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Trying to make sense of the senseless

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A knife at the scene of a stabbing in Jerusalem on Oct. 30 YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90 PHOTO
A knife at the scene of a stabbing in Jerusalem on Oct. 30 YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90 PHOTO

JERUSALEM – It’s now several weeks into the current round of another seemingly endless, relentless cycle of violence, and I find myself disconsolate, not knowing where this will lead. For those of us who endured the first and second intifadahs there is an uneasy, disheartening air of déjà vu, but also a feeling that this time is different.

Until the security wall was completed, during the last intifadah, most Israelis were wary of suicide bombers, who most frequently made their way into Israel from the West Bank. This time around, things have not come to that. Credit that to the much maligned, but highly effective, security barrier, as well as to the IDF, police and Shin Bet, who continue their often Sisyphean efforts to contain West Bank terrorist elements, and to the ongoing security co-ordination between our forces and the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security forces acting in the West Bank, which continues on the ground efficiently, despite tensions between Israeli and Palestinian political leaders.

These are uneasy days. We’re experiencing terrorism writ large. Violence and intimidation aimed at sowing fear among Israelis, in an apparent pursuit of political purposes. Young Palestinians carrying out random acts of hatred knowing full well they could die in the process. They are not affiliated directly with specific terrorist organizations. When they stab or bludgeon bystanders arbitrarily, or use their cars to run over innocent victims at bus stops or on sidewalks, they are acting alone. And the local nature of their crimes makes it harder for Israel’s intelligence community to prevent such actions before they occur.

Other differences exist between this uprising, this intifadah, this round of violence – call it what you will – and those that preceded it. In previous cycles, east Jerusalemites and Israeli Arabs mostly stayed out of the physical fray. Now, young east Jerusalemites are taking active roles.

Social media and smartphones are also a big difference. Young, would-be perpetrators gobble up incitement and are egged on to act through Facebook and the like. Photos and videos of every terrorist act and its outcome go viral. Push notifications provide blow-by-blow accounts of every incident.   

Experts are proffering their opinions as to why this violence is happening now: the Palestinians perceive a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount; rabid incitement by PA officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas; Israel’s continued settlement activity in the West Bank; the lack of progress in the peace process; almost 50 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank; genuine feelings of disenfranchisement among young Palestinians in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and, to some degree, within Israeli Arab society; and the contempt these same young people feel for their own Palestinian leadership. But whatever the motivation, no excuse can be made for wanton bloodshed.

While it might not to be popular to admit it, people here are scared. Businesses are suffering. Hotels announced cancellations for the Chanukah, Christmas and New Year holiday season. Folks are going out less. Those who do, watch their backs.

*   *   *

On a beautiful Tuesday morning in mid-October, I was working out with my friend Meir in Armon Hanatziv, a neighbourhood in southern Jerusalem. Like many liberal, open-minded Israelis, over the last decade or so, Meir has shifted politically from left of centre – from someone willing to make painful concessions to the Palestinians in anticipation of real peace – to someone who now sees himself in Israel’s political centre.

He believes Israel has bent over backward to accommodate the Palestinians, to come to an equitable resolution of the conflict. Former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert all were willing to make far-reaching concessions, only to have those overtures rejected out of hand and met with unacceptable violence. For people like Meir, all trust in the Palestinians and in the Oslo process has dissipated, and before Israel can be expected to return to the negotiating table, they believe Palestinian violence must cease and their leaders must call upon their people, in Arabic, to accept Israel and to put down their swords in good faith.

As we walked that morning along the promenade with one of the most spectacular views one can get of the Old City, Meir and I continued an ongoing discussion of how things should be resolved, with my own views being farther to the left than his. We also talked about whether we should continue working out along this promenade, which is frequented by many Arabs from nearby east Jerusalem neighbourhoods, and if so, what precautions we might take.

Meir noted he was thinking of buying a pistol, but said his wife had vetoed that option. Instead, he had bought a canister of pepper spray, which he now carries in his pocket when working out with clients in this area. I ventured my concern that ordinary citizens walking around with weapons and other means of self-defence would lead to unnecessary errors and to accidents that would outweigh the benefits of those means.

Driving home from that workout, news bulletins announced a serious terrorist attack in Armon Hanatziv. Two terrorists had boarded a bus, one with a revolver, the other with a knife. By the time police overcame them, they had killed two people and injured nine others.

Soon afterward, I was informed by my shul that the person most severely injured in that attack was Richard Lakin, 76, who had been shot in the head and viciously stabbed in many parts of his body. A longtime member of our synagogue, Richard was the ex-husband and soulmate of one of our oldest regular members, as well as grandfather of several grandchildren, including Shachar, a counsellor in our youth movement. Richard’s daughter had served under my command in the military.

After he was hospitalized at Hadassah Ein Karem’s ICU, I learned more about Richard than I’d ever known. A devoted lifelong educator and community activist, he had given up a position as principal of a school in Connecticut when he immigrated to Israel with his wife and two children 32 years ago. Since then, he and his wife had taught English to generations of students – Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims. Next to Richard’s picture on his Facebook page is a photo of two young men, arm in arm, one wearing a keffiyah, the other a kippah, with the word “coexist” above the two of them.   

My 15-year-old son, Natan, is also a counsellor in our shul’s youth movement. When the kids met later that day for their weekly program, they weren’t sure how to handle the news. Should they continue with planned activities, or not? They chose the former. Perhaps it was their attempt to carry on with life normally.

But life doesn’t go back to normal so quickly. We’ve always given Natan lifts to school, and for years he’s been getting home using public transportation. After the attack in Armon Hanatziv, we decided to find other ways to get Natan home.

Our 20-year-old daughter is currently serving in the IDF. Since the stabbings began, she has also voiced concern. When in civvies at home, she has no problem going out with her friends to cafés, bars and restaurants, places I’m not overly thrilled about during these times. But in her uniform on the way to or from her base, she feels exposed.

*   *   *

This situation is unnerving, but not just for us. I recently participated in the World Zionist Congress as part of a large delegation of Reform Zionist Jews from around the world. During the congress, our delegates were offered a field trip that included a visit to the Abdullah Ibn Al Hussein Girls’ Secondary School in east Jerusalem. It was quite eye-opening, even for me. Most of the mainly Muslim 16- and 17-year-old girls had never met Jews who told them they were interested in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

We broke up into small groups, going to different classes. I teamed up with a female rabbi from San Francisco, and, helped by a teacher who translated what we said into Arabic, we read the girls part of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech and asked them what their own dreams were.

Many spoke of an independent Palestine in which they would have full rights and would not feel oppressed by Israel. One girl described her daily frustrations getting to school – she lives in a neighbourhood not far away, but is almost always late because it takes her hours to get through several roadblocks. Some of the girls described their dream of travelling the world. I was particularly moved by one 17-year-old who told us her dream was to become an astronaut, but that she doesn’t believe that dream is attainable, because Israeli authorities won’t let her.

Many of the girls, and later the school’s principal, mentioned a particularly traumatic experience. A week or so earlier, toward the end of a school day, shots were heard from not far away. It later became clear that one of the girls’ schoolmates had been shot as she crossed a main street less than a block away. She had been taken to hospital, and since the incident, neither the girls nor the school’s administration had received any official report. The girl’s parents had not been allowed to visit her.

That story bothered me. I can’t be certain it’s connected to the same incident, but on Oct. 30, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl from east Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighbourhood was indicted for an attempted stabbing attack that occurred two weeks earlier on Ammunition Hill, which is adjacent to the secondary school we had visited.

*   *   *

The last week of October was particularly sobering for me.

Saturday evening, a friend called to tell me Rabbi Chaim (Howie) Rothman, my classmate at Bialik Hebrew Day School and the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, had succumbed to the terrible wounds he sustained almost a year ago when two east Jerusalem terrorists broke into a synagogue in Har Nof, an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood here in Jerusalem, and viciously attacked several men who had gathered for early-morning prayers.

Four worshippers died at the scene, and a Druze police officer who happened to be nearby, died a short while later from wounds he sustained when he tried to help those inside the synagogue. Seven other worshippers were injured in the attack, Howie most severely. He never regained consciousness.

On Tuesday of that week, I was driving home from my weekly workout with Meir as another news bulletin announced that Richard Lakin had succumbed to his wounds.

As details were made public about Richard, including his advocacy for peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews, something absolutely vile occurred. Online, hateful people took to media comment threads. A loosely translated smidgen of examples from the Hebrew original: “I don’t feel even an iota of sadness. Leftists are like terrorists for me”; “He should be buried in Gaza and his tombstone should be defecated upon”; “May his death be a blessing!!!”

How sad. Forget the Palestinians. Where does this leave us? How do we live with each other? Is this the Jewish state we prayed for and dreamed of for 2,000 years?

At Richard’s funeral, Shachar, his oldest granddaughter, spoke heartbreakingly to her tallit-covered grandpa. “I know you would want me to always try to be a better person and do the right thing. You would want me to spread love and happiness everywhere I go.

“I think you wouldn’t want me to have not even one ounce of hate in my body, even though what has been done to you.”

There was not a dry eye in the house.

I cannot and will not agree with those among us who claim it is our destiny to forever live by the sword. I am not naïve, but for the sake of our children and of our grandchildren – and those of the Palestinians, too  – it is incumbent upon us, Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews, to strive for better futures for all of us.

Along with 100,000 other Israelis, I completed that last week in October by attending a rally in Tel Aviv marking the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Twenty wasted years. We can’t afford to waste any more. I’m afraid we will.