On Sunday evening two of Israel’s main TV channels were continuing with news coverage of the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, while another was broadcasting live coverage of the World Cup.
At precisely the same time the game between Switzerland and Ecuador kicked off, some 25,000 people were gathered at the Western Wall to recite prayers on behalf of the kidnapped youths. In synagogues throughout Israel and the world, at precisely the same time, members of disparate Jewish communities, sharing different affiliations and religious beliefs, also gathered for similar events. There is a need to come together and to share the feeling of collective responsibility and shared anguish at the unknown fate of the three boys.
I had intended this week to write my weekly column about the soccer craze gripping the world and about the 12,000 Israelis who, so it is reported, have traveled to Brazil to watch the games, despite the fact that Israel did not even qualify.
It was one of those columns I had planned long in advance, checking the date on my calendar to remind me of the topic for this week. A tongue-in-cheek piece about the way the world takes a break from its normal activities for a month once every four years, disrupts all regular work and family schedules, and stays up late (if watching from distant countries such as Israel) to watch 11 overpaid young men, not that much older than the kidnapped teenagers, kick a round ball around a piece of grass.
But how can one sit back and enjoy the antics of the soccer pitch when we are all so concerned with the fate of the three kidnapped teenagers? How can one enjoy the color and the singing of the football crowds when faced with the solemnity and fear expressed by the crowds gathered at the Western Wall and throughout the world? The media doesn’t really have anything new to report. It regurgitates what it has been saying all day long, rolling out a long line of retired security officials, academics and politicians, all of whom have too much to say about a situation they actually know little about.
One feels a sense of responsibility to keep abreast of the news, commentaries and analyses of the kidnapping situation, but the talking heads are no more knowledgeable of what is really happening than is the average citizen.
They intrude on the lives of the families of the kidnapped children, pretend to have special inside channels of information with senior government or security officials, but don’t really add anything to what could have been said in one 15-minute update.
The boys were kidnapped somewhere along the Hebron bypass route. It is a route I travel on two or three times a week between Beersheba, Metar and Jerusalem. There are always young boys of high school age standing by the roadside waiting for someone to give them a ride. I am always happy to oblige. It gives me time to engage with people whose political views I do not necessarily agree with, but with whom I can agree to disagree even though we diverge on the basic existential issues concerning the future of the State of Israel and its long-term security.
These kids are all self-confident. They are not afraid of anti-Semites stalking them on the streets of a far-off country. They feel secure in their homeland as a matter of principle and, as such, do not see the dangers which are lurking behind the closed windows of a passing car. They are, unfortunately, easy prey for terrorists and, as was just proved, this particular group of teenagers were caught in the trap.
Beyond the kidnapped boys and the world football competition, other events are taking place in our immediate region. Islamic fundamentalists are taking over large parts of Iraq, leaving havoc and slaughter in their wake. The pictures of mass executions are too reminiscent of terrible events that happened to the Jewish people 70 years ago. Following on the deaths of 150,000 (estimated) people in the savage Syrian civilian war and the general upsurge of al-Qaida-sponsored violence throughout the Middle East, one would have thought that the world would have something to say, to do, to prevent the continuation of these atrocities.
But this is pushed aside as here in Israel we are concerned with the fate of three individuals, not 300 and not 3,000, each of whom has a name, a family and a supportive community environment. There are those who argue that Israel’s public concern with the fate of “just” three people in the face of the tens of thousands being slaughtered around us is a sign of weakness and that we are too concerned with the fate of individuals when we should be more concerned with the bigger picture.
But not only is this not a weakness, it is precisely the strength of this country and society that, despite our many internal differences, we immediately come together in an act of global solidarity out of joint concern and anguish for the fate of every individual. The day when we start to respond to kidnappings and killings the way much of the world is responding to what is transpiring in Syria and Iraq is the day we lose our essential humanity and our raison d’etre to exist as an independent state.
And with all our love for the “beautiful game,” the day that football takes precedence over the fate of the three boys is the day that we lose our bearings on what is truly important in our lives. Escapism is a good thing to have in life, considering the stress of the workplace and providing for our families. But we can only engage in such activities when we can be sure that all around us are safe and free to enjoy the same escapism.
That does not mean that we don’t have much to improve and that we are perfect – we are a long way from that. The fate of the Palestinians and their future independence is still in our hands, but that does not, can never, justify the kidnappings of the three teenagers or any form of brutality practiced in the name of ethnicity, religion or nationalism.
The country has rallied around the families and offered them support – religious, moral and political – in an admirable fashion. This support has absolutely nothing to do with their political beliefs. Perhaps if they had not been kidnapped, they too would have been taking some time out from their yeshiva studies, away from the supervision of their rabbis and teachers, to watch some soccer. But for the moment the fate of the round ball in Brazil will have to take a back seat as we put our lives and concerns into perspective.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
The views expressed are his alone.
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