The official name of the search for the three Israeli teenagers abducted on June 12 is “Operation Brother’s Keeper” but I can’t help thinking of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah as our collective sons. This time last week I hadn’t even heard their names, but for several nights their fate has been keeping me awake and giving me nightmares when I finally doze off.
When Rachel Fraenkel, Naftali’s mother, addressed the boys via the media on Tuesday, saying, “We love you; we want to hug you again,” I not only wanted to give my own son the sort of kiss that a teenage kid totally doesn’t want in public, I wanted to reach out and give Rachel, Bat-Galim Shaer and Iris Yifrah a big hug, too.
As it is, they have been in my thoughts all week and their names were on my lips as I added a prayer when I lit Friday night candles hours after the story of the kidnapping broke.
The three mothers – amazing women – asked that the public pray not only for their sons’ welfare, but also for the safety of the soldiers and security forces involved in the operation. They, too, are the sons and daughter of worried parents.
The way the country has united behind the families in prayer created almost palpable waves of positive energy. I want nothing more than for readers to be able to stop at this point, in the happy knowledge that our prayers have been answered and the teens are home safe and sound.
But as I write these lines, the search for the boys continues; I think of them as boys for that’s what they are – two 16-year-olds and the 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah.
They are not “settlers” – some sort of subhuman species in international parlance; neither are they soldiers.
They are three adolescents who look like many of my friends’ kids. Gil-Ad is a counselor in a youth movement and apparently enjoys baking; Naftali likes basketball and playing guitar; while Eyal, another youth counselor, is a keen tennis player and amateur musician.
A video of him and a friend singing to a tune he composed can be seen via YouTube. It’s hauntingly good.
The fact that they were hitchhiking when they were abducted is neither here nor there. Or perhaps it’s very here: Hitching lifts in Gush Etzion, where buses are sporadic, is a norm. They called their parents to say they were on their way and there were three of them in one vehicle. Blaming the boys for their fate is the equivalent of accusing a woman of inviting rape. Gil- Ad, Naftali and Eyal are the victims, whatever MK Haneen Zoabi would have us believe.
Campaigners for their return managed to sum up the situation in a chillingly simple message delivered over a recording of a boy’s voice on a phone: “What if these were the last words you heard from your child? ‘Hello, Mom? Yeah, I’m on my way home....’” Many Israelis have complained that the foreign media are not paying enough attention to the story.
Journalists with the foreign press have replied that Israel is not the center of the world’s attention; it’s hard to sustain the story as long as the boys’ fate is unknown; and the story has to rival for space with coverage of the World Cup. A slightly different, and equally plausible, explanation was given in a television interview by diplomat Alon Liel who noted that Israelis under these circumstances unite and take the matter very personally – the three are our brothers/sons/friends; this is not a common reaction to the same extent in similar circumstances abroad.
This unity behind our own – summed up in the precept, Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lezeh (All Israel is responsible one for the other) – is our strength and our weakness. It gives us the ability to cope, survive and thrive in circumstances in which loosely-knit communities would become unraveled; it is, however, also the weak spot that our enemies exploit: What would we be willing to give to get our boys back? PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that all signs point to Hamas involvement in the wellplanned abductions. Whoever took them and hid them is on the side of the global village’s bad guys.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon initially “condemned the abduction of three Israeli students in the West Bank, urging everyone to exercise restraint and to support efforts for the release and safe return of the young people, who include two minors.” But perhaps he scared himself. By midweek, his spokesman was quoted as saying there was no sign the boys had actually been kidnapped (although he offered no explanation as to why three religious Jewish teens should tell their parents they’re on their way home for Shabbat and then just disappear.) It seems that Ban and his staff have something in common with the police operator who took the whispered emergency call from one of the boys saying he’d been kidnapped and decided it was a hoax. The disbelief of the police officer cost several valuable hours before the search was launched. Ban’s hope that maybe nothing bad has happened is even more naive – and dangerous. Pretending the problem is not there, does not make it go away. It just gives it time to grow.
While supporters of the three families joined the Bring the Boys Back campaign, Palestinians started their own counter-campaign, featuring a three-fingered salute: one for each of “the three Gilads,” as they have nicknamed the teens, playing on the name of Gilad Schalit who was held captive by Hamas for five years before being released in a massive prisoner exchange.
Lately, I feel like the sane world has been given the finger but refuses to see it as an insult. Who wants to get into a fight with bullies? Look at some of the other stories that were going on while Israel was preoccupied with its missing sons: In Afghanistan, Taliban-affiliated Islamists chopped off the fingertips of 11 voters. Their fingers had been marked with ink to avoid election fraud. In Nigeria, where Boko Haram is still holding some 250 abducted schoolgirls, a suicide bomber blew up next to an outdoor screen where men had gathered to watch the World Cup. In Kenya, Somali-linked Muslim extremists gunned down soccer fans watching a World Cup match in a video hall.
Incidentally, in an effort to put pressure on Hamas, Israel has rescinded TV viewing rights for the security prisoners, depriving them of a chance to see how the World Cup plays out. This doesn’t seem as cruel as gunning them down for un-Islamic behavior, but it didn’t take long before Israel was criticized for denying the prisoners their privileges.
Meanwhile, ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) – too radical for even al-Qaida’s tastes – is doing everything to realize its dream of setting up a caliphate crossing those two countries. That the mass slaughter and civil war continues in Syria does not seem to faze the West any more. Needless to say, Syrian children are among the most seriously affected victims.
Israel’s problems are not parochial. These are not just our sons we’re talking about.
The same terrorists who consider 16-year-old schoolchildren legitimate targets simply because they are Jews will not balk at attacking Western secular targets. And the jihadists now training across the Middle East’s killing fields will be happy to export their terror far closer to wherever you are reading this.
Which is why our prayers and pleas need to continue: Bring back our boys. Bring back the Nigerian girls.
Bring back sanity. Before it’s too late.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. firstname.lastname@example.org