Like many others who have been watching the story, my immediate reactions to the grotesque murders in Itamar jumped from shock, to horror, to profound sorrow. Again, like many, I scrutinized the gory details repeatedly, read accounts of the funeral and the eulogies of the family members, and even lay in bed at night forced to contemplate the nightmare that was the Fogel family’s final moments. When I think of the children who survived and what they face, there seems nothing to do but cry.
And yet, in the midst of all this, I find myself in the bizarre position of feeling the urge to discuss an alternative aspect of this story. Of course, when focusing on the murders themselves, there is nothing more to add and no possibility of nuance. The murders were evil and atrocious. I cannot picture what allows a human being to act this way, and I advocate the sternest possible punishment for the perpetrator(s) with no clemency whatsoever. However, the discourse on these murders has glided from the particular to the general, and here is where I see a problem.
Many on the religious and political right are using the murders to further the agenda of settlement, going so far as to coin the glib phrase “they kill we build” and to blame left-wing activists for creating the climate that made settlers into targets. At the same time, there are those on the left who have used the murders as an opportunity to point a finger at the Israeli government’s position as an occupying power and to decry the illegal status of the settlements and the radical and violent nature of the settlers. The murders, according to this, are tragic but hardly surprising. I must admit that I do not understand any of this.
The question of the proper solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a complex one. It is no secret that there are diametrically opposing camps with black-and-white solutions to the crisis, as well as a dizzying array of compromise solutions in every shade of gray. Everyone who cares deeply about Israel and/or Palestine has his or her own version of this, and I am no different.
Every one of these perspectives has its pluses and minuses, its strong points and its weak points, and they all need to be brought to the table and discussed. However, I fear that many of us have lost this ability. This comes out clearly, I believe, in the responses to the murder of the Fogels. There have been a handful of moderate and thoughtful voices, and for that I am thankful. Nevertheless, much of what I have been seeing and hearing worries me.
My friends on the right say that the murders prove that the settlers need to be strong and fight for their cause. How does the murder of the Fogel family prove that? The fact that the murderer was wrong does not make settlements an ethical or practical solution. The fact that there is terrorism and incitement among the Palestinians does not make occupying their land just. There have even been whispers that retaliation is called for, the so-called price-tag. God Almighty! Has it really come to this? I have no words.
My friends on the left say that the murders are just part of the cycle of violence, the root cause of which is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the continued building of settlements; the solution being a return to pre-1967 borders. How do these murders prove this? Israel suffered terrorist attacks before 1967 and fought a number of wars before it took the West Bank; the Six Day War itself was arguably a defensive war. Furthermore, with the consistent incitement of the Palestinian government against Israel and Israelis, one might argue that it is unsafe to create a Palestinian state. Certainly the photos ofa man passing out sweets in Gaza as a reaction to this murder — just one example of Palestinian incitement against Israelis — should give even those on the extreme left some pause.
Of course, one may discount any and all of the points I make in defense of either side of this issue. Nevertheless, the Fogel murders shed little if any light on possible solutions to this problem, with the exception of one important point: The cycle of hate must stop. Although this is infinitely truer with regard to the behavior of the Palestinians, my remarks are aimed here at my fellow Jews.
Here are the lessons that I learn from the Fogel murders: First and foremost, we need to stop dehumanizing our opponents, and we must realize that the process of dehumanization begins long before we declare the other side to be monsters. It occurs when we tell ourselves that our position is 100% correct and our opponents are 100% in the wrong. It occurs when we become so blind to the needs and perspectives of other interest groups that we dismiss their claims without a thought. And it occurs when we react with rage or zeal to issues that require sensitivity and thought.
Instead of discounting the interests and grievances of our opponents, we should learn to discount mantras and biases. We need to stop asking which side is right and which side is wrong. Rather we must ask in what ways each side is right and in what ways each side is mistaken. Everyone should be attempting to make his or her own side more right and less wrong. The only way to do that is to really listen and empathize with one’s opponents, asking for the same in return. If we can do that, perhaps we can then save our moral clarity for cases where there is real good and evil, for cases where there is no other side: like the murder of the Fogels. This was a crime as evil and revolting as it gets, a crime with no redeeming feature and no chance of redemption for the perpetrator. I hope we can all, left and right, Jew and Muslim, at least agree on that.
Rabbi Zev Farber is the founder of Aitzim: The Atlanta Institute of Torah and Zionism.