The Private Side of a Public Tragedy

Against the crowds who see the political significance of the murder of the Fogel family of Itamar vis-a-vis the background of their various national goals, one man wishes to remind us that his loved ones lost their lives

Everyone came to the funeral of the Fogel family members murdered in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, from members of the national-religious youth movement Bnei Akiva, in their blue shirts, to the "hilltop youths," with their long sidelocks. All the public leaders, Knesset members, settlement leaders and regional council heads came to the cemetery on March 13 to bury parents Udi and Ruthie, and children Yoav, Elad and Hadas.

The eulogizers' words were aimed at the large crowd, the people of Israel and the prime minister. One spoke about incitement, another about the defense minister's lax policy. Almost all were united in what they deemed the appropriate response to terrorism: building new settlements and neighborhoods.

Emil Salman

Against this background, the voice of Motti Fogel, Udi's older brother, stood out. "If I could, I would get rid of everyone here and whisper to you, 'Let's go play soccer one last time,'" he said. "All the slogans about Torah and land settlement, the Land of Israel and the Jewish people try to make us forget the simple fact that you are dead. A person is born to himself, to his parents and his siblings, and he dies to himself, to his children, and in very bad cases also to his parents and his siblings. You are not a symbol or a national event, your life bore a purpose unto itself and we must not let your terrible death become a tool, no matter what for."

A few days later, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, one of the most important and most extreme of the settler rabbis, came to the home of the Fogel parents in the settlement of Neve Tzuf, near Beit El, where the family was observing the week of mourning. Levanon spent time with the parents and as he was leaving, he said to Motti, "It won't help. It's not private, it's public." A heated conversation ensued. Finally, Motti Fogel said, "Maybe Udi was also punished for the disengagement [from Gaza]?" alluding to Levanon's comment that former president Moshe Katsav had been punished for not speaking out against the disengagement. In the end, Levanon left after Fogel threw a chair at him.

That has been Motti Fogel's only confrontation since the murder and his eulogy, despite the ideological abyss that separates him from his family and the society he grew up in.

"I admit I was apprehensive about how people would respond to what I said at the funeral. But a few people from my parents' area told me they deeply related to what I said and that it was important to say it. The settlers, in quotation marks, are first of all human beings. It sounds very dumb to say this, but they have private lives, and it was important for them to have a private element at the funeral. Levanon is the exception," he says.

Crossing the lines

Fogel, 39, lives in Jerusalem with his wife and their three children. He works as a writer for the financial newspaper Globes and for the weekly entertainment guide Akhbar Ha'ir (City Mouse ). He crossed the lines politically after his army service. He is highly critical of the society in which he was raised, but also feels understanding and compassion for it. The eldest of five siblings, Motti was raised in Neve Tzuf. His father works for Amana, the settlement arm of the Yesha Council of settlements.

"I grew up in a classic Gush Emunim home," he says, referring to the movement that spearheaded the settlement project. But then he adds, "Actually, I'm not sure I know what 'classic' means."

He initially began to change his beliefs after studying the writings of none other than Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the settlers' spiritual father. "It is hard to say when exactly your views change. And it's not a single event, either. But in [the yeshiva] Or Zion, there was a major emphasis on studying Rabbi Kook. I liked his writings very much, and took them very seriously. I remember that one of the things that gave me pause was Rabbi Kook's discussion of the justification for a Jewish nationality. He writes that nationality is fundamentally unacceptable, but that the Jewish people is different from other peoples in the sense that when it looks after itself, it is looking after the whole world. You can take that as a mission and you can take it as fate. If it's fate, it can justify extreme selfishness; if it's a mission, that is something else entirely. I too take it as a given that the Jewish people's mission is to look after the world, every person, so I don't see how that is consistent with ruling another people."

After leaving the yeshiva, Fogel studied philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There he had another turning point, in a conversation with a Palestinian student. "I remember we were sitting outside the library and talking. She asked me where I was from and I told her. I remember the look of horror on her face. I think the horror is unjustified, but it was authentic horror. It suddenly gave me a different understanding of what we look like," he relates.

Fogel is still religiously observant, and wears a skullcap, but he is also one of the founders of the Egalitarian Minyan of Baka, an Orthodox congregation that aims for equality between men and women in prayer, which meets in a Jerusalem community center. Politically, he has been participating in the weekly demonstrations in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, protesting the creation of a Jewish settlement there.

"When I demonstrate, I know I am expressing views my family does not accept, but I feel I am continuing what I received at home. I definitely see myself as a product of my life; however far I may be, I see myself as very much connected to the home I grew up in."

His home is the basis for his worldview: He opposes the occupation but also opposes the evacuation of settlements. "If we put aside the question of political feasibility, I prefer a binational state. I would prefer the settlements not be evacuated. I don't think evacuation is the path to peace. I don't think creating more distress is the way to do good.

"Personally, it's hard for me to leave places in which I grew up," he says. "I think about the people who are living there, now the third generation. Children who were born to children who were born in the settlements. Irrespective of what they think, they are human beings.

"When [Kadima leader] Tzipi Livni says she wants consolidation in one state, so that it will be a Jewish state, I ask myself what she means by a Jewish state. Because in my view, a Jewish state is not one that clings with all its power to ensure a royal Jewish majority. I also don't think a Jewish state is a state that rules another people who lack the right to vote and other basic rights. What is behind the cliche 'democratic Jewish state'? There are two sides that both believe a Jewish state is one without Arabs. The argument is over how there will be no Arabs, whether we ourselves will withdraw or whether we will expel them. Let's set aside the fact that it's easier to withdraw than to expel people. There is also an element of preserving the balance of power, and that is what interests most of the Israeli bourgeois parties - Labor, Likud, Kadima and also, regrettably, Meretz. The fear of a bi-national state is fear of shifting the balance of power.

"I suggest listening to the settlers' criticism, even if it sounds like slogans. They say, 'Why do you want to evacuate settlements, when Ramat Aviv is also on Arab land?' They are right. Not in the sense that 1967 is the same as 1948. They are right in the sense that it is easier for us to think about evacuating settlers who are not part of the Israeli norm than about eroding the power of those in the center. I simply draw a different conclusion. My conclusion is not that we must not withdraw from any place, but we still have to listen to this critique.

"Udi was far more mischievous than I was, and much more sociable and popular. From the outside, it may have looked like he was becoming more pious religiously, but I think it suited his character. He was a very sociable, very good person. With a permanent smile. I suppose he did not smile all the time, but that's what it looked like. He taught me it can be nice to speak with others."

Connection through Gemara

Udi Fogel, who was two years younger than Motti, worked as a teacher. He taught in the Gaza settlement of Netzarim until the Israeli pullout in 2005, then moved with his family to the West Bank city of Ariel and later to Itamar, where he taught in the post-high school yeshiva. "It looked as though he had found his place there, both in terms of the yeshiva and in terms of self-confidence. It was beautiful to see that," his brother says.

In the past year, the brothers got past a falling out and became close.

"Both of us are learning Gemara and we tried to study together, but it didn't really work, because I study with a completely different approach. But the last time they visited us we suddenly managed to talk about an issue from the Gemara and learned together. For me that was much more meaningful and serious than the question of whether we could talk politics. It made me very happy that we could learn Gemara together. It was moving."

That was a few weeks before the murder.

"I don't know how it will change my life," Motti says. "My natural inclination is to go on as usual. But one of the things I am discovering is that we cannot control our memory. I can't control when I think about Udi. One of the most difficult moments came at the end of the shiva, when we came back here. I was very happy to be home after a week. But I suddenly returned to the moment when I was told, and that was not a pleasant moment."

The murder did not change his political stance. "It only makes things more concrete. The need to reduce the enmity comes closer to me personally, you can't ignore it as much."

Fogel learned about his brother's murder almost a full day after the event. "On Saturday morning we got back from synagogue. We had an army officer visiting. She said, 'Did you hear what a terrible night it was in Itamar?' She forgot Udi lived there. I didn't think it was him. But in the evening, when the phone rang, I thought it must be my father, calling with the news. So in some way I had been prepared. There was lightning, and later thunder."

After learning of the murders, Fogel drove to his parents' home in Neveh Tzuf. "On the way there, we saw a fire burning in the fields opposite the spring," he says. The spring is the site of a dispute between the settlers and Palestinians from the adjacent village of Nebi Saleh. "What will a left-winger think when he sees the fire? That settlers burned the field as part of the 'price tag' policy [of revenge]. I also thought that.

"When we got to the settlement, there were people there who ensured that journalists were kept out. I told them, 'We are not a family that burns fields.' Afterward, one of them told me they didn't know what I was talking about, because the Palestinians had rolled a burning tire into the field and set it ablaze. So, in short, when we see a fire burning, let's not presume who lit it. Maybe we will be better off making an effort to put it out."