Editor's Notes: Urgent priorities

There are some lines that we can, and must, draw ourselves, right now.

Wednesday was one of the funniest evenings I've ever had in Jerusalem. There were these four comedians in town from the United States, you see, and they were brilliant. Heard the one about the two Jews, the black guy and little fellow from Ohio married to a Texan? That's not the start of a joke; that was the line-up. The two Jews went first. Avi Liberman was the opening act. A laid-back, good-looking single guy, it was he who organized the tour, compered the evening, and was the first to spot the rich comic potential in the fact that an extravagantly white-bearded gentleman, who turned out to be a father-of-eight named Ephraim, was sitting dead center in the second row. After Avi came Modi, comparing us to an audience in the Catskills, lapsing dangerously close to bad taste with some asides about Sephardi wife-beating, teasing the fortunately stoic Ephraim relentlessly, but redeeming himself with one-liners about having to answer the phone when his mother called because "I needed material." Chris Spencer, the black comic doing n-word routines that no white comedian would have ventured, came next. He protested the dearth of "brothers" in the crowd - not even some off-duty Ethiopian security guards, he noted, with impressive perspicuity for someone on their first day in Israel - but spotted Ephraim straight away: "Santa Claus!," he raved. And finally, there was Michael Loftus, whose set defies transcription, but who crowned the evening with unparalleled rapid riffing on everything from the inappropriately happy-sounding name of the Taliban - "like a calypso band at the Holiday Inn" - to the grumpy features of the Israeli icons immortalized on our bank notes, his wife's unexpected and devastating descent into farting after seven years of smell-free cohabitation, and, especially, the sheer uselessness of his little toe. He didn't even need to pick on Ephraim. An audience overwhelmingly comprised of North American immigrants, mostly Orthodox, laughed and clapped throughout. A few even shrieked a little. One brave single white female called out to inquire whether Avi was similarly unattached. (He is; Chris offered to pay for the first date; he said he had nine shekels.) But I suspect that nobody forgot for very long - not even when Mike was in his most dazzling stream-of-consciousness toe tripping - what it was that had brought these comedians to Israel and us to watch them: the brutal murder of Koby Mandell, 13, and his friend Yosef Ish Ram, near their home in the pluralistic settlement of Tekoa in May 2001. What on earth could connect the terrible killing of two young Israeli boys by Palestinian terrorists with an evening of stand-up comedy? Well, Koby's parents, Sherri and Rabbi Seth, have sought to honor his memory by setting up the Koby Mandell Foundation, which pioneers a variety of programs "helping others heal from the horror of terror." And Avi, our host, has been leading "Stand Up for Israel" visits by fellow US comics for the past seven years, their proceeds donated to a range of local charities - and this time the philanthropy of choice was the Mandells'. For Seth Mandell, briefly introducing the event, the idea of an evening of laughter in uplifting memory of his son was, however improbable this may sound, entirely natural. His son loved comedy; he'd signed up to a Hebrew on-line humor mill that still popped a joke a day into the family computer. "It's comedy for Koby," said Seth. "He would have loved this." TWO DAYS earlier, I had spent a few hours in Hebron, 20 minutes deeper inside the West Bank than Tekoa. My colleague Elliot Jager and I visited Beit Hameriva/Beit Hashalom - the House of Dispute/the House of Peace - the Israeli-Palestinian flashpoint du jour, graciously hosted by one of the sprawling building's residents, Hebron settlers spokesman David Wilder. Wilder is an erudite and articulate advocate for his cause, persuasively bewailing what he called the hypocrisy of the Israeli government and legal authorities - who, as he sees it, put the settlers through every conceivable hoop to justify their presence, only to then find the most spurious and narrow political grounds to force their eviction. At the time of our visit, the premises were emphatically in House of Peace mode: On the ground floor, students debated over pages of holy text. A few floors up, mothers and sisters bustled and organized. A baby slept in a cot alongside the sofa where Wilder set out the settlers' case. And the view from the rooftop, over the mosque next door and down into the Hebron Valley toward the Cave of the Patriarchs, was thoroughly pastoral. Only the presence of a few dozen teenage boys milling around aimlessly, without a parent in sight, was mildly alarming; that and the quickly evident fractious relationship between some of the settlers and some of the soldiers on duty around them. Later that same day, by contrast, the rumor spread that Israeli security forces were on their way to carry out the much-anticipated evacuation of the building, the circumstances of whose purchase are still being debated. The dozens of milling youngsters turned into hundreds, sporadic violence ensued, and we all braced for feared bloodshed - a repeat of the 2006 Amona evacuation, or worse. Ominously, Arye Eldad, one of the right-wing Knesset members who joined the settler resistance at Amona, declared that he was staying away from the looming Hebron confrontation because the youngsters preparing to face off against the security forces there were "out of control." If the government was "vicious or stupid enough" to take them on, warned Eldad, "people will be killed there." Mercifully, when the evacuation was ordered on Thursday afternoon, it was bitter and violent, but that chilling scenario, at least, was avoided. IT WAS never going to be easy reconciling the aspirations of a revived, modern, democratic state of Israel with the demands of the faith that sustained our people in exile - not when many of that faith's historic focal points lie beyond the borders of the sovereign territory we were reallocated, and least of all when those focal points were then "liberated" in a war won with unthinkable, even near-miraculous ease. The very nature of that victory convinced many Orthodox Jewish doubters that God was indeed on our side in this venture into statehood, and that divine will now required them to gloriously cement their hold over the reconquered biblical landmarks. But that greater liberated Israel has not been an unmitigated blessing. And modern, divided Israel discerns no guiding divine hand. How do we properly maintain our people's history? Where must we draw our lines? It will take a Palestinian leadership genuinely reconciled to our presence here, and prepared to courageously spread the message of our legitimacy to the Palestinian public, in order for us to permanently establish the contours of our modern Israel. But there are some lines that we can, and must, draw ourselves, right now. Urgent priorities. First and foremost, we need to draw back from the lines where Jew turns violently against Jew, where Jew turns unprovoked against Arab, where Jew flouts the parameters of collective responsibility that enable us to maintain any kind of viable presence in any part of this land. We need to draw back from situations where our brothers and cousins and fathers and sons, conscripted into our defense, are diverted from the task of protecting us from the kinds of murderous enemies who killed Koby Mandell, and instead are asked to risk life and limb as we turn upon others and upon ourselves. Sherri and Seth Mandell have insistently drawn strength from their bereavement - from the loss of an innocent Israeli child who was murdered for trying to live here. In their published material on the foundation, they write of working in Koby's name to "encourage others to use life's tragedy, trauma and adversity to live meaningful, healthy and inspired lives." That has to be the way forward - recovering from even the most grievous blows; insistently laughing, however close the tears; striving for internal harmony and growth and conciliation and tolerance. And working together to fulfill our destiny in this land.