Our Dilemma when Talking about Terror in Israel

Hours ago, I arrived in Israel together with one quarter of the Massachusetts State Senate and two JCRC board members.

As we begin our weeklong study tour, led by Senate President Stan Rosenberg, I’ve been thinking about the moment last week when – in the wake of heightened attention in Boston media to the so called ‘stabbing intifada’ - members of the delegation began asking questions about security in Israel. I briefly feared that we might be forced to postpone this trip. That moment reflected a larger dilemma with which we must grapple.

Since October 1, 19 Israelis and one American – from Sharon, MA - have been killed by terrorists. 97 Palestinians have also died, including 58 who were killed while committing these and other terrorist attacks.

I have friends who post about every single attack on social media; every alert, every siren, every detail. It can be overwhelming. Twitter and Facebook become filled with violence and suffering every day. When the connections hit closer to home here in Boston — as when Richard Lakin z”l and then Ezra Schwartz z”l were taken from us — I too posted every detail of their lives and their deaths.

We do this to express our rage that the world doesn’t seem to notice or care about what Israel is enduring. We do this to express our solidarity with Israelis during this nightmarish chapter. But in doing so we also run the risk of promoting a perception of Israel as awash in terrorism, as a place to neither visit nor do business, as a hopeless cesspool of violence. We amplify an inaccurate perception of life in Israel that invites our audience to be fearful of going there.

Without diminishing each precious life that has been taken from us during this period, there is also a factual reality: Israel, even amidst this violence, is broadly safer today than the United States. In fact, the U.S. crime rate is double that of Israel, our murder rate is 150% higher, and our gun murder rate is 33 times that of Israel.  

The reality is that even during this outbreak of terror, not all Israelis are experiencing the same level of vulnerability. Neighborhoods in Jerusalem on “the seam” that marks the divide of Israeli and Jordanian control before 1967 have experienced more violence in recent months than areas of coastal Israel. Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank have a very different experience of the violence and the conflict than do Jews and Arabs in Haifa or Eilat.

It is often said that in the media, “if it bleeds it leads.” There’s tragically more than enough blood here to fill our news. But there’s also a lot more to the story. We need to be clear about what we want our audience here in the U.S. to understand, by cutting through the noise to focus on realities.

It is important to speak explicitly as to why the situation disturbs us. Our daily feeds need to be more than the head count of victims, awful as that is. We must explain that what matters is that they are being targeted for being or appearing to be Jewish. We need to explain that it isn’t just about keeping count of the terrorists who are acting against Israel, but understanding that they do so with the encouragement of and incitement by Palestinian leaders and are then celebrated for their actions.  It isn’t just the volume of victims of terror that outrages us, but the disparate reaction of the world when compared to other victims of terrorism.

As we push for public acknowledgement of this violence we also need to effectively convey broader realities. The reality is that while life in Israel is deeply affected by this wave of terrorism, a vibrant society continues to function, thrive and innovate.  The reality is that there are promising, exciting, and fascinating things happening in Palestinian society as well. The reality is that Israel’s control of Palestinian society is not sustainable, and it tears at the fabric of Israel’s society; it is also a complex dilemma for both people and not easily resolved. It will take the action of leaders far more courageous than those currently charged with that role in either society.  

We are here this week to see Israel in all of its complexity and disparate voices. Only then can we build understanding, not just headlines.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy