Hidden - a poem for Purim

The heartbreak of Itamar

I've been heartsick, these last few days, at news of the stabbing of an Israeli family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar. I've written before about the settlements and why I think they are a problem (see my 2009 post [JStreet] West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace, and last October's We are family) but that doesn't keep my heart from cracking at this awful news. Rabbi Brant Rosen's short and eloquent post says pretty much what I wanted to say: the Itamar massacre is horrifying, and the fact that on both sides the story was immediately seized-upon for political gain is shameful.

Though Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, calling it "despicable, immoral, and inhuman," there are those within Hamas who hailed it as a heroic operation. The slaughter of a family, including a three-year-old toddler, an eleven-year-old boy, both parents and their four-month-old daughter, leaving their last three children orphaned and traumatized: I'm not sure my heart can break enough to encompass this kind of tale. And I cannot begin to understand anyone who could call this heroism. Shame on those within Hamas who would say such a thing.

In response, members of the Israeli Knesset have called for pogroms and the demolishment of the village from which the attacker came (for more, read Yossi Gurvitz' The Itamar victimization dance is disgusting) and the Israeli government has approved construction of 500 new homes in the West Bank. Pogroms, the demolishing of villages, collective punishment of Palestinian communities, and the construction of more apartments which continues the settlement enterprise -- it seems to me that these are the most counterproductive of responses, and I fear that they will lead to further sorrow down the road.

In an essay entitled The activist Left must condemn the murder of the Itamar family, Dimi Reider notes that the settlers of Itamar are known for violence against the Muslims of the villages of Upper and Lower Yanun, which Itamar overlooks and partly encircles. (For details on that, read Human Rights Watch: Separate and Unequal; for a more personal and anecdotal account, Outposts, settler violence, and the village of Yanoun.)

I'm not saying that the settlers' history of violence against the village which Itamar abuts justifies this horrific attack. As Reider writes, "Needless to say, the occupation of the West Bank, the establishment of the settlement, and the individual settlers' attacks against their Palestinian neighbors are all illegal under international law; the latter are not only particularly brutish and wrong, but are also illegal under Israeli law. // But none of this justifies retaliatory violation of the very same laws, just like being robbed does not justify walking into the robber’s house and butchering him and his entire family." Indeed. But I think it's important to understand the history of violence between these communities, which contextualizes this inhuman act in an awful way.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding." (I was reminded of this beautiful quote by Richard Silverstein, whose post Anti-Palestinian pogroms is strident but, I think, worth reading.) I wish I saw evidence of the capacity to move beyond eye for an eye -- tit for tat, pogroms in response to murder, more murder in response to pogroms -- in the West Bank and in Israel at large.

I'm not sure I agree with Reider's central thesis that if we on the Left don't actively speak out against this stabbing, then we're somehow implicitly supporting this atrocity. I think condemnation of the murder goes without saying, and focusing on who has and who hasn't actively denounced this unthinkable act takes our attention away from the more important twofold work of comforting the mourners and seeking a just peace. But I resonate with this point:

The murderer of the settlers in Itamar is part of a bigger picture of violent strife, in which people do appallingly brutish things to each other; and he also bears personal responsibility for the act he had chosen to commit. If there is ever a peace agreement, in whatever format, between Israelis and Palestinians, the rehabilitation of perpetrators on all sides can and must be a part of it, and difficult though it may be to accept, the person who carried out last night’s atrocity should be included, along with military and paramilitary perpetrators on all sides. But he must not be exempt from paying some sort of price for his individual responsibility – whether through looking into the eyes of the families of his victims at a truth and reconciliation committee years from now, or by serving a lengthy prison term, or both.

The person who committed this atrocity is responsible for his actions, and I hope that he is brought to justice. But pogroms are not the answer, and the sick mathematics in which the massacre of a child equals the building of a new settlement block is not the answer. Ultimately I pray for the healing of everyone involved in this terrible story: perpetrators and victims alike. This is my obligation as a religious Jew. In my davening this morning I opened Norman Lew's Opening to You to a random page to see what message I might find there. The book opened at his rendering of Psalm 80 with its refrain: Turn our hearts around, shine on us, open us up. That is my most fervent prayer this morning.

Most of all, I pray for comfort for those who have most closely endured this loss. May the Source of Peace bring comfort to the remaining members of the Fogel family -- a 12-year-old girl and her two brothers, aged six and two -- and to everyone else in the community who is mourning the deaths of Yoav, Elad, Hadas, and their parents Ruth and Udi. I pray for their consolation and healing. And I pray, though right now I cannot see how we will ever get there, for a just and sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians so that stories like this one will never happen again.