With the announcement that six Jews were arrested in the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian, it is difficult to describe the sense of despondence that I (and I presume nearly all Jews) feel. Most Jews have a sense that certain things are truly foreign to our people. Unfortunately, few Jews are surprised upon learning that a Jew has been charged with a white-collar crime. But when it comes to murder — and not just murder, but murder of an innocent teenager, and not just murder of an innocent teenager, but, according to early reports I pray are incorrect, murder of an innocent teenager by burning him alive — the Jewish mind enters a sort of shock.
Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe the notion that Jews are unlikely to produce such vile human beings is chauvinistic. But I don’t think it’s chauvinism. Certainly, it isn’t chauvinism on my part. I have long lived with disappointment in many Jews — for being so disproportionately involved in radical movements over the last hundred years and for being at the forefront of movements meant to fundamentally transform America, despite it being the best country humans have ever made, let alone the best country in which Jews have ever lived.
However, for Jews, especially Jews who strongly identify as such, to torture and murder a young boy because he was innocent, young and Arab — that’s an attention-getter.
I have always believed that, regarding Israel, the one responsibility of the non-Israeli Jew is to defend Israel. It is, after all, the only country in the world threatened with annihilation. It is both easy and irresponsible to criticize Israel while living in Los Angeles or New York. American Jews who wish to criticize Israel to the outside world should think many times before speaking out or they should make aliyah.
I will, however, transgress this lifelong commitment to silence and ask Israelis to do two things:
First, Israelis must examine their society to determine if these Jewish murderers are individual aberrations or represent some dark underside of Israeli life. It is critical for the soul of Israel and the Jewish people to find out.
Second, it is vital that leaders on the Israeli political and religious right speak out to ensure every right-wing and religious Israeli understands that to commit such an atrocity is to violate everything that Israel and Judaism stand for, as well as to erode one of the two greatest weapons Israel has: its moral high ground. (The other weapon is its military. No matter how close to morally perfect Israel could ever be, without military strength it would die.)
Now, having said all this, it is vital to note that the second request is being fulfilled.
Profound outrage, anguish, embarrassment and condemnation have already been expressed by Israelis across the political and religious spectrum.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has labeled the Jewish murderers “terrorists.” That is huge. No term is more morally damning in contemporary Israeli life.
Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, one of Israel’s foremost Orthodox rabbis, head of the Elon Moreh yeshiva, said that the murderers of Muhammed Abu Khdeir should be given the death penalty. “Unfortunately, it appears that Jews were involved in this matter,” Levanon said to his students. “Jewish law has no mercy for the perpetrators of crimes like murder, whether of Arab or Jew, whether by Arab or Jew.”
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau announced that only God could avenge the murder of the three Israeli teens, Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar. “Individuals do not have the right to take revenge for the death of the innocent. Revenge is not a license given to the hot-blooded for ‘action.’ Revenge is a strong, destructive weapon, and if there is such a concept in the world, it does not belong to humans.”
Even the family of Frenkel, one of the murdered Israeli boys, delivered a damning message. “If a young Arab man was murdered for nationalistic reasons, then it is a horrifying and disgusting act.”
Contrast the national revulsion among Israeli Jews to Palestinians’ reactions to the murder of the Jewish boys. As reported by Haaretz, Israel’s most prestigious newspaper and the one most antagonistic to the Netanyahu government and to Israel’s right wing:
Haaretz headline July 2, 2014: “Palestinians react with indifference to murder of teens.”
Among Palestinians, murderers of Jewish children have town squares named in their honor and are considered among the greatest of Muslims. The mother of 33-year-old Amer Abu Aysha, one of the two Palestinian suspects, told the media that if it turns out her son murdered the Jewish boys, “I’ll be proud of him till my final day.”
The moral difference between Israel and its enemies is wider than the Grand Canyon. This point — the most important and, one would think, most obvious lesson to come out of the present crisis — is completely lost on The New York Times, which published an editorial this week asserting a moral equivalence between the two societies — “an atmosphere in which each side dehumanizes the other.”
That many American Jews agree with that moral equivalence is another reason for at least one Jew’s sadness.