Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The true meaning of 'Brother's Keeper'

Then the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Genesis 4:9

When I first heard the news on 12 June that 19 year old Eyal Yifrah, 16 year old Gilad Shaar, and 16 year old Naftali Fraenkel, were missing, somewhere near Hebron on the West Bank, I knew this was not going to end well.

My first reaction was as a parent, with daughters the same age as the three boys. I could feel my heart tightening as I read the news reports and thought their chances of being found alive were slim. I began to imagine what the political consequences would be. Most of all though, I thought about the boys' parents.

It didn't matter to me that the three teenagers were from Settler families. It didn't matter to me that what the boys called 'home' was stolen land for the Palestinian people. It didn't matter that I would probably find much to disagree with in the religious teaching at the Yeshivas they attended. Actually, it didn't matter that they were Jewish at all. What mattered was that they were children and what ever their background or the actions of their parents or the political movements they supported, they did not deserve this.

I could come up with a list of reasons why the murderers of the boys acted the way they did. Who knows what their personal experience of Israeli Occupation has been. Who knows if they have suffered personal family loss or the destruction of their property or the confiscation of their land. In the end, any mitigating circumstances or explanations for their motivation don't change the nature of their actions. They kidnapped three children and shot them dead. Resistance to the Occupation is entirely justified but it cannot look like this.

And before the bodies were found, what did the Israeli government do?

The Netanyahu government played this tragedy for everything it was worth. Without any published evidence, Hamas was blamed for the abduction and once again Netanyahu could claim that Israel and the Jewish People were at the mercy of hate-filled, anti-Semitic terrorists. Never mind that the Hamas leadership denied any involvement and the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the action and called for the teenagers to be released.

And why would the Hamas leadership order and plan such a thing? Why would they even agree to sanction the action by more lowly operatives? What possible advantage could it bring? Whatever you think of their stated aims, Hamas is political and rational. With the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they have been on the back foot looking for a way to remain relevant to their followers and influence the Palestinian future post the Obama/Kerry failure to get peace talks started. Forming a unity government with Abbas' secular Fatah does not look like the action of crazed religious fundamentalists.

But for Netanyahu it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Having been blamed for intransigence on the latest American peace initiative, he wanted to remind the world that Israel is forever dealing with murderous Palestinians out to kill Jews because they are Jews. By putting responsibility squarely at the door of Hamas he could discredit the fledgling unity government long before it gives Palestinians a chance to vote in long over-due elections.

And so Operation Brother's Keeper was launched with the aim of shutting down Hamas on the West Bank. Homes were raided, houses destroyed, more than 400 arrests were made. Five people were killed during clashes with the IDF as they made their round-ups, including 15 year old Mahmoud Dudeen who was struck by live bullets in the chest on June 20 in the village of Dura. He was with other youngsters throwing stones at the soldiers who had stormed into his village.

And the now the three boys' bodies have been recovered the revenge begins. I knew it was going to end badly.

Here is what Netanyahu said last night (Monday 30 June) in a media statement:
"Revenge over the blood of a small child is not the devil's work, and neither is revenge for the blood of a teenager or young man...Hamas is responsible. Hamas will pay."
On Monday night the revenge began. After an emergency cabinet meeting, Israel launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip, hitting 34 targets claimed to be terror-related, whatever that means. In the West Bank city of Jenin, another Palestinian child was killed in more clashes with the army, this time it was 16 year old Yusef Abu Zaga who lost his life.

Of course the deaths of Mahmoud and Yusef are not considered tragedies in the way that Eyal, Gilad and Naftali are. The Palestinian boys' acts of resistance against the IDF mean they forfeit all innocence. They became terrorists and therefore legitimate targets. At best, their deaths are just unfortunate mistakes made in the heat of battle.

Following the three funerals of the Israeli teenagers this afternoon, the Israeli cabinet is in session again planning the next acts in its stated aim to eradicate the evil of Hamas.

How far they will go is anyone's guess. It will not be good news for the people of Gaza or the West Bank. This is unfocused collective punishment on a grand scale. I'm not sure it is even revenge. Just bad politics.

And what do the Israeli government really understand to be the true meaning of the 'Brother's Keeper' title of their ongoing operation? What does it tell us about their worldview?

The phrase originates from the story of Cain's murder of his brother Abel in the book of Genesis. Cain denies to God that he is responsible for his brother's welfare. The teaching is of course that exactly the opposite is true. We are all responsible for our siblings and indeed the welfare of all humanity. The actions of the IDF though, and the entire Israeli government apparatus that keeps the Occupation ticking along, points towards a very different attitude.

While the price of young Jewish lives will be made extremely high in the coming days and weeks, young Palestinians are a very different matter. If we are to be true to our traditional Jewish teaching then the ethic of 'My Brother's Keeper' has to mean more than this. We have to take more care of each other's children.

Update: Wednesday 2 July

Since I posted this last night, Israeli police have found the body of a Palestinian teenager who was kidnapped overnight in East Jerusalem. Mohammed Abu Khdair, 16 years old, was last seen being forced into a car. His partly-burned corpse was discovered in a forest. We appear to be in a terrible downward spiral. I hope the Palestinian leadership will be smarter than the Israelis in how they attempt to apportion blame.


  1. Thank you for your wise words.
    Peace to you - and to Israel and Palestine.
    The Revd. Daniel Burton

  2. Thank you, Robert. In these days, as we see Israel descending even deeper (is it possible?) into insanity, Israeli human rights activist Nurit Peled's words and testimony are so needed: http://www.nimn.org/Perspectives/international/000132.php?section=

  3. Much to agree with but there are other facts I would include. firstly, the Israeli government knew that the boys were probably dead almost immediately. This was widely circulated but because the press was embargoed/censored, not officially reported. The confirmation of this 'rumour' is the last phone call made by one of the boys which ends with gunshots and the captors allegedly behaving in a celebratory manner. Perhaps they missed this mobile phone and when they saw the body suing it decided they must kill them quickly, whatever the original intent. Either way, the Israeli government cynically brought forward an already allegedly developed plan to attack Hamas in all its territories - that this was planned before the kidnapping was confirmed by senior military sources.

    Then, soon after the kidnapping, there was the seven year old killed by an Israeli rocket strike to assassinate an alleged "militant" in Gaza; the boy was riding on his uncle's motorbike when both were blown apart. He was certainly 'innocent' but these deliberate murders by the Israeli Defence Forces killings, which are routine, are almost never reported here, or for that matter in the Israeli press.

    As for feeling sympathy with settler parents; it reminds me of the scene at the end of the film The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. The commander of the Nazi death camp realises his own beloved son has probably gone to his death in the gas chambers instead of the intended Jewish victim. Should we feel sorrow for him as a father who has lost his son? the answer must be the same, whatever it is for you. Because if you feel greater sorrow because the parents are Jews, same as you (and me), then you are valuing Jewish life, even of fanatical nationalists, above that of the oppressed. Moral Maze, here we come.

    1. Paul, thank you for these comments and observations. You make a good moral challenge. I have to admit to the residual tribal affiliations that are betrayed through emotions when things like this happen. However natural this may be I think it needs to be questioned if we are to truly follow the Brother's Keeper imperative.