square, after a small peace rally, small groups of participants wandered off into the night to walk and keep watch in Palestinian neighbourhoods against incursions by rightwing Israeli groups.

Across Palestinian neighbourhoods of the city, from Beit Hanina to the deep cut valley of Silwan, residents have formed neighbourhood watch groups, patrolling their streets and checking strangers’ cars.”

Had I been there, I too would have joined my fellow Jews in keeping watch.

 

3 July 2014 | 5 Tamuz 5774

Shortly after the funerals of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frenkel, the three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and murdered, Shalem College Provost Daniel Polisar reflected on the tragedy and its meaning for both the country and his two young sons. He shared these reflections with a number of friends and family members, many of whom asked him for permission to pass them on to others. We have therefore decided to post these reflections for the benefit of the entire Shalem community. Anyone who wishes to respond to Dr. Polisar is invited to write to him at dpolisar@shalem.ac.il.

Reflections for My Children on Israeli Society and Our Mission 
in the Wake of the Kidnapping and Murder of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali

The members of my parents’ generation in America remember where they were and what they were doing that moment, half a century ago, when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been felled by an assassin in Dallas. For my generation in Israel, the event seared in our memories took place two decades ago on a November evening when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv. For my children’s generation, the moment they will likely carry with them for the rest of their lives occurred last night, at 8:30 p.m., when the story broke that the bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frenkel, the three teenage students kidnapped by Hamas terrorists a few weeks ago, had been found not far from where they had been seeking to hitch rides home to their families at the end of their week at school.

My two youngest sons were out with my wife Jocelyn and me at a restaurant in Jerusalem’s German Colony,  celebrating the successful completion of fifth and seventh grades, respectively, and the green belts they had just earned in karate. This was our first sustained moment of levity since the kidnapping, as our family had very much shared in the national sentiment connecting all Israelis to the kidnapped students and their families. Each morning, one or both of them would come to me immediately after waking to ask, “Did anything happen overnight with the boys?” It was the last thing they spoke about before going to bed, and often they would ask to stay up late to look at “just one more news site” in search of clues as to what was going on. Between their rising up and their lying down, they joined their peers at school, at synagogue, and at home in saying prayers and reciting psalms to punctuate the fervent wish that the three be returned alive. And so, at 8:40 p.m. last night, when my eldest son texted Jocelyn and me to give us the news, I thought to prolong the celebration just a little bit longer, to let them enjoy that last bite of dessert before destroying their evening, but doing so seemed inappropriate in light of their very grown-up concerns. I said I had sad news to share, and my ten-year-old asked soberly, “Was one of the boys killed?” I answered, after a long pause, that all three had been killed. My sons  reacted with the kind of spontaneous, overwhelming grief one might expect if they had received this terrible news about people with whom they had been close for years. As my wife and I sought to comfort them, they managed to get out a few words, some angry and some sad, and to ask a few questions—as if the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who does not know how to ask had stepped out of the pages of the Haggadah all together and suddenly confronted, in one piercing moment, the dizzying and painful reality of what it means to grow up in today’s Jewish state.

Throughout the day today, while in meetings at Shalem College with students and colleagues who, like me, were in mourning and only half-present, I thought about what to say to my boys when they are ready to speak again–which they surely were not this evening, having spent a couple of hours glued to the television watching the triple funeral. They are now sleeping, albeit fitfully, so it is time to put down some notes for what I hope to say when the time is ripe. I am not yet ready to answer their theological questions about “Why didn’t God answer our prayers?” nor do I feel particularly qualified to speak about what the Israeli government and security forces should do next. But I do have some thoughts on what it means to be a young person growing up in Israel today, and what it means to be a parent who moved here from a seemingly simpler and safer place, Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, with the aim of contributing to the incredible miracle of rebuilding the Jewish state. So here goes, notes for a conversation that I never wished to have, but that I now hope to hold sooner rather than later.

This is a very sad time to be an Israeli. Since the meaning of Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh l’zeh is that all of us are responsible for one another, we feel each other’s pain precisely when it is most intense. Even if we are not all sitting shiva and tearing our garments, all of us are undoubtedly in mourning. It is also a proud time to be an Israeli, and though my heart is heavy, it is also bursting with pride. It is incredible to be part of a country in which everyone has adopted three kidnapped boys as if they were their own. It is inspirational to be part of a society that produces parents like those of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, who in the midst of their grief have taken every opportunity to thank the soldiers risking their lives to bring back their sons, and to express gratitude to everyone in Israel and around the  world working and praying for their boys’ safety. And it is amazing to be part of a nation that has produced the Israel Defense Forces, whose soldiers are motivated by the sense that upon their shoulders rests the responsibility not only to defend our borders and our citizens, but to do everything possible to protect each and every one of us.

Indeed, the operation to bring these three boys home was aptly named “Shuvu Achim,” or “Return, Brothers,” an expression not of some tactical aim but of the sentiments of our young men and women in uniform. Throughout these three terrible weeks, I have been comforted by the knowledge that our security forces are not only superb at what they do, but that they literally would not rest until they had achieved their mission. I am now comforted, at least in part, by the knowledge that as a matter of solemn duty, they will do everything conceivable, and perhaps some things that are not, to bring to justice those who had a hand in the kidnapping and murders.

For your Ima and me, this triple kidnapping-murder does not weaken our resolve to do what we came here to do. We knew, when deciding to move to Israel 25 years ago, that there was much work to be done in making the country secure and prosperous, but especially in creating the kind of society that would make worthwhile the sacrifices building a Jewish democracy in the Middle East inevitably demands. For this venture to justify its enormous costs, it is not enough to safeguard the existence of a state that can provide a haven for Jews. We also need to create a model society, built on individual initiative and compassion, freedom and solidarity, an unswerving commitment to our own defense and a fierce desire to secure peace for ourselves and for all mankind. We must forge a country that can serve, genuinely and without cynicism, as a “light unto the nations,” as the Biblical prophets called upon us to do.

For Ima, that means becoming a yoetzet halakha, an expert on Jewish family law, simultaneously helping improve the quality of life for couples throughout Israel while gradually transforming the opportunities available to Jewish women. She is doing so at Nishmat, where one of the teachers, and an early graduate of the same program in which she is studying, is Racheli Frenkel, mother of Naftali of blessed memory. For me, it means doing everything I can to ensure the success of the fledgling Shalem College, an institution I hope will be able to nurture the kind of future leaders whose wisdom and passion will enable them to help make our country a light unto the nations. And it means devoting ourselves to guiding the six wonderful children with whom we have been blessed, so that each of you can take your place not only as strong, happy, independent, and productive men and women, but as engaged citizens who take part in the collective enterprise of building and sustaining the Jewish state and people.

As for the two of you, I hope you’ll take out of this tragedy, which has caused you to become politically mature beyond your years, a desire to take on as much responsibility as you can, if not more. When you come of age, you will have the awesome privilege of serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and I hope it is clearer to you now than ever before why that is not only a legal obligation, but a moral duty that should be assumed with a sense of mission. You should be preparing yourself for that task in the coming years, not only by becoming physically fit and technically able to do what soldiers must do, whether in combat positions, Intelligence, or wherever else you can best serve, but by trying to understand why you are defending your country, what makes it worth defending, and which are the crooked parts that need straightening so that it may become even more worthy of the sacrifices required for its defense.

Your army service will be only the beginning, Ima and I hope, of your efforts to take leading roles in the next chapter of our people’s awe-inspiring story. We hope you find your callings, as we believe we have, so that in good times you can proceed joyously, knowing that you are contributing to the noble enterprise of the Jewish nation; and in bad times, like today, you will know that you are not helpless victims, but instead can emerge from tragedy with a strengthened resolve: You can strive to help shape the kind of society whose sacrifices, painful as they are, are part of a broader effort to build and sustain a nation that will be a blessing for its inhabitants and for all of mankind. We hope, that in the coming days, you will find not only peace and comfort, but also strength, and a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. 

Daniel Polisar
Executive Vice President and Provost
Shalem College

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