A Kidnapped Debate

(wikicommons) It started, as most things do, with a trickle. A Facebook status, a linked blog article. Then, the swell grew into more declarations and op-eds until by last week the social media-sphere was saturated with those three names Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel. On June 12th these Israeli teens were kidnapped and on June 30th their bodies were found, slain by savages, so it goes, and they leave behind lives cut terribly short. The responses were overwhelming, pouring in from fellow young Jews I haven’t seen in years, but bonded together in a common mission. A mission of hate.

Let me declare with all the power words can convey: the abduction and slaughter of three innocent teenagers, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, is disgusting. I feel deeply for the parents, family, and friends of those three young boys, as well as all those who grieve. As a young person, I don’t think I am equipped with the emotional capacity to fully understand how their parents might feel at a time like this, and frankly, I am somewhat selfishly thankful for my reality. But, of course, that does not change theirs.

These deaths are bound up in politics. Hamas, a violent political organization, most likely perpetrated the crime, and they framed the killings within the context of the continuous struggle between Israel and Palestine. In retaliation to the initial kidnapping, Israel deployed military assets in the West Bank and closed Gaza crossings to not only search for the missing teenagers, but also, as senior officials explicitly stated, to diminish Hamas’ infrastructure. Hamas, as the elected rulers of the Gaza Strip and part of a recently formed unity partnership with the Palestinian Authority, the ruling party in the West Bank, takes shape as a very different kind of terrorist organization. Maintaining quasi-sovereignty over Gaza, its political agenda and violent actions reinforce and perpetuate each other.

Herein lies the source of my discomfort. The public, or at least a large number of young Jews that I know, see the murders as a political event. They are and political framing isn’t inherently the problem. The problems arise with magnitude: exactly how politically important are the killings?

The truth, as anyone who has even a slight education on the issue and/or isn’t a pure ideologue will acknowledge, is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated. Sometimes that phrase finds itself co-opted in the process of passing the buck on hard choices, but it is nonetheless true. I expect anyone who’s reading now has enough experience with the struggle that I need not explain further. I could write a book on the issue. Many people have. Many people have written several. And yet the issue is all but settled...because it’s complex.

The deaths of three teenagers are not. On a human level, the massacre is appalling. Killing innocent children is probably one of the most universally-accepted evils on earth. But the conflict in which the deaths are now understood is unfortunately drawn with much blurrier lines.

When people conflate these two vastly different worlds—the human, emotional reality, and the political narrative—the result is often unfair, but more vitally, dangerous. Dangerous because emotions have a nasty tendency to foster bias and irrationality. Admitting such is frowned upon, and as a result society becomes very good at dressing up our subjectivity in the civil-sounding discourse, like claiming to recognize the vague “other side” to the Palestinian issue, or to understand that not all the people in Gaza are bad, but the true emotional fuel still manages to influence how we think about, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu phrased, the “wild beasts”. And like that, a clear cut tragedy assumes the basis for understanding one of the most contested conflicts in international affairs.

Israeli clash

The recent tragedy is part of the overarching conflict, but it is not the conflict. Obviously, conflicts are innately emotional and the recent murders are political, but personal views on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis are secondary when acknowledging the recent killings. Some may take exception to this division, but that is precisely the point. So long as one recognizes the inherent complexity of the issue, the separation between this specific event and the macro violence is logical and necessary. Isolating this event from the surrounding context and exploiting its emotional impact in order to then construct a new and sweeping narrative, however, is manipulative at best and fatal at worst. See, to those young people on both sides now trying to figure out how to make sense of this perennial battle, a solidified worldview borne out of sensationalized headlines and opinion boards harms prospects for future peace. The hatred festering in the minds of youth now will be a cause of human agony as more and more people, Israeli and Palestinian, die in decades to come. I’m looking at you, Elliot Hamilton.

I assumed earlier the complexity was obvious, but I fear now it is not. These killings are not a fundamental escalation or shift, but an event, an event that left Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkeldead. The shooting of unarmed Mohammed Dudin, 15, in the West Bank was another one. Nadeem Siam Nawara, 17, and Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh, 16, two unarmed Palestinian teens shot dead resisting an IDF operation signify yet another. And a series of events ends scores of civilian lives – every year.

Today, violence roils Israel. Retaliatory actions against Palestinians and Palestinian protests in Jerusalem threaten to destabilize an already fragile situation. Both sides are responsible, yet it’s easy to see fault in only one. Blame doesn’t like to share. But more, both sides are made of people – people with diverse political, social, and cultural views. People who like different foods and have their own favorite color. People who have loved and lost and loved some more. People with names: Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel. And Nadeem Siam Nawar and Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh. To honor them correctly we must remember they are people; they are dead; they are one of many. Distorting their deaths only cheapens their lives, and cheapen we must not.