A Time to Speak: Reflections on the Tragic News from Israel/Palestine

by Cantor Michael Davis

When my father died, some years ago, a close friend came over and sat with me quietly throughout the day. I felt no need to speak. I was comforted by his silent companionship. Ecclesiastes’ words of wisdom are captured in this ancient Jewish practice. Judaism instructs those who come to a house of mourning to be silent, to wait for the mourner to speak first.

The families of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frankel, the three Jewish boys who were kidnapped while hitchhiking on the West Bank, are grieving. If I were to visit them today, I don’t know what words of comfort I could offer them in their pain. I would try to be present with them, to walk with them along their path. I know I would tremble to think of what it must be like to lose a child. I would be silent.

I know from the twenty years that I lived in Israel how tragic events like the kidnapping of the three boys become the focus of the entire Israeli Jewish community. American Jews have similarly marked the kidnappings – and now the tragically violent deaths – of the three boys. I will be hosting and participating in a memorial service for the three boys tonight. I hope our communal commemorations can offer some measure of companionship and comfort to the bereaved families.

But silence is not always a virtue. There is also a time to speak. Over the past few weeks, we have seen an ugly manipulation of the plight of the three Jewish families. Thousands of Palestinians live in fear of the brutal crackdown Israel has unleashed. Innocent men have been killed. On Monday night, the Israeli military attacked Gaza again.

If our feelings for the Jewish families are sincere then we can extend our compassion to the many other victims of violence. Compassion is not diluted by sharing it with others. Hundreds of Palestinian children have been kidnapped by Israeli forces. If kidnapping means the forcible removal of a child from his parents’ care and then being taken to a prison for an indefinite period of time, where he might be subject to torture or death, all beyond the reach of his family or the law – then the some 200 Palestinian children who are currently being held by Israeli forces are also kidnapped. More Palestinians have been kidnapped and some killed since the Jewish boys were seized on June 12.

Like 7 year old Ali Abd al-Latif al-Awour who died three days after being hit by shrapnel during an Israel airstrike on Gaza; 15 year old Mohammad Dudeen who was killed by an Israeli soldier near Hebron; or 16 year old Yousef Abu Zagha who was shot in the chest at the Jenin refugee camp. The numbers are hard to grasp. 127 Israeli and over 1,384 Palestinian minors killed since 2000 according to Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem. As hard as it is to even imagine the scope of this suffering, this this is just a part of an even larger picture of violent death and suffering, predominantly on the West Bank and Gaza.

While the story of the killing of the three Jewish boys was front page news in the Chicago Tribune and papers across the nation, the shockingly routine killing of Palestinians remains hidden from our sight. Out of sight, out of mind. We respond viscerally to the shock of an isolated act of violence. All too often we become accustomed to systemic violence and it is ignored. We get used to a new normal, as horrible as it may be. But this is cold comfort to the bereaved Palestinian families and the tens of thousands of men, women and children living in terror. What is going through the minds of the Palestinian population as they listen to Israeli leaders pounding the drums of war, condemning the Palestinian population at large as legitimate military targets. And this jingoistic talk of the leaders has made its mark on the Jewish population. Mohamed Hussein Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old Palestinian boy was kidnapped as he left home for early this morning on his way to Ramadan prayers. He was murdered, by all accounts by Israeli settlers. Thankfully, this particular incident was condemned by Israeli leaders.

The distinction of whom to feel compassion for and who shall remain invisible is a choice. When there are two sides to a conflict, it is a moral choice. Each Fall, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of Israel’s ancient adversary, Ishmael. The Torah tells us that God provided a miracle to save the dying boy Ishmael. God heard the boy’s voice “as he was at that time” because he was an innocent child at that time. Our vocal response to the tragic kidnapping and deaths of the three Jewish boys underscores our continued silence at the violent loss of life and abuse of Palestinian children by the Israeli authorities.

At the beginning of the year we confess our sins “for the sins of commission and for the sins of omission.” The State of Israel professes to act on behalf of all Jews. That includes me. If I fail to voice my opposition to this campaign of violence, it would be an act of omission. The Talmud teaches that: “silence is equivalent to acquiescence.” I do not acquiesce to the kidnapping of underage boys and terrorizing an entire population to force it into submission.

Let use our voices to speak up for those who are trembling in fear of ongoing violence – with the looming threat of yet more violence to come. May we see the end to violence and may all the children in jeopardy, both Israeli and Palestinian, come home to their families, whole in body and mind.

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