We knew it would end this way. Three weeks without a sign of life, no demands from anyone for their return, no one assuming responsibility – the likelihood of a tragic ending was overwhelming. Most of us knew it, even if we acknowledged it only in whispers.
Yet the predictability of the outcome made it no less heartbreaking. The now standard Israeli ritual unfolded: Israel television (except for Channel 1, which stuck with football) broadcast images of a massive IDF presence in Halhul, just outside Hebron. Newscasters assumed devastated faces, apologizing that the military censor precluded their revealing much.
So Israelis turned to the international online media, which reported what everyone suspected. Whereupon Israeli media wordlessly got around the censor by showing a video of Israeli soldiers with hoes searching under piles of rocks.
By the time the military censor lifted the ban, the news was old. So Israeli media turned to the inevitable incriminations – also part of our sadly honed ritual. How was it possible that the police force removed from their tasks four officers who botched the handling of the phone call from one of the boys, yet refused to fire them outright? “How badly had the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) performed?” more than one newscaster asked guests who appeared in the studio. That many responded “Not bad at all” made no difference. The inquisition continued. Someone had to have made grievous mistakes.
Why this hunt for Israeli culprits? Because if we did not make terrible mistakes, we have to admit what we know but do not wish to accept – nights like Monday’s are an inevitable part of living in this region. This was not the act of two lone, depraved murderers. The two were supported, directly and indirectly, by a wide network in Hebron, throughout swathes of the West Bank, in Gaza and in countries beyond.
We search for Israeli missteps because the truth is too painful to admit – we cannot fully protect ourselves, for we are surrounded on all sides by a death-addicted culture, by people embittered by hundreds of years of backwardness, mostly of their own making.
Unwilling to join the West, unwilling to educate women, to conduct free elections, to take responsibility for the medieval qualities of their culture, they do what they have been doing for decades – some of them kill, while many others applaud and protect those who did the killing. They kill their daughters for having sex, they murder young men for being gay. They slay Christians for being Christian, Jews for being Jewish. They make no attempt to build serious educational institutions, or lay the foundation of a future transparent government. Just over the horizon, Sunnis slaughter Shi’ites and Shi’ites massacre Sunnis. Who would have imagined that crucifixion would actually make a comeback? But it has, thanks to ISIS in Syria.
Living in this region can be devastatingly lonely. So we must remind ourselves that we are here for a purpose, that Israel is our opportunity to model those values that the Jews take seriously.
We believe in the sanctity of life. We believe in human progress. We are committed to unfettered roles for women.
We believe the state should stay out of people’s bedrooms. We believe that cultures can change, grow and learn from texts not their own – democracy may not have been a Jewish ideal at the time of the Talmud, but we see it as a fundamental value today. We believe that we can put Jews at the center of our concern, and still care deeply for other human beings.
And we still believe in our prophetic role in the world, speaking truth to power, utterly unabashed about our belief that we have created something here in Israel that merits international admiration, which our neighbors would do well to emulate.
The prime minister came close to getting it right on Sunday evening, the night before the boys were found, when he said that Israel supports the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, where an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan already exists. Israel supports Kurdish aspirations for independence, Netanyahu told a think tank in Tel Aviv, because the Kurds “are a fighting people that has proved its political commitment, political moderation, and deserves political independence.”
It wasn’t clear whether Netanyahu was referring only to Iraqi Kurds, or whether he had in mind Kurds living in Iran, Syria and Turkey as well, but no matter.
He understands that we are awash in a dangerous sea of fanaticism. “Historic changes are occurring throughout our region, with important ramifications for both Israeli and world security. The Sykes-Picot Agreement which shaped the borders of our region almost 100 years ago has reached its end,” he said, precisely a century after World War I unleashed ethnic forces that the world still struggles to contain.
Netanyahu had prepared his ground carefully. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was quoted as saying to US Secretary of State John Kerry that “Iraq is breaking up before our eyes, and it would appear that the creation of an independent Kurdish state is a foregone conclusion.” President Shimon Peres raised the same issue when he met with President Barack Obama last week, on his last US tour prior to his retirement.
“The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state,” Peres said, preparing the way for Bibi’s remarks in Tel Aviv.
So Israel is coming out in support of the Kurds. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but we can do better than Bibi did on Sunday night. Yes, Israel needs an axis of moderate forces in the region. But if Israel advocates Kurdish independence only because of security self-interest, as vital as that is, we will have missed a critical opportunity. Bibi should also have noted that because values matter, sovereignty needs to be earned. The Kurds deserve independence, he might have said, because their values are closer to those of the West. Israel believes in peoples having homelands in their ancestral lands – provided they are committed to decency, human rights, the values of the West.
Had he framed the conversation that way, he would also have intimated that Palestinian statehood took a major hit this week. With murderers being hidden in Hebron and rockets flying out of Gaza, does anyone imagine that the solution is the creation of a Palestinian state? Does Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street still believe that the primary problem this region faces is occupation? Has anyone failed to notice that despite its devastating impact on his standing, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has still refused to call off his deal with Hamas? Does anyone really not understand why there will be no resolution of this conflict? Will Kerry and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton still hold Israel accountable? If Israel is to support the Kurds, let’s make it clear that our stance stems from principles. We endorse their quest for sovereignty because values matter, because moderation is a virtue, because human beings deserve democratic regimes, because sovereignty must be earned.
If Israel is to support Kurdish independence, let’s do so because Israel believes what Jews have been saying for thousands of years: Goodness and decency ought to be rewarded, and evil, no matter where it may lurk, must be called what it is – then uncovered and utterly destroyed.
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His latest book, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, was recently released by NextBook.