Saving Ishmael and Isaac

It is too late to save the murdered youths – Jewish and Arab – but it is not to late to take steps to prevent future deaths.

Funeral for the three kidnapped Israeli teens, July 1, 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Funeral for the three kidnapped Israeli teens, July 1, 2014.
During these dark and tragic days all of us have experienced feelings of anger, sorrow, grief and shame. Trying to deal with all of this we often look to sources – Jewish and non-Jewish – that parallel these events to help us to deal with them.
The first that came to my mind were the harrowing stories of the danger that confronted both of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Both were only a moment away from death. Ishmael was about to perish of thirst in the wilderness when “God heard the cry of the boy and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven,” and then “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water” and Ishmael was saved (Genesis 21:17-19). Isaac was bound on the altar when “Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven” and commanded him to stop and Isaac was saved (Genesis 22:9-12). The parallels between the fates of the two lads, in narrative and in language, are too close to be accidental.
Tragically, stories of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Mohammed Abu Khdeir did not end that way. There was no voice of God that interfered at the last moment to save them. Or perhaps there was – “a still small voice” telling the captors to cease; if so, in their evil brutality they did not heed it.
A non-Jewish source then came to mind – Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. In the Prologue, two households are described, “From ancient grudge to new mutiny/Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean....” The two young people die as a result of their parents’ feud and the Prince, who had tried in vain to bring an end to the fighting between the two clans, says, “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate/That heav’n finds means to kill your joys with love/And I for winking at your discord too/Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d.” But at that point Capulet turns to Montague and says, “give me thy hand,” and the feud is finally brought to an end.
Jews and Arabs have long been engaged in a feud and rulers have tried unsuccessfully to bring it to an end. Indeed, “all are punish’d” as innocent young people pay the price of our inability to make peace and find a way to live with one another.
Perhaps the time has come for true leaders of both sides to extend a hand to one another and say, “Stop. Enough. The price we pay is too high.”
Both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have condemned these killings. Both have said that the victims from the other side were human beings and that such killings are not to be tolerated.
Both co-operated in trying to bring these events to an end. Could they not now take the next step and put aside the ancient grudge as well? If they cannot go that far, there are some steps that they should be able to take to change the atmosphere of hatred that has brought about these brutal murders and others like them. If Abbas means what he says, he should make certain that the PA ceases immediately all of its vilification of Jews in educational material and in other publications.
He should insist that Hamas – if it is to be part of a unified government – remove its noxious propaganda against Jews and its encouragement of kidnappings and acts of terror.
But it is not enough for us to make these demands of others. We must take action ourselves. Netanyahu must control his own cabinet members and make certain that they do not engage in incitement as too many have done. There must be zero tolerance of Jewish incitement. We must stop ignoring so-called price-tag actions and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Those involved in calling for death to Arabs must be stopped and punished. Israel must not tolerate the teaching of hatred by rabbis and others in religious schools and institutions and in the army. Books such as Torat Hamelech cannot be published and sold and those rabbis who endorse such thinking must be removed from positions of power and certainly from the payroll of the government.
Yeshivot that preach vengeance and that teach that Arabs are inferior to Jews or somehow less human must be closed, even if they find sources within Jewish texts that seem to justify their beliefs. Religious schools – and indeed all schools – should teach that the Torah itself teaches that all human beings are equal, that all are created in the image of God, that killing any human being is a crime against God.
At this moment the most important text of the Torah is “of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!” (Genesis 9:4). The most important verse of the Prophets is “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians – declares the Lord” (Amos 9:7) and the most important rabbinic teaching is, “Only one man – Adam was created... in order to bring peace among humans, so that no one can say to another, ‘My father is greater than your father!” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5).
It was the great Rabbi Akiva who declared that stealing from or defrauding a non-Jew was worse than stealing from a Jew because it also desecrated the Name of God – chillul Hashem (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 113a). That is certainly the case regarding murder and even of teaching hatred.
It is too late to save these youths – Jewish and Arab – but it is not to late to take steps to prevent future deaths and to begin to act vigorously to remove hatred and to bring about an end to fighting and the beginning of peace.
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a prize-winning author and columnist.