A Tale of Two American Tragedies
In October, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed two American citizens over just three days. Three-month-old Chaya Zissel Braun and 14-year-old Orwa Hammad were born in Jerusalem and Ramallah, respectively, but both held citizenship in the United States.
Chaya’s parents were American Jews who immigrated to Israel. Orwa’s parents were Palestinian Muslims who immigrated to the United States and then returned to the Israeli-occupied West Bank to raise their children. Both families’ migrations reflected their desire to live lives steeped in their religious heritage. They then found themselves the inheritors of the conflict.
Chaya and Orwa were killed about 19 miles away from each other, Chaya in a Jerusalem terrorist attack and Orwa in clashes with the military in the West Bank. Their deaths are singular, but they both represent the fears of Jews and Palestinians. With increasing unrest in Jerusalem since the July murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, allegedly by Israeli extremists, Jews say they fear a third intifada will emanate from the city, turning street corners into war zones. Palestinians say that stepped-up Israeli military activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, along with Israel’s invasion of Gaza last summer, has already left them living in war zones, and that the fear never subsides.
Through its financial and political support for Israel, and its diplomatic interventions on behalf of a two-state solution to the conflict, America has long been deeply involved in this struggle. But the deaths of Chaya and Orwa show how individual American lives are also increasingly wrapped up in the fate of Israel and the Palestinian territories as the conflict drags on and the two diasporas grow. When these lives are lost, grief spans the Atlantic.
To Her Grieving Family, Chaya Zissel Was a ‘Holy Child’
In the last picture taken of Chaya Zissel Braun, on October 22, she is staring wide-eyed into the distance, a pink beanie tucked over her head, the camel-colored stones and green shrubs of Jerusalem’s Western Wall a blur in the background. It was Chaya’s first and only visit to Judaism’s holiest site, recalled her maternal grandfather, Shimshon Halperin. He was sitting in the basement of a run-down apartment in Romema, a West Jerusalem neighborhood of colorless residential buildings interspersed with sprays of shockingly pink bougainvillea. Upstairs, Chaya’s parents, Shmuel Elimelech Braun, 24, and Channy Braun, 22, were receiving visitors who had come for shiva, the weeklong Jewish mourning period.
Three-month-old Chaya and her parents were on their way home from the Western Wall when an East Jerusalem Palestinian named Abelrahman al-Shaludi rammed his car into the Ammunition Hill light rail station where they were standing. City police and the U.S. Department of State have described the crash as a deliberate terrorist attack. Chaya flew 11 yards from her stroller onto the pavement and later died in the hospital. Eight others were injured. On October 26 an Ecuadorian tourist also died from her wounds. Shaludi was killed by the police.
Since his granddaughter’s death, Halperin, who lives in Monsey, New York, has become the public face of the tragedy. Wearing a trim black suit, and with his short side curls tucked behind his ears, he showed off the picture of Chaya’s trip to the Western Wall. It’s a visit that he has come to see as the very crux of her short existence.
“We don’t understand exactly what the goal was, but obviously she had a purpose of coming here and going to the Western Wall and the Temple,” he said. Chaya’s parents talked to her like an adult that day, telling her the biblical story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, which is said to have happened on the site of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. They also squeezed her like the baby she was. Her name in Yiddish meant “sweet life,” Halperin said.
Chaya lived outside the womb for a fraction of the time she was in it. But her journey into being started years earlier, when a matchmaker introduced her mother and father. Shmuel was from Los Angeles and Channy was from Monsey, but the Orthodox couple began their life together in Jerusalem so that Shmuel could attend a yeshiva. The pair had strong ties to Israel. Halperin was born there, and his father owned Optica Halperin, the largest chain of optical stores in the country. Even so, the couple never intended to live there permanently.
From the start of their marriage, Shmuel and Channy yearned for a child as they watched friends conceive with ease. Braun was around children all day, running a kindergarten in Jerusalem. She finally became pregnant last year without medical assistance. Chaya “was a very happy baby,” Halperin said. “Her mother had tremendous happiness to have her, especially after a couple of years of being so anxious to have a baby.”
On the day that Chaya died, Halperin, who was visiting Jerusalem for the High Holidays, rushed to Hadassah Mount Scopus Hospital. His wife was on an El Al flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, but she turned around immediately on landing when she learned the news of Chaya’s death. The family buried Chaya that evening, per Jerusalem custom, in a funeral attended by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Halperin said that his daughter and son-in-law have come to believe that Chaya was a “holy child” whose life was meant to pass through theirs. “Because I penetrated into my children the belief that God created the world and we are here for a purpose, it is easier for them to accept the decree with the baby,” he said. Chaya’s purpose on earth, he added, was beyond human comprehension. “She fulfilled her goal, and that is when her soul was taken.”
To His Father, Orwa Was a Typical Teen, Not a Symbol
In the final footage of Orwa Hammad’s life, the 14-year-old Palestinian American walks with a teenage boy’s gait — half assured, half shy — around a convenience store in Silwad, the West Bank village outside Ramallah, where he was raised. The scene, captured by a security camera, is grainy and distant. But Abdelwahhab Khalek recognized the boy in the green-and-white striped shirt instantly. It was his Orwa — his skinny son with braces and black hair — buying a snack and a drink. It was the “big heavy armed monster ready to blow up the world!!!!” he wrote in an email, soaked in grief and cynicism over the way he feels his son has been portrayed in the media.
Forty-five minutes after Orwa’s trip to the store, the boy was killed in clashes with the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF said that Orwa was about to throw a Molotov cocktail at Highway 60, a West Bank thoroughfare used by settlers, when a soldier shot him. Orwa’s family said he was with a group of boys throwing stones. Khalek said he doesn’t know what happened that day, only that his son did not deserve his fate.
The U.S. Department of State has called for a “speedy and transparent investigation” of Orwa’s killing; in a subsequent briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the State Department does not consider Orwa a terrorist.
Orwa was born in Ramallah in 1999. His father was raised in Silwad but moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1984 to pursue his higher education. After Khalek’s first three children were born in the United States, he and his wife decided to move the family back to the West Bank, in part to raise their children in a Muslim community, away from the drugs and corruption he saw in America. “I wanted to choose a safe environment for the kids,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting them to grow up in an area such as Silwad is lately, where kids are exposed to death minute by minute.”
While the rest of Khalek’s family had identification cards from Israel that allowed them to live in the West Bank, Orwa’s father said that he was unable to obtain anything more than a tourist visa from Israel upon his return to Silwad. So instead he supported his family from Louisiana, where he runs a car dealership. New Orleans was where Orwa discovered his taste for McDonald’s and Burger King. The teen hoped to attend an American university one day to study electrical engineering.
Khalek and his family described Orwa as a joyful, popular teen who raced motorcycles and took karate classes. On his Facebook page there are several photos of him standing next to his beloved motorcycle with his hands jammed into his pocket, his shoulders back. There is also a picture of two young men in balaclavas and fatigues in a van, one of them holding an assault weapon and wearing a green armband. Khalek insists that this photo is not of Orwa, but is likely an image he downloaded from the Internet to make his friends think he was a “big shot.”
“For the kids it is like Ninja Turtles,” he said, calling the photo “pure fantasy.”
Parenting from afar, Khalek said he tried to instill in his children the value of education, and admonished them to stay away from clashes with the IDF. “Throwing stones and all that stuff is a red line,” he said he taught them. “The main thing in life for me and my kids is to study and get the highest degree you can. This doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to resist oppression, or what have you.”
Still, last April, Orwa’s older brother, Muhammad Khalek, served time in an Israeli military jail for throwing stones at soldiers. “They claim he was throwing stones, and that is against my teaching for them,” Khalek said. “I do not approve of this and I am against it completely, because it means the loss of their future.”
Khalek said he keeps in constant touch with his children, calling them up to 20 times a day. He learned of Orwa’s death within minutes of when it happened. “I went out of my mind,” he said. “I couldn’t take the news.”
Khalek flew immediately to Israel, but said he was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport, in Tel Aviv, for four hours before he was allowed to enter the country. At Orwa’s funeral, the teen was memorialized by thousands of people from all over the West Bank. Hamas, Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine celebrated him as a martyr, plastering posters with his picture all over Silwad.
Khalek said that this political jockeying to claim Orwa’s name means nothing to him. But he has no interest in going against the community that helped raise his son. Nor does he have the energy to push America’s government to confront Israel over his son’s death. He would have “no chance” of succeeding against the powerful Israeli government, he said.
He called his children his life and his heart. “Your world collapses in front of your eyes,” he said.