On Tuesday morning Jewish worshipers were butchered in a synagogue. It’s not the first time that we have been subjected to such horrendous evil. We have been locked up in synagogues as they’ve been burned to the ground in Eastern Europe. We have endured expulsions, pogroms, blood libels, and untold massacre.
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In synagogues around the world, security guards still stand at the entrance; a sorry reminder that Jews at worship are still vulnerable. We are still targets, even as we pray. In some countries, synagogues are designed to be nondescript so that people shouldn’t notice them. But Israel is supposed to be different. Israel is a Jewish country. Our synagogues stand proud, and there are no security guards standing at their doors.
But Tuesday morning sent us back to the nightmare of our 2,000-year exile in which Jewish worshipers were martyred as they prayed; an exile in which even the most holy sanctuary is potentially unsafe.
Someone else was also murdered on Tuesday morning. A 30-year-old police officer who wasn’t Jewish, who wasn’t part of the 2,000-year exile, who wasn't part of the return. He lost his life in the defense of others. Zidan Nahad Seif was a Druze traffic police officer. He was an Arab Israeli who belongs to a proud tradition of Druzim who have dedicated themselves to the State of Israel, and grafted their destiny onto the destiny of the Jewish majority. In the capital city of the Jewish state, as two hate-filled Palestinians went on a murderous rampage, it was a Druze police officer, a proud Israeli citizen, who, with his partner, arrived first on the scene.
As Seif rushed to the defense of the helpless, he shot at the terrorists, almost certainly shortening their heinous attack, and thereby saving lives, as well as saving the lives of the other policemen who had arrived shortly after him and his partner. But he was shot back at, with shots that would end his life.
The history of vile anti-Semitism has always been accompanied by inspiring stories of brave righteousness from gentiles who were prepared to risk life and limb in order to save us. Yad Vashem, for instance, marks the tens of thousands of gentiles who sought to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
In Israel, things are supposed to be different. Part of the dream of the State of Israel is that Jews will create the conditions under which they will be able to defend themselves. But Seif wasn’t an outsider. There’s no doubt that he was a brave and righteous gentile, who saved Jewish lives, but his story differs to the stories that Yad Vashem commemorate. Seif’s story is an integral part of the Jewish-Israeli story. He wasn’t a gentile coming to save helpless Jews in a synagogue. He was an Israeli policeman coming to defend his countrymen. He wasn’t a Jew. He had his own religion, and his own proud heritage. But he, and his community, have thrown their lot in with ours. They are our brothers and sisters.
The Druze are an ethnic-religious minority in Israel that number approximately 131,500, according to Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2013. They are a community that is typified by loyalty and service to the State of Israel. They are drafted into the army (with the exception of the communities on the Syrian border) and have a disproportionate representation in combat units and officer school; a further sign of their dedication to the cause. The bond that has been forged over the years between the Jewish and Druze communities of Israel has often been called a covenant of blood; we are, so to speak, blood brothers. Some 94 percent of Druz define themselves first and foremost as Israeli-Druze, according to a 2008 Tel Aviv University study.
Zidan Seif’s life was lived against that backdrop of dedication and identification. Indeed, his uncle had fallen, while serving the State of Israel, in the war in Lebanon. Seif himself was so proud to be an Israel Police officer, and adamantly told his friends that it was worth the 150-kilometer commute. And Israel was, and is, proud of him. Thousands of people attended his funeral, including the Israeli president, and a bus load of ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents of the Jewish neighbourhood in which he fell. Seif was a righteous gentile, but he was also a blood-brother.
When a righteous gentile throws his lot in with the Jewish people, and serves the Jewish state; when he stands with unimaginable bravery in defense of Jewish worshipers in the Jewish land, proudly dressed in the uniform of the Israeli traffic police – with the Star of David on his arm - we should all feel as if the entire Jewish people are called upon to reach out in love and admiration and gratitude to those he left behind.
That’s the thinking behind the creation of a special fund - in conjunction with the One Family charity for victims of terror in Israel – that aims to send a message of love, admiration and gratitude to the young family ripped apart, so that they will know that just as he threw his lot in with the Jewish people, we throw our lot in with him and his family.
We have an obligation to Seif's family; for the wife and child he left behind. Seif had recently become a father. From what his loved ones say about him, he sounds like many new fathers; filled with the trepidation of this new and awesome responsibility and overwhelmed with a love that can’t be put into words but consumes you constantly. He always wanted to be near his daughter, and would hold her for hours. He will hold her no more. He didn’t live to hear her say "Dad." And my heart – and that of many others - breaks for his family, for his wife, for his daughter.
May his righteous memory be a blessing to us all.
Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox Rabbi, is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University.