I didn’t so much get dragged into an argument on moral equivalency this week as jump into it in a moment of weakness. It was one of those Facebook debates which remind me why I avoided joining the social media for so long. Perhaps I wasn’t so much weak as angry. I had read the same article earlier in the day and not been irritated enough to comment. But when a former colleague shared The New York Times piece by Jodi Rudoren titled “After West Bank Kidnapping, 2 Mothers Embody a Divide,” posting it on June 30, a few hours after the news that the bodies of the three teenagers for whom I had literally been praying had been found, I went from numb to incensed.
Along with most of the country, I had spent the previous 18 days consumed with worry for the fate of three teenagers I’d never met – Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, kidnapped and murdered as they hitched a lift home from their high school and yeshiva studies.
My response was actually aimed at my Facebook friend who’d described the feature as “excellent.”
I don’t want to become a member of the automatically bash-the-New-York-Times brigade – or the always-bash-any-journalist brigade for that matter. Even columnists I don’t generally like occasionally have something worth considering to say. Why deny myself a chance of discovering something interesting by ruling out everything they write? Rudoren’s piece gave voice to two mothers – Rachel Fraenkel, whose 16-year-old son Naftali was still missing at the time she was interviewed, and Aida Abdel Aziz Dudeen, whose 15-year-old son Muhammad was fatally shot when he joined a group hurling stones at IDF soldiers participating in the search for the three abducted teens in the village of Dura, near the spot where the kidnappers abandoned and burned the vehicle they had used.
“Ms. Fraenkel and Ms. Dudeen share little aside from deep religiosity and empty beds where their sons should be. But both have been thrust into conspicuous roles in their side-by-side societies, reflecting the conflict’s human costs,” wrote Rudoren.
She studiously tried to be fair to both women and came across as sympathetic to both mothers and sad at the loss and pain in the ongoing conflict.
And here lies the crux of the problem. Ostensibly her piece was scrupulously symmetric. But that doesn’t make it fair. By choosing to write about the two mothers in the one feature Rudoren was implying a moral equivalency. The online editors helped tip this into an imbalance by running the photo of only one grieving mother under the headline. To find the photo of the woman whose son was kidnapped (and, we now know, killed) the online reader had to go into the accompanying slide show.
“I also think it’s crazy to count column inches and pix,” Rudoren responded on my friend’s Facebook page as the comments began to mount up, some favorable, others not.
On this we both agree: I would hate to have to write by numbers, counting column inches, pictures or bodies.
And I understand the constraints – the difficulty in providing adequate background and context while leaving enough room for something new. But this was not new: It was a very familiar formula.
“The point is not that they’re equivalent or comparable or anything, just both important and interesting and inherently intertwined, and each with major implications on the broader situation,” Rudoren explained, instinctively being dragged into the discussion as probably an even less willing participant than I was.
However, it was the nature of the broader situation that eluded Rudoren, like many writers whose audience is so politically correct that it considers itself irrefutably right.
The circumstances of the two women were entirely different, albeit intertwined. I found myself wondering not just about Ms. Dudeen, who seems to find solace in being the mother of “a martyr.” It was the mother of a different teenager called Muhammad who was in my heart and mind. Thirteen-year-old Muhammad Karaka was killed on June 22 at the start of the high-school vacation when he accompanied his father to work close to the border with Syria. The vehicle they were traveling in suffered a direct, targeted, hit from the Syrian side and Muhammad died in his father’s arms. (Fathers have feelings too, don’t forget.) Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah died because they were Jews. Karaka died because he was an Israeli. The same hatred killed them all. No one checked where they lived or what they believed.
The same hatred killed Muhammad Dudeen. His mother told the NYT bureau chief that her family had locked the door and she’d placed the key under her pillow to try to prevent him from going out and confronting the soldiers. Her struggle is not just with her son, it’s with a culture that glorifies its “martyrs,” be they suicide bombers or simply children being used as human shields. It’s living in a society educating above all to hate.
As I write these lines, the awful death of another teenage Muhammad is being investigated. A resident of a northern Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, the burned body of Muhammad Abu Kheider was discovered in a forest. Palestinians accuse Israelis of kidnapping and killing him to avenge the deaths of the three Israeli youths. Police have yet to rule out the possibility that he was the victim of a dispute within his own community.
The Fraenkel family was among the first to react, condemning murder of any kind.
As the Israeli teens were being buried, side by side, the whole country united in a feeling of bereavement, the Education Ministry sent guidelines to schools to help parents deal with their children’s pain (and their own). My son’s school principal added a personal letter calling on his students to channel their grief into something positive.
All the while, missiles launched from Gaza have been landing on southern Israel, every one of them intended to hurt civilians (be they Arabs or Jews). The international calls for restraint came almost as fast as the rockets.
As The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon wrote on Tuesday, echoing my thoughts: “Those children, snatched and later murdered as they were trying to do nothing more than return home from school, could have been anyone’s kids. Which is one of the reasons why we were all so affected.
“Part of the world, in its obtuseness, has warned us against ‘disproportionate’ reaction. As if there is a proportionate reaction to three boys stolen and murdered for no other reason than they were Jews. And this in the oh, so enlightened 21st century. What, exactly, would constitute a ‘proportionate’ reaction?” Visiting journalists recently asked me when I thought the conflict would come to an end. A colleague reminded me of Golda Meir’s famous remark: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”
I opted for an assessment that peace, or at least a modus vivendi, will come when the Palestinians put more effort into building their own state than into trying to destroy ours.
I can’t forgive the deaths, the senseless killings. But I will give the remarkable Rachel Fraenkel the last word she so deserves. Standing by the body of her son on Tuesday, surrounded by thousands of mourners, Fraenkel said: “Each prayer has its own work to do. There is no senseless act of love and charity. A good act stands on its own.”
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.