Abba Eban’s enduring insight that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity needs amending: the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to boost Israeli unity, either. On Sunday, as The New York Times delighted in a polarized Israel sacrificing the army and national unity “on the altar of ultranationalist ideology,” a sadistic Palestinian truck driver – along with his Palestinian cheerleaders – unified us in sorrow. Amid intense reactions to the Azaria verdict punishing the shooting of a disarmed terrorist, this hit-and-run terrorist emphasized the murderous context in which Israeli kids must make split-second life-anddeath decisions.
As Israelis texted back and forth to see who escaped terrorism’s luckless lottery – which one Haaretz columnist that morning justified as “resistance to the occupation” – as the Palestinian wheel of misfortune crushed two dozen families, “citizens” weren’t “waging war” against “the citizens’ army.” We were one; we are one.
We are one with the families of the four young idealists massacred. We are one with the 17 wounded and their families, too. We join Left and Right in repudiating Hamas for lionizing this murderer. We join Left and Right in denouncing the Gazans who celebrated this despicable act. We unite in condemning the international enablers whose excusing of Palestinian incitement puts their fingerprints all over the deadly driver’s steering wheel.
We unite in lamenting that terrorism targeting us doesn’t merit headlines elsewhere. And we all share the same prayer, whatever our chosen political prescription for ending this conflict: that these will be the last victims – even as we wonder with dread, “who’s next”? Some media commentary nevertheless was harsh: one commentator sneered that two young women who clutched each other’s hands as they ran away from the runaway truck “thought they were at Disneyland. ” Wow. Consider the crazy pressures Israeli kids endure. If soldiers overreact as Sgt. Elor Azaria did, they’re arrested. If they react normally by scattering, as some officer cadets did in Sunday’s attack, they’re mocked. Honor the heroes who ran toward the truck and killed the terrorist, but don’t punish the others.
They’re suffering enough guilt and trauma. Remember, at first it looked like a traffic accident – even to the tourguide hero who shot first. The whole incident took 28 seconds – reflecting a miraculously rapid, lifesaving response which included many cadets (with no time for anyone to think about the Azaria verdict). And remember, the terrorists are guilty, not the victims.
When I was these kids’ age, my big dilemmas involved whether to major in history or political science, and whether to order plain or mushroom pizza at night. How dare I judge them, without humility – and how dare my fellow laptop warriors in the American Jewish community do the same, despite never having been on either end of a gun.
The mass mourning this mass murder evoked proved that IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot was only half-right when he said, “An 18-year-old man serving in the army is not ‘everyone’s child.’” The IDF is a people’s army populated by “our kids,” who invest heart and soul – and sometimes body and life itself – in protecting us. Older teens are will o’wisps. Treating them only as kids condescends; treating them only as adults overshoots.
Rather than fearing a robust argument about the Azaria verdict, let’s welcome it. But let’s retire two inflammatory words: “murderer” and “hero.”
Murder is “the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought”; in March 2016, pummeled by a spate of terrorist violence, Azaria didn’t wake up one morning planning to kill a terrorist. Azaria was armed only because his country drafted him to defend it. That’s not the profile of a murderer; he’s no threat to society.
By contrast, a hero is “a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.” Shooting a disarmed terrorist is disreputable and dishonorable.
By contrast, another medic, my heroic friend Martin Friedlander, in 2002 gave mouth to mouth resuscitation to a terrorist who had just blown himself up, explaining, “I am a medic, and have trained all my life for this kind of episode.”
Israel needs more Martys, not Elors.
Marty understood the act’s absurdity – which was part of its nobility.
“I... would have shot him dead if I’d known what he was about to do,” Marty said, “but 20 seconds later was trying to save the life of a human being.”
Rather than being pardoned, which would neutralize the verdict’s moral message, Azaria deserves a creative sentence. He was a terrible soldier who violated the IDF chain of command and code of ethics. Sentence him to finish his military service in a military jail. When his three years end, he should rejoin the civilian population, to try becoming a true hero in that world.
Last Saturday night, when Yael Yekutiel, Shir Hajaj, Shira Tzur and Erez Orbach were still alive, anticipating their Jerusalem adventure, a lovely man named Capt. Ziv Shilon organized a unity rally. Despite having lost his arm fighting in Gaza, he hasn’t lost his faith in Israel. Shilon decided to make a stand at Rabin Squarein Tel Aviv, “even if it is by myself,” calling for “solidarity and mutual love.”
Thousands attended, from Right to Left.
Fortunately, the rally occurred before the terrorist attack. It shows that we don’t need Palestinian violence to unite us. We must foster unity ourselves, with more grace, understanding, humility, self-criticism and love for our fellow Israelis, Jews and humans – even when we disagree.
The author, professor of history at McGill University and a visiting professor at the Ruderman Program at Haifa University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.