When the rabbis of the Talmudic period wanted to introduce an idea that was so painful, so edgy, so problematic that they were actually hesitant to write what they meant to say, they would occasionally write an introduction like this to the seemingly blasphemous idea they wanted to share: “This is a difficult thing to say, and it is impossible to say it explicitly.” And then they would go on to say, often by way of analogy, whatever it was that they had intended in the first place.
There’s a similar tentative whisper making its way across this week’s pain-gripped Israel, often preceded, as if with that line from the Midrash, by something like, “I know I shouldn’t be saying this, but it’s true, you know… ” And what then follows is the hushed suggestion that had Gil-Ad Shaer, Naphtali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach not been hitchhiking in an undeniably dangerous place, they would never have been kidnapped, Israel would not be in such acute pain, and the country would not be facing (at least as of this writing) the specter of more (very ill-advised) prisoner trades.
That’s technically true, but utterly irrelevant. So too is the claim that “everyone does it,” though they do. Drive past the areas where these kids were apparently nabbed, and you almost always see teenagers and young adults asking for a ride. Sometimes there are a handful, and at times dozens. But the trempiyadot, those spots where the kids thumb their way back home, are rarely empty. Hitchhiking is a way of life.
And why is that? In part, it’s because even if there were more buses and vans (which few people demand, because hitching is so easy), we’re an impatient folk and our kids have been raised to be no less impatient. We want to travel precisely when we want to travel, not when the next bus is scheduled.
But it’s also that hitchhiking is a rite of passage here; it’s the way in which those young kids spread their wings and learn that even though their families are not going to buy them cars, this tiny country is their oyster, and they can get anywhere they want – because of the goodness and decency of those with whom they share the roads.
Goodness and decency. Really? Well, yes. On its deepest level, the hitchhiking is actually a desperate attempt to preserve a sense of normalcy, a gesture designed to convince ourselves that we don’t live in the jungle.
We let our children wander through parts of the country laced with danger not because we don’t care about them, but because we do. We let them roam because the awareness that we’re raising them in a place where there will always be people set on killing them is too painful to bear.
So we pretend. We pretend it’s safe; we pretend we live in a Hebrew-speaking, felafel-eating version of an American suburb. We pretend we’re confident that they’ll get home. “Be safe,” we say, as if it’s not absurd, as if there’s anything they can do once they get into a strange car in the dark of night.
This horrific week is a reminder that the pretense is both necessary – but also exceedingly dangerous. Living here requires that we play by two sets of rules.
In our homes, our workplaces and even our government, we allow ourselves to imagine that we live in Connecticut.
We go to school and to work, we pray or we don’t, we shop, we go to the movies where the guard barely even touches the outsides of women’s purses. We vote in a functioning democracy, we have world-class hospitals and colleges.
We have bookstores and cafes. We imagine this is Greenwich.
But it’s not. We live not in Connecticut, but in the jungle. This region is, though we don’t wish to admit it, much more akin to the Sudan than it is to Greenwich, and no matter how hard we pretend, it always will be. The cause of the searing pain that has Israel in its grasp this week is not only the lives of three innocent boys, but the crack in our pretense. This was the week when the Sudan trumped Greenwich, in which the evil that surrounds us became, once again, undeniable.
Yes, the Palestinian life is hard. Yes, we have a role in that. Yes, things might be better if they could have a sovereignty entity of some sort. But what about any of that justifies stealing three innocent boys? “So hit them hard and teach them that abductions will never pay,” some people wrote, and many others felt.
“But what good will it do, and what sorts of people will we then become?” others asked.
That’s “Greenwich meets the Sudan,” the collision between our two realities.
Few Zionists have been able to make both Connecticut and the Sudan inalienable dimensions of their inner being. We are, too often, divided between those descended from European intellectual liberals, who have no stomach for the brutal fight that staying here will always require, and those who live comfortably with the jungle and the brutality it invariably invokes.
Metaphorically, we are divided between those who want to read Homer and listen to Mozart, and those who wear the guns, are untroubled by the arrests and even comfortably abide the probable torture. We are divided between those who say “If we have to behave like that, I don’t want to be here,” and those who retort “Then leave, because either we acknowledge that we live in the jungle, or we won’t survive.”
Yet especially during a week like this, let’s not forget: It’s possible, though certainly not easy, to be both.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky was an example. So, too, was Menachem Begin. Jabotinsky, a genuine European intellectual and liberal, also advocated an “Iron Wall” to show the Arabs that Zionists would fight them as hard and for as long as it took. As a parliamentarian and later as prime minister, Begin was passionately devoted to the rule of law, but he also ordered the hanging of two British sergeants to stop the hanging of Jews (and it worked). The complex legacies of Jabotinsky and Begin have never been more critical.
Eventually, our kids will hitchhike once again. Not because it will be safe, but because Zionism is, at least on one level, about the quest for normalcy.
Part of us wants this to be a country like any other. So we will eventually pretend again. But this place is not normal, and there will invariably be more horrible weeks like this one. How often they happen, both Jabotinsky and Begin would have said, will depend on whether the Jewish people has the stomach for the jungle as much as it does for the symphony hall, and whether it can sustain the stomach for the jungle’s brutality for the long haul.
Is that a brutal and depressing reality in which to live? Without question. But the alternative is infinitely worse.
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college.
His latest book, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, was recently released by NextBook.