A long, long time ago, after three Jewish teens were kidnapped and murdered, after an Arab teen was then murdered, but before the rockets and the ground war and the funerals and the 12 cease-fires and the anguish and the destruction – this was a country overcome by collective guilt and horror, reeling from the pain that there are Jews, too, who murder innocents.
At first, most of Israel went through paroxysms of guilt and self-doubt. But almost immediately, Hamas unleashed the first of what would be thousands of rockets at Israel. The war started, robbing the nation of the chance to have a real shiva (mourning period) for the three teens, and averting our attention from the self-reflection that had just been getting underway.
Two months have passed, and Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Arab teen, is in the news again. Back in school, Haaretz asserted, Palestinian students who had previously been “uniquely sensitive to Jewish tragedy” have had their “faith in coexistence” shaken. Perhaps. What the Haaretz article did not report, though, was that they were not alone. In ways that none of us would have expected, the aftermath of the murder also dealt a blow to coexistence on the Jewish side.
Within days of the murder, a Facebook invitation to an event organized by a group called Tag Meir (a play on the Hebrew “tag mechir,” for “price tag,” as Jewish revenge violence is known) spread like wildfire. Jews were going to Shuafat, the Abu Khdeir family’s neighborhood, to pay their respects, to ask forgiveness. We gathered, hundreds of us, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center; there actually wasn’t enough room on the buses for everyone who showed up. And we were a heterogeneous lot: religious and secular, native Israelis and Anglo immigrants, lefties but lots of centrists, too. A couple from the right. This was not about politics, we knew; this was about being human.
The mood on the bus was somber. What does one say to a father whose son has been burned alive? Yet there was a palpable sense of relief as well. At least we were doing something, saying something.
Once in Shuafat, we lined up to shake the hands of the male members of the family (the women were elsewhere); many said a few words to the father. When everyone was done, we were seated. (Here’s a highly sanitized series of clips from the event.)
A member of the Abu Khdeir family rose to speak. He thanked us for coming, for expressing our shame. He said something about Muhammad being a shahid (Arabic for “martyr,” the term often used by Palestinians for suicide bombers), which the translator purposely translated as “murder victim.” But the speaker clearly understood Hebrew and stopped. He insisted that the translator say “martyr.” People in the crowd began to squirm, to look to see if others were equally uncomfortable.
But he was just getting started. We had come, he said, because we were opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. (True of some, but not of all.) We had come because we were opposed to the occupation. (Depends on which lines you’re speaking about.) We had come, he repeated time and again, because we were ashamed of the settlements. (But there were people there who lived in settlements, and we all knew it. They had taken the greatest social risk in coming, and he was assailing them.)
A few people stood and walked out, as discreetly as they could; they were not willing to be used, they told me later. Many others, myself included, considered leaving, but decided not to; I was uncomfortable and was feeling manipulated, but I didn’t want to undo the entire gesture of having come in the first place. The speech felt interminable.
We later made our way through an angry Arab crowd, with some people screaming at us, back to the buses. On the return trip, the mood in the bus was very different. “I felt used.” “Did he really assume we were all lefties, or did he mean to insult us?” “Outrageous,” a few said, knowing that it still wasn’t nearly as outrageous as killing a boy. “If I’d known, I would never have come.”
Exiting the tent, I’d seen three ultra-Orthodox Jews, in full regalia, incongruous among the jeans- and T-shirt- wearing crowd. People like them and people like us rarely mix. Curious, I said hello. And then, knowing the powerful role of rabbis in their community, I asked them if anyone had suggested they come. “No.” “Then why did you come?” I asked. “It just felt like the right thing to do,” they said.
It had, indeed, been the right thing to do, and I was moved that they were there. I was tempted to ask them whether in light of what they had just heard, they would come again. But I decided not to. Even before matters got infinitely worse this summer, I had a sixth sense that if a mourning visit could go so wrong, it was worth trying to hold on to at least some semblance of hope.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem. He is the author of “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” and “The Promise of Israel.”