West Bank Kidnapping Is Turning Israelis Against Each Other

Some people do not believe in prayer. Others do. Some believe in a unifying gathering of solidarity in the city square, while others take no interest at all in the story of the kidnap victims.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Israelis take part in a mass prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City, for the return of three teenagers who were abducted June 15, 2014.
Israelis take part in a mass prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City, for the return of three teenagers who were abducted June 15, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the leader of a major stream of Israel’s national religious movement, of which the Mekor Haim Yeshiva High School in Kfar Etzion is part, opened a letter to his community as follows: “Kidnapping our students is a horrifying, painful event. In a time and place that seemed quiet and serene, we have been thrust into an event that we can do nothing to resolve.”

Steinsaltz, a renowned Talmud scholar and Israel Prize laureate, addressed his students, who have been consumed by grief and uncertainty since Thursday night.

He may not be aware of it, but the second, third and fourth circles of greater Israeli society have found a perfect way to deal with the feeling of helplessness that is typical in similar situations: When nothing can be done, it is always possible to find something to be shocked by, and to purify one's own sins by engaging in mass conflicts pitting tribe against tribe, religious against secular, left-wing against right-wing, or “the State of Tel Aviv” versus “the State of Jerusalem.”

Although these battles are taking place mainly on Twitter and Facebook, their reverberations have already reached the current-affairs desks at radio stations, where they have begged the predictable question of whether the State of Tel Aviv is indeed disconnected from the rest of the country, in a bubble of its own. Of course, the answer is "yes," and of course, it is also "no": It is pretty much like the State of Jerusalem, and the State of Rehovot, and State of the Hefer Valley Region.

These conflagrations came earlier than expected this time around. What ignited them, at noon on Friday – even before official information about the kidnapping was released – was evidently an accumulation of toxic Facebook posts directed against the three young victims themselves, together with statements made in the media that demonstrated great ignorance.

Alienation and the inability to commiserate with human pain, particularly in the guise of political debate or in this case criticism of hitchhiking, is contemptible. On the other hand, so is the obsessive pursuit of alienation, the desire to control the behavior and feelings of the "other," and to beat his breast instead of him.

In Israel, Arabs and Haredim are used to those who seek to regiment or control their feelings, but they are not alone. Just as one can always find the yeshiva student who makes a barbecue in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park on the eve of Memorial Day, one can also find, if one looks, venomous comments directed against religious people on Facebook or in online comments.

For the past two or three days, people have been getting worked up and wallowing in stereotypes of Tel Aviv as a disconnected city of gay pride parades and cafes, as if the cafes in Jerusalem were not full, as if no Tel Avivians were biting their nails to the quick, worrying over the missing youths.

These sorts of shallow ideas are easily adopted by many people, among them anyone who wishes to perpetuate the image of Tel Aviv as a wealthy, rowdy city, and that of Jerusalem as a poor and pious one – images that thrive in the minds of news editors who are unfamiliar with reality.

Rabbi Steinsaltz suggested to members of his community that they deal with the crisis by performing religious acts whose benefit “we may never know.” “Still we, the families, the friends and the teachers of the kidnapped boys are standing with 'idle hands' (Ecclesiastes 10:18.) All we have left now is to turn to our Father in Heaven and plead,” he wrote.

Some people do not believe in prayer. Others do. Some believe in a unifying gathering of solidarity in the city square, while others take no interest at all in the story of the kidnap victims. Perhaps, at this point in time, we might ask both groups to stop arguing.

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