Much of the Jewish world was shaken on March 11, 2011, when terrorists broke into a house in Itamar, a Jewish village in the West Bank, belonging to Ruth and Udi Fogel. The terrorists butchered both parents and three of their children, (aged eleven, four and three months). The bodies were discovered later that night when the family’s twelve-year-old daughter returned home from a youth activity, and found her two-year-old brother crying, shaking and trying to wake up mommy and daddy.
In Israel and across the world, many Jews of various backgrounds viewed the massacre of the Fogels as an attack on the very fabric of Israel. Once again, a Jewish family – including young children - had been murdered by terrorists.
Following the attack on the Fogels, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a rare public appeal to the international community to condemn the murder, and was met largely with silence. In Gaza, celebrating Palestinians even handed out sweets to celebrate the act. Many of the world’s media reported the attack in negative tones: not negative in condemning the murders, but rather negative in fretting about Israel’s possible “response” and settlement activity.
Since these murders, I, like many Jews, have been inundated with requests for action. My friends and I have prayed. We donated money to the three surviving, orphaned children. A Jewish class I take dedicated its learning to the memory of the slain parents and children. At the Jewish school my children attend, the talk among parents, teachers and administrators has been of little else.
But the killings in Itamar have also been met in many quarters with a deafening silence.
In many quarters the killings in Itamar have been met with a deafening silence.
In many interactions with my fellow Jews, the subject of the attack just didn’t come up. I asked some friends and relatives about it, and was met with short, almost embarrassed answers. Yes, it was sad, but oh well. These things happen from time to time. What is there to say?
Several days after the killings I was so disturbed, I even e-mailed one Jewish group I participate in and suggested that we as a group do something in the family’s memory. One member e-mailed me back, asking, "Who are the Fogels?" Nobody else responded.
The Fogels as the “Other”
The Fogel family was Orthodox, and photos released after their murders showed what to many were "strange-looking" people: a mother with a pink scarf covering most of her hair, a father with a long, wispy beard and a yarmulke, two boys with long side-locks hanging down and yarmulkes on their head. They lived in Itamar, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Even their names were different: Udi, Yoav, Eldad, Hadas. Many Jews viewed them as foreign. Some even saw them as almost deserving their fates. (After all, most of us don’t choose to live in the West Bank.) Maybe they were, after all, “obstacles to peace.” Perhaps they had made themselves expendable.
The Fogels’ murder coincided with the devastating reports coming out of Japan. While most people were shocked and upset about the suffering in Japan (the death toll climbed to 10,000 during the week after the Fogels’ murders), I noticed that some people made very strange, cruel comments on internet news sites about the quake. Using the comfort of anonymity, people wrote inexplicable things. The Governor of Tokyo (who didn’t even have the luxury of anonymity for his indifference) even said that the people of northern Japan deserved the earthquake and tsunami that killed them.
This disassociation harms us as both human beings and as Jews.
Indifference, bordering on cruelty, is so often the norm. People disassociate. Other people become invisible. We rationalize that maybe they deserve our fates. Our concern for them withers.
But this disassociation harms us as both human beings and as Jews.
At a human level, we cannot tolerate violence against other people without diminishing our humanity. As Jews, we cannot tolerate indifference, either. We are a people that have lasted over 3,000 years, bound by our unique relationship with God – and with each other. We are a distinct group, intimately connected to one another.
Today, whenever a Jewish parent bestows a Jewish name on their newborn child, each time a Jewish person participates in a ritual or commandment like Shabbat dinner or a Passover seder, every time a Jewish person’s ears prick up or their attention focuses when they hear a news item that concerns Jews or Israel, they are affirming their place within the Jewish people. “All Jews are siblings” the Torah teaches. We are all a part of the same family, and what diminishes one diminishes us all.
Yes, to some the Fogels appeared strangely dressed. Strangely named. Foreign. Israeli. Settlers. But they were people, and they were Jews. They are family. Their murder has to mean something to all of us. If it doesn't, we are darkening our very core.
Love Your Neighbor
The Torah commands: “And you shall love your fellow as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)
How can we actually love another as much as we love my own selves? It’s a challenging commandment. Yet a central one: for only by valuing other people’s lives, by thinking of them as fully human, can we stay connected with others. It’s the only way we ourselves can remain fully human too.
Judaism teaches that we are all created in the image of God. Each one of us reflects a different facet of the Divine. When we relate to our fellow men and women, we are relating to holy beings.
Judaism also provides us with a wealth of specific mitzvahs to ensure that we value and connect with others: offering hospitality, visiting the sick, helping a poor bride to make a beautiful wedding, acting as a mediator between quarrelling people. These are not merely nice things to do; in our timeless Jewish tradition, they are obligations: commandments that bind us to others and elevate us all. We are also obligated to stop and feel the pain of our brothers and sisters.
Identifying with others, especially those who are different than us, doesn’t come easily. But it is the only way we can become the people God intended for us to be.
Today, in memory of the Fogels, let us each try to live up to this central commandment to love and value others a little more.