A Response to A Kidnapped Debate


On July 6th, my colleague David Silberthau wrote a column in these pages arguing against the politicization of the kidnapping and murders of Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad. Without writing so explicitly, the point David was making was this: it is a mistake to attribute the savage actions of the murderers to the Palestinian population as a whole, as some have grossly done on social media in recent days. About this, David is entirely correct. Some of Israel’s top rabbis and politicians would be wise to heed his words. But David errs in his conclusion. He argues, “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,” implying that it is prudent here to look at the killing as an exception, and not as the norm. He justifies this as follows: “isolating this event from the surrounding context and exploiting its emotional impact in order to then construct a new and sweeping narrative… is manipulative at best and fatal at worst.”

Of course using any one event as the basis for a grand narrative is shoddy intellectual work. But denying the way in which any one event illuminates and contributes to the larger narrative is equally faulty. And contrary to what David appears to convey, this event—and the others that followed last week, most notably the appalling vengeful murder of young Muhammad—is part of the larger story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has much, in fact, to teach about it. The inherent complexity of the issue does not preclude an exacting assessment of the events. And it is incumbent on us, as students of history, to pay attention to the lessons from last week.

There are many reasons why the kidnapping and murder of the three Israelis cannot be separated from the “macro violence.” The kidnapping was no isolated incident; instead it was part of a broader and on-going plan to kidnap Israelis to be used as bargaining chips to free Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Hamas last year distributed an 18-page “Field Manual for Kidnapping” to this effect. And when the plan went “wrong,” and innocent boys were killed (as opposed to the supposedly justifiable kidnapping of soldiers, I guess), it is revealing that aside from Mahmoud Abbas, who was under political pressure to do so, no Palestinian of note, nor the majority of the Palestinian street, vocally condemned their compatriots’ heinous crime. Amira Hass noted in Haaretz that most Palestinians did not even believe an abduction had taken place. These facts bear upon the conflict as a whole: it is worth pausing and taking note that those Palestinians who correctly bemoan Israel’s daily human rights abuses do not see the murder of innocent Israelis as an equal violation of those same rights.

But the inhumane actions of some Palestinians were not the only thing that was on display last week. Israel, the stronger power, fared no better. While Israel was right in doing whatever it took to bring the boys back, it was not right to continue doing so when thousands of Palestinian lives were destabilized and dozens of Palestinian civilians were left injured or dead. It apparently, and shamefully, needs saying that these lives are worth no less than an Israeli life. The Israeli Defense Forces is also responsible for the fact that some numbers within its own ranks, those who are supposed to represent the state, have improperly called for revenge after the boys were found dead. And for all those who claim Israel’s moral superiority, the vicious beating by the police of young Tariq before questioning him and the burning and murder of Muhammad out of revenge vividly indicate that there is no moral purity here on either side.

The events of last week demand the cessation of the use of kidnapping as a viable tactic on the part of Hamas, a national Palestinian conversation on the universal applicability of human rights (yes, to children of the occupiers too), an internal Israeli military assessment of strategic failings in the West Bank and disciplinary failings at home, and a national Israeli and Jewish conversation on the wrongheaded nature of moral righteousness. These are the political implications of last week’s events. Viewing what happened as simply a “clear cut tragedy” as David suggests, without looking at any of these underlying causes or implications, will be just as harmful in the long run as is making rash judgments on the basis of emotion and predetermined bias.

I understand and share David’s fear of last week's murders spiraling into futile hate on both sides. But he is wrong not to seek to add these events to the broader conversation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “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,” he writes. And he’s right. But the prospects for future peace are equally bleak if the trends showcased by last week’s events are not appreciated and combatted.