On Monday morning, after four days of fruitless search after three abducted Israeli teenagers, Israel turned to self-reflection: Are we being too patriotic? Too cynical? Too hateful? Too polarized? Do we hate the settlers, do we love them, do we care enough about the three boys? Is this a good time to talk about the occupation, or the worst time to talk about it? Are the residents of the “state of Tel Aviv” disengaged from the sorrow of the rest of the country? Is it OK to keep broadcasting reality shows and the World Cup on TV?
The answer to all of the above is yes and no. The need for all of the above is the need of the powerless. There was nothing Israelis could do these four days, except for praying, going on with their daily lives, or bickering (or all of the above). A vocal minority chose bickering. The media, which needs to fill hours and hours of broadcasts with something, turned to this minority to see some action.
The bickering comes from all sides:
From the left: it is about the settlers, about the irresponsible habit of hitchhiking, about the inevitability of violence because of the collapse of the peace talks.
From the right: it is about the hateful settler-hating left, about how the left excuses terrorism, about the cruelty of Hamas – an ultimate proof that no peace process has any future.
From the center: it is about the lost ability of the Israeli society to show solidarity, about the vile conversation, about the Facebook-made radicalization of Israeli culture.
Most of these complaints are overstated, or false.
In the “state of Tel Aviv”, where I live, I can hardly find neighbors who are unsympathetic or uncaring about the abducted boys. If there are such Tel Avivians, they are a small minority. Ignoring them would be the better policy. And I also refuse to be shocked by people who wonder if the culture of hitchhiking should not be seriously discussed. Wondering about hitchhiking doesn’t necessarily amount to a “blame the victim” mentality. In fact, the opposite is true: those who agree that the enemy is heartless and cruel are also those who might want to be pragmatic about making life more complicated for kidnapers and murderers. Is the right for hitchhiking so sacred that we should stand up for it at whatever cost? Telling teenage girls not to hitchhike because of the fear of sexual predators doesn’t amount to surrendering to the predators, and telling teenage settlers not to hitchhike because of the fear of terrorist predators doesn’t amount to surrendering to the terrorism. It’s a pragmatist stance that’s worth hearing out.
A very frustrating feature of the abduction is that Israelis have to deal with its meaninglessness. Its sheer, meaningless cruelty. The abduction is not going to prove to anyone that Palestinian terrorism is merciless and abhorrent – we know that already. We’ve seen busses blow up, we’ve seen families slaughtered in their sleep, we’ve seen heads smashed, youth murdered. It is also not going to teach us a lesson about the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian situation – we know it’s complex, we suspect it will remain complex for many years to come. And it is not going to convince Israel that the occupation isn’t viable – continuing the occupation is problematic, but Israel isn’t yet certain there is currently a better alternative to it.
The fact that there is a debate within Israeli about these questions is understandable and healthy. The fact that such debates become more fierce and emotional when the country is searching for three lost boys is to be expected. And yes, it is also natural for many Israelis to miss the long-lost days of unity and harmony. Thirty years ago it was easier to be unified. The country was much smaller, three million and not eight million strong. The issues were less controversial, the occupation still young, the hope for a coming peace still beating. The press was less garish. The culture was more naïve.
And yet – and yet – if this horrid crime of abduction is a test for Israeli society, I see no reason for great worry. The debate, the anger, the non-stop bickering, the fiery exchanges on social media, are all a sign of strength. Israelis truly care; Israelis are highly engaged; Israelis feel the need to say something, to do something. Yes, at some moments this has an aftertaste of a superfluous quarrel – but is that not the case with almost all family feuds?