“Solidarity in the face of misfortune is one of today’s few remaining Jewish imperatives — as the widespread concern for the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers has shown.”
So writes literary critic Adam Kirsch in Tablet, and I’d really like to believe him. After the abduction of the three boys, Jews felt a sense of kinship seldom seen in good times. The primal nature of the kidnapping and murder — good boys gone missing on their way home for the weekend, grieving mothers and fathers in familiar kitchens, the torture of uncertainty — allowed us to see ourselves in the family’s fear and pain. We cried because we knew those kids, or know kids just like them, or, given the inevitability of Jewish geography, we know someone who knows one of the families.
Twitter and Facebook became oddly, sometimes overwhelmingly, intimate forums as news of the boys’ murder slowly leaked out on Monday. Starting with a whisper from Al-Jazeera, of all places, and soon confirmed by Israeli news sites and the Times’ Jodi Rudoren, reports that the bodies had been found were greeted with optimistic denial, then teary acceptance. “Heartbreaking” was perhaps the most common adjective. “Baruch dayan ha’emet” — “Blessed be the true Judge” — wrote those who turned to tradition to express the inexpressible.
It wasn’t long, however, before grief gave way to anger. Facebook friends and Twitter users demanded vengeance. Most aimed their fury at Hamas, while some pointed fingers at the White House. Some complained President Obama hadn’t done enough to help find the boys, hadn’t said enough to condemn the murders, and didn’t seem to grieve enough now that they were dead. Another thread focused on Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, saying that precedent had emboldened the boys’ kidnappers.
And so even within a few short hours of the dreaded news, Jewish unity had begun to unravel. While most of the virtual mourning took the form of condolences for the boys’ families, it wasn’t long before the Jewish family began to argue along typically partisan lines.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center might have been the quickest to pivot from grief to politics, calling on the United States to sever financial aid to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. In Israel, MK Motti Yogev (Bayit Yehudi) called for a “proper Zionist reaction” to the murders — in other words, the building of “new communities in Judea and Samaria.” While the boys were still missing, the Jewish Twitterverse held to an unstated consensus that the kidnappings were not the occasion to debate or defend the settlement enterprise. The discovery of the bodies lifted that ban, apparently.
And then are the statements that divide us theologically. “May God avenge their blood,” wrote Limor Livnat, the Likud minister, tapping a legitimate but very different Jewish impulse than that of, say, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, whose statement declared, “The murderers’ hands are bloodied, not just with the blood of these innocent young men, but with the shattered hopes of those in Israel and the Palestinian community who wish only for peace to reign throughout the land.”
Commenting on a report that Israel had launched a “massive strike” on Gaza, a Facebook friend from Tucson writes, “Sadly, I don’t see how this helps anything.” A commentator responds: “If Israel shows the tiniest bit of restraint or compassion, the opposition equates that to weakness and more abductions will take place.”
Both fair and reasonable points, although remember: I am just quoting the most civil of the conversations I’ve encountered. I’ve been reading comments that would singe your eyelashes.
Elliot Mathias of the Hasbara Fellowships (see op ed) writes that the kidnappings reminded us that we are a family, and holding on to this moment of unity is a chance to “turn our enemy’s curse into a blessing.” It’s a laudable goal. And yet, like most families, our blood ties and shared history can’t always overcome the deep disagreements we carry with us. And given the fundamental issues under debate in Israel and the rest of the Jewish world, it’s not always clear they should.
So how do we fully grieve as a community for our slain children, and yet honestly engage with Israel as individuals? In this most awful of weeks, when mourning quickly gave way to invective, I appreciated the wisdom of Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar in New York. “As we mourn,” wrote Held, “let’s resist the temptation to use these three kids to grind our ideological axes. Screaming for vengeance, calling for wars we ourselves will not fight, accusing those who don’t share our politics of being traitors, or, conversely, mouthing tired formulas about cycles of violence or enough blame to go around, or whatever — none of this does honor to these three children and their families. If all we are doing today is deploying these three murdered people to make the same point we’d have made yesterday, only louder and with greater shrillness, then we are not mourning but using them. And that is, to put it bluntly, a desecration of their memory.”
Rabbi Held’s advice? Take a deep breath. “Give some time for sadness.” And then, who knows: “We might even argue with a much-needed dose of civility later.”