To observers across the world, Israelis’ reaction to the abduction and murder of three teenagers may seem a bit overwrought. Of course, the deaths of any three children, anywhere, is horrific. And yes, a tightly knit country like Israel will invariably respond with greater emotion than might citizens of other countries.
But still, how does one explain the presence of thousands of weeping people at the funeral, most of whom did not know the families? Why did Israelis across this country light hundreds of candles on sidewalks, hold each other and cry softly? Why were Jews across the world, in France and in Australia, in the U.S. and in South America, so mesmerized for three weeks as thousands upon thousands of Israeli soldiers searched for them? Sad as it undoubtedly is, many people might understandably ask, “What am I missing here?”
It’s a fair question, with a tragically simple answer. What has Israelis so shaken is the simple fact that the three boys were hunted, kidnapped and murdered simply because they were Jews. They were not soldiers. They had not strayed into Arab villages. They were but the latest victims in a long, painful history of millions who preceded them — killed because they were Jews.
Had they been Druze Israelis, they would not have been touched. Had they been Muslim Israelis, they would not have been kidnapped. Had they been Christian Israelis, they would not have been shot. A millennium after the Crusades, and almost three quarters of a century after the Holocaust, Jews are still dying simply because they are Jews. The quiet, dignified weeping throughout Israel is a response to our renewed awareness that this horror is simply never going to end.
We didn’t always believe that. This would not happen anymore, Jews once told themselves, once we had a state. A century ago, when political Zionism was relatively young, some actually believed that if only the Jews had a country of their own, Jews would be seen as “normal,” and anti-Semitism would end. And even if hatred of the Jew didn’t end, we believed, we would at least be able to protect ourselves. “Give us a state,” Jews said to one another, “and we will stop dying just because we are Jews.”
But matters have not worked out that way. As Israeli author Amos Oz has noted, when his father grew up in Europe, the walls were covered with graffiti that said, “‘Yids, go back to Palestine.’ So we came back to Palestine, and now the world shouts at us, ‘Yids, get out of Palestine.’”
Why the outpouring of grief? Because once again, we are reminded — the hatred follows us wherever we go, and Jewish children will continue to die, even in their homeland, simply because they are Jews.
And the agony is overflowing because of our impotence. We have a powerful army and a sophisticated security apparatus, but we simply cannot keep all our kids safe. Every now and then, the evil arrayed against us will succeed, and when it does, our children die. Pure, unmitigated evil really does exist. It is so persistent and so ineradicable that at times, all we can do is shed tears.
Yes, we can assassinate Hamas’ leaders. We can bomb Gaza. We can infiltrate the terror cells on the West Bank. But it will make no substantive difference. We cannot put a stop to this. The evil will persist. So we weep, in agony and in frustration.
Yet let no one confuse grief with weakness, or emotion with fragility. Israelis have no intention of giving up. Unwittingly, the murderers unleashed not only great sadness, but a deep resilience as well. There was grief at the funerals, but also resolve.
We did not come home and build this state from scratch simply to accept defeat. Yes, we know that we are vulnerable, even in this little homeland of ours; but we are not nearly as vulnerable as we would be without it. So we will not budge.
There was a moment during the funerals when the tears that we had struggled to suppress finally flowed. It was when one of the mothers, eulogizing her murdered son, evoked our grief but also our hope, Israel’s anguish but also its determination, and expressed better than any of us could have, the reason we’ll always be here.
“Rest in peace, my child,” she said, “we will learn to sing again without you.”