This is speech written by Brooke Schwartz, the first cousin of Ezra Schwartz, who died in a terrorist attack three years ago while on his gap year in Israel. Brooke is a participant in the Write On For Israel 2019 program.
Today, we are standing at a memorial dedicated to a boy named Ezra, who was shot and killed along with two other people only a short distance from here. He was on his gap year and was traveling to a park dedicated to the three boys killed a year before, in 2014, as a volunteer worker to renovate it. He’d turned eighteen only a month ago. He was our age. And he was my first cousin.
Ezra planned to attend Rutgers Business School in the fall of 2016. But first, he wanted to reconnect with his religion, and he decided to take a gap year in Israel. It was a normal afternoon on Thursday, November 19, 2015, when he was travelling with five friends from his seminary, Ashreinu, to volunteer there yet again.
He almost didn’t come. He was very tired and was thinking of just taking a nap, but at the last moment, he ran and jumped into the van with his friends, deciding to sleep on the minibus instead. While they were waiting at a red light, a Palestinian stepped out of his car. It was his twenty-first birthday that day, and he celebrated it by peppering the surrounding cars with bullets. Ezra was hit through the window and was killed immediately, along with two others. He never woke up from his nap.
I was fourteen when this attack took place. I was fourteen when I watched Ezra’s best friends carry his coffin, and I was fourteen when I watched his siblings, the youngest of whom was ten years old, bury their brother.
Ezra was the second in a line of five kids. He had an older sister he loved to hang out with and three younger brothers to whom he taught wiffleball, baseball, and football. He gave me piggyback rides and taught me how to play Ping-Pong. He liked to make silly faces, and he would often play Harry Potter trivia with my sister (she’d always win). He would be twenty-one right now.
Since the year 2000, almost 1,350 civilians have been murdered in terrorist attacks in Israel. Thousands of families have gone through the same experience as mine has, as Ezra’s has. I wonder how they felt when these terrorists were set free, or paid large sums of money.
I’m not saying we should hate all Palestinians, or that we should never try to see their side of the issue. I’m showing you what we’re truly up against. We are up against the PA, which pays the family of my cousin’s murderer over $3,000 each month for his actions. We are up against Hamas, the terror organization that supplied this terrorist with over $10,000 in guns and ammunition prior to the attack. We are up against the adults who trained this boy for months so he could shoot accurately and destroy lives efficiently. We are up against the people who donate humanitarian aid to Palestinians, unaware that their money is sponsoring terrorism.
We are up against ignorance, misguided rage, and blind hatred. And we cannot combat this with more ignorance and anger and loathing. We must fight this with intelligence, logic, and open-mindedness. We must fight this with a desire for peace. If we keep pushing for the other side to lose instead of both sides coming to a compromise, how is this ever going to end?
I have forgiven the terrorist who murdered my cousin, not because he deserves it, but because it’s too much effort to hate him when there are better things I could be doing. Like rebuilding my life. Like advocating for Israel. Like striving for peace. And like teaching people what it actually means to support such a diverse and powerful country as this.
I am giving this speech, not merely because I have been so personally affected by this conflict, but out of the hope that maybe, when I take my own gap year in Israel next year, I’ll be a little bit safer than my cousin was three years ago. That maybe I won’t get hit by a rocket or gunned down in the street. That maybe things will start improving, because people like us are advocating for peace.