Compassion from violence: a response to the deaths of the three Israeli Yeshiva students


This post is on another topic entirely, the recent kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli yeshiva students. Please keep reading if it seems one-sided at first. The goal is for it to be something quite different, and I hope that’s clear by the end.

I’ve had a mix of emotions in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli yeshiva students, whose bodies were found yesterday. Deep sorrow, of course. And surprise (not necessary for the reasons you’d think). And a lot of soul-searching.

One thing was, this felt close to home, because I also studied in Israel, at a yeshiva of sorts (the Pardes Institute, in Jerusalem). I spent (brief) time in Gush Etzion (an Israeli settlement, yes, but one with a historically Jewish background, first purchased in the 20s and 30s), and at least one of my teachers lived there and had studied at yeshiva there. He and his family are peaceful, kind, loving people, nothing like the stereotype of rabidly religious settlers trying to take over Palestinian land. This hit close to home for that reason. As did learning, while I was studying in Israel, that two students at my school (a school with a student body of max maybe 100 people at a time) had been killed in the Hebrew University bombing back in 2002, or that the café down the street had been targeted in a suicide bombing not many years ago. The thing is, I could have known these boys. Or, in a sense, could have been one of them.

And two things have really bothered me in the aftermath of their kidnapping. The first is responses which have portrayed the three simply as settlers, without recognizing that they were only teenagers, learning Torah. From what I can tell, only one of the three was actually a settler (from an Israeli settlement in the West Bank; studying in a yeshiva in a settlement does not make one a settler, I don’t think). But that’s not really even what bothers me. It’s that such a description promotes a stereotype that makes it easier to distance oneself from the pain of these boys and their families, to tell oneself that in some sense they had it coming, and then to reserve one’s pain and anger for the pain of the Palestinians caused by Israel’s response.

The second thing that’s bugged me – surprised me, really – relates to the response to the boys’ deaths. As one would expect, huge numbers of my Jewish friends reacted in pain, shock, horror, anger… but I literally have not seen a single post on facebook about their deaths from anyone not Jewish. (Of course they exist, I’m sure. But I truly don’t believe I’ve seen any.)

And this led me to a lot of self-reflection. As many of you know, I have a complicated relationship with aspects of Judaism. As someone from a family that is mostly not Jewish, I’ve never bought into the notion that I ought to feel that the Jewish people is my family and everyone else is my friends, or some such. I feel close to people. Especially kind, good, curious people. To apply some sort of religious or especially ethnic filter seems deeply problematic. And I don’t think these boys’ deaths are sadder because they’re Jewish. But I feel them deeply because I know their world well enough to know something of their life, and I’m troubled because I don’t see the rest of the world mourning or seeming to notice.

I have a lot of friends who post, frequently, on behalf suffering Palestinians. I haven’t seen any of them even mention these deaths, let alone condemn them. And I think I understand why, which is where the self-reflection comes in. I’ve realized that I do the same thing. I have really felt the pain of these boys, because of the life experience we share. And I think that’s completely understandable; we all empathize most with those who share our experiences. But I’ve at times ignored the pain of innocent Palestinians killed during the conflict (or literally millions of other people whose suffering doesn’t resonate with me on a personal note or worse, challenges some of my own ideological leanings).

When we’re enmeshed in a ideological narrative, on one side or another (and I’ve been in some sense on both sides of this one, depending on my surroundings), we don’t just see pain and feel sorry. We see sorrow and pain and violence, and then we worry about really feeling it, if it doesn’t match with our view of who are the primary victims and perpetrators in the situation. We end up blaming before we can hear, and we’re wary to give voice to a point of view that would challenge our own ideological orientation, or that would support what we consider to be a dangerous ideological narrative from the other side. And in a lot of ways this makes the situation worse, because one of the most isolating human experiences is to feel deep, searing pain and fear, and feel that nobody knows, or worse, nobody cares. Such an experience only fuels the experience of being alone in a world full of enemies, and makes it that much easier to tune out the pain of others.

So my own goal in the aftermath of this situation is to feel pain where it exists. To become more aware of human pain and suffering wherever it takes place, to give voice to it, and to attempt to help. And in many cases, I think some help can come simply from listening – from trying to truly hear, as many voices as possible, and helping those who suffer be heard by one another as well. I will try to resist the urge to filter people’s stories by how well they fit into my own preconceptions and ideological proclivities, and try to help others do the same. The more we do this, I hope, the more we will be motivated by compassion, and the less we will be tempted to filter and use, rather than empathize with, human suffering.


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