Friday, July 04, 2014

Why we mourn Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali

A guest post by David Staum

I have a confession to make. I don't feel the death of the 3 boys in Israel as deeply as some of you seem to.

Don't get me wrong. It's terribly sad. And the way they died is tragic and horrifying. And when I think of the parents, I realize I can't imagine what they're going through.

But I haven't cried. I haven't made tribute videos. I haven't felt like I'm in deep mourning. I haven't filled my Facebook wall with their pictures. I simply wrote "BDE", and expressed my deep and sincere sympathy for the families.

I didn't know these boys. They were strangers. As a fellow Jew, I feel deep sympathy for the families.. But I don't feel like I lost a family member myself.

I want to tell you about two other young people who lost their lives in Israel recently. Their names were Yishai Levy (11 years old) and his sister Sara Levy (10 years old). Somehow, their deaths hit me harder than those of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad. Maybe it's their ages. Maybe it's because even though I didn't know them, they lived in Columbus, Ohio, where my wife and I lived for a few years and where she taught in the day school the children later attended. Or maybe it's the particularly heinous way in which they died - their mother sent them off to Israel for the summer to visit their father, her ex-Husband. Their divorce had been a particularly bad one, with deep bitterness. On the night they arrived, the father stabbed his own children and killed them.

Is the manner in which Yishai and Sara died more horrific than the way Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad did? There's no scale to measure such things. The mothers of all these young people are locked in deep grief right now. And there's no reason to make it any sort of competition.

But I do have a greater point to make. What I want to analyze today is not my own reaction, but the reaction of Jews in general, particularly Israelis and religiously involved Jews overseas. Why was one tragedy so front and center, and the other all but ignored? This isn't a polemic and I'm not calling anyone to task. But I think this question is worth exploring, because the answer may shed some light on how we view ourselves and our tribal allegiances.

Before I get to that, I'd like to tell you about a few of the other young people who were tragically murdered over the last few weeks.

Gina Burger, 16, Pennsylvania, USA
Murti & Pushpa, 14 & 15, Uttar Pradesh, India
Amanda Hill, 16, North Carolina, USA
Jed Coates, 18, Sydney, Australia
Cheyanne Bond, 17, New Jersey, USA
David Headlam, 18, London, UK
Michael Patton, 17, Illinois, USA
Yeliani Schwartz-Ojeda, 3, Florida, USA
Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, 16, Jerusalem, Israel
Alexis Kellas, 9, Virginia, USA

Why aren't we crying over them? Why aren't we in deep mourning?

That's an easy one, unfortunately. It would be debilitating to spend all our time focused on all the tragedy in the world. Innocent people and innocent children are killed on a daily basis. We just don't have the emotional capacity to absorb it all. So what do we do? We naturally focus on when a "family member" is killed, someone who is part of our religious, social, or ethnic tribe. In the case of us Jews, that usually means someone else who is Jewish. And I'm taking no one to task for this. It's simply human nature, I wrote at the start of this post that I don't seem to be feeling the deaths of the three boys as much as some of you. But I definitely feel it more than I feel for anyone in the list above. When one of our own is killed, we mourn.

But what about when those who are killed ARE our own? A father and his 7 year old daughter drowned a couple of weeks ago in a terrible accident north of Tel Aviv. Why aren't we engaged in mass mourning for this little girl like we are for Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad?

One simple answer - accidents happen all the time. But the three boys were murdered, not killed in an accident. They were taken from us deliberately. So it's not simply the death of a young Jew that unites us in mourning, it's the heinousness of the manner in which they died. They were murdered in cold blood.

Then why aren't we engaged in the same mass mourning for Yishai and Sara Levy? They were Jews. They were killed in Israel. They were part of a religious community in the US and attended a Jewish day school. And they were murdered in a particularly heinous and disturbing manner. Why aren't we crying over their deaths to the same degree?

One answer is that the three boys were only killed after a couple of weeks of prayer and desperate hope, so there was a build-up. And when their bodies were found and all hope was lost, the dam burst and all the emotions came pouring out in mass grief.

But I don't think that's all there is to it. There's another factor, one that speaks to our self-identification and self-definition.

Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar weren't just anyone. They were young people taken before their time. And not just any young people, but members of OUR people, fellow Jews. And they were't killed just anywhere, they were killed in Israel, our homeland, where we should have a right to feel safe. They weren't just killed, they were murdered, and in a particularly heinous manner.

And finally, they weren't just brutally murdered, they were murdered by them.

The enemy.

The other.

A good part of our grief is anger. This wasn't a murder in isolation, but the latest in a long story of our enemies wanting us dead, wanting us out of what they view as their land. In our eyes, Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali represent all of us, We mourn because those who killed them wanted to make a political statement, and they viewed any Jew in their land as an enemy.

Our mass mourning is a mass cry of anger and defiance. It's an emotional thrust against the enemy.

Sara and Yishai Levy were killed in a horrific manner, by their own father, A father who, we must assume, had deep emotional and psychological problems. But the greater conflict in that case was only between a father and mother in a bitter divorce dispute. It was not nation against nation, people against people.

The three boys, however, are seen as representatives of all of us. We are all engaged in a struggle for our land. Almost all engaged Jews believe in the right of Israel to exist, only disagreeing on where the borders should be drawn. And we see the boys' murders as an attempt to push us out, to tell us that we have no right to be there, that we have no claim to nationhood, and that Jewish blood is cheap.

We see it as an act of war.

And when one is attacked in an act of war, one circles the wagons and strikes back against the enemy, both physically, as Netanyahu is doing, and rhetorically, as we have all seen in mass media and social media. That is why some have reacted in unfortunate calls for mass reprisal.

Without the larger context of murder and national struggle, most of us wouldn't have been mourning them at all. If Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali had been killed in a traffic accident on the very same road where they were taken, the mourners would have only included their families and friends. We, strangers, wouldn't even know their names. There would have been no funeral with tens of thousands of people. There would have been no tribute videos, foreign representatives of diaspora communities paying shiva calls, no mass grief.

It's been only four days since we learned of their deaths and this is the first Shabbat since then. We will turn off our cellphones, TV's, radios, and computers. We will be disengaged from the national mourning for the first time, engaging only with our families and neighbors.

Let us take a deep breath and for just a few hours, try to disengage the greater context of how they died from the actual loss. We wouldn't have known their names without the greater context, but since we do, we can try to mourn them and their actual lives. These were 3 promising young men taken from us far too soon. Let's try to mourn their loss the way their families are.

When we sit at our Shabbat tables, let's remember that for 3 families in Israel, there will be an empty seat, and remember the boys. While we do that, we can also think of Karen Levy, the mother of Yishai and Sara, looking at the empty seats at her Shabbat table. And if we can spare a few moments, let's also think of the families of Gina, Murti, Pushpa, Amanda, Jed, Cheyanne, David, Michael, Yeliani, Muhammad, and Alexis, all looking at the empty seats at their own dinner tables.

Let us daven for peace, for a world where no more young people need die, anywhere.

Shabbat Shalom

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