I see them just about each time I enter the southbound lanes of Menachem Begin Boulevard, the highway that runs through the middle of Jerusalem. They are almost all Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, almost all males, and almost all teens or perhaps in their early 20s. All are thumbing rides.

It makes sense. I get on at either the Givat Mordechai or Yitzhak Rabin Boulevard interchange, both of which adjoin religious neighborhoods. And Begin South is the most direct route from the capital toward Gush Etzion and the mostly religious settlements farther down in the West Bank.

The alternative is to hoof it or take the light rail or a city bus to the nearest stop serviced by one of the handful of regularly scheduled Egged lines running between Jerusalem and the southern settlements.

But these people are young, and young people tend to be impatient, so why waste time when you can hitch a ride from almost right where you already are? Their numbers tend to increase in the late afternoon and evening, when they’ve finished their day’s activities and are heading back to the settlements. Sometimes, when there are special events in Jerusalem, like weddings or lectures by especially revered rabbis, or perhaps an appearance by a particularly popular Orthodox entertainer, their evening numbers swell to the point where if you’re not careful as you head down onto Begin, you could hit one as you come around a curve made blind by the high concrete guard rails along the on-ramp.

I never pick them up, though. That’s because I never pick up anyone. (Well, sometimes I’ll stop for someone I know, but being secular and up there in age, I can’t say I have many acquaintances among young Orthodox males hitching rides.) Need I explain why I don’t take hitchhikers? I’m afraid of them. People do bad things. I’m afraid of them for the same reason they should be afraid of me.

I have to admit that this bothers me because back in the day, when I first came to Israel, mostly everyone seemed to hitch almost everywhere. The many drivers who stopped were almost unfailingly open and friendly, and often you enjoyed the company as much as you did the scenery.

Back then it was especially easy to hitch if you were in uniform, and even after the IDF reached an agreement with Egged whereby soldiers could ride intercity lines for free, I usually preferred to stand by the side of the road, rifle slung over my shoulder, right hand down low and index finger out in the uniquely Israeli stance of “thumbing” a ride.

It was a time when a conversation would almost always ensue, unless, of course, you were just coming off ambush duty and had gone 60 hours without sleep – in which case the driver, immediately sensing this, would show you how to lower the back of your seat so you could take a snooze. All you had to do was tell him where you were heading and he’d gently tap you on the arm to let you know it was time to get out.

The good old days came to an end in the late 1980s when people like Ilan Sa’adon, Avi Sasportas and Nachshon Wachsman, uniformed boys who were just trying to make it home from within the relative safety of the Green Line, started being kidnapped. So what surprises me is that long after the IDF issued a blanket order forbidding soldiers, armed or not, from hitching rides anywhere in the country, we see throngs of young civilians, most apparently unarmed, hitching rides in the West Bank – deep in the midst of cities, towns and villages teeming with people who would be all too happy to grab you and slit your Jewish throat just to make a point.

I KNOW. People will accuse me of blaming Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah for having brought their troubles on themselves. In fact, people were accusing me of this even before I started writing.

“Perhaps there is a human tendency to blame the victim; they should not have been living there, they should not have been hitchhiking, they should not have been out at night,” wrote Sherri Mandell earlier this week in The Jerusalem Post.

“Why do so many want to blame the victim? Because it gives them a sense of control.”

Mandell knows what it’s like to lose a child to terrorist monsters. I cannot begin to imagine what she feels inside, and hope I never do. But it’s a bit too easy to make a statement like that, mostly because when it comes to blame, it’s not enough to pin it just on the monsters.

I can’t help but be reminded about nature.

It’s there to be enjoyed, although people with extensive experience in the great outdoors will tell you that given half a chance, nature can turn into a fullblown, raging demon that kills. Still, we read time and again about inexperienced hikers who head for the hills without proper equipment or even water, and then have to be extricated by helicopter after they fall into a ravine or become so dehydrated as to be at death’s door. No one is saying they have no right to be hiking, but for heaven’s sake, considering what it might end up costing them (and what it all too often ends up costing the rest of us), they, as well as the people who prepare them to go out into the world, should be much more careful.

I’m certainly not blaming Fraenkel, Shaer or Yifrah for being in the West Bank. And I’m not blaming them for hitchhiking, even late at night. Let’s face it: Boys will be boys.

The real, immediate culprit here is a lack of responsibility – responsibility among parents, teachers and other role models who should more thoroughly imbue youngsters with awareness about the dangers around them; responsibility among settlement leaders to organize and pay for regular transportation beyond what is already provided so as to allow their charges to more easily come and go; and responsibility among the regional authorities to hire armed guards or monitors to watch over major bus stops and patrol others on side roads in all areas and at all hours.

But there’s more. The culprit is also a culture that believes its problems begin and end with the Palestinians, a culture that encourages people to strut their stuff and show everyone who’s boss and whose land it is, a culture that seems to rely too much on a higher power, be it the police, the army or even God, especially when things begin to veer out of control.

FROM WHAT we’ve seen on the evening news programs in the wake of the boys’ disappearance, this culture seems to pervade the roads leading to and from the settlements. And it’s not only young men; it’s young women, too. Considering that no one at all should be hitchhiking even in the center of Tel Aviv, it is absolutely mind-blowing that this is allowed to go on in a place known for its rampant rock-throwing, random knife attacks, ambushes, roadside bombs and drive-by shootings.

And as for now being the wrong time to be pointing fingers, what time would be appropriate? After someone else disappears? It’s like the loopy claim by Yohanan Danino, the national chief of police, who sauntered in from a trip abroad 48 whole hours into the drama and said it wasn’t the time to blame the cops who had ineptly handled the emergency call from one of the missing boys.

Excuse me, but if call of this type comes in tonight, will the same thing happen? Now is the time to make sure it doesn’t.

In fact, right now is the time to ensure that no further calls of this type need be made.

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