Friday, January 30, 2004

Daniel Gordis: Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Souad came home today

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I remember the day they died. And I remember the day that they died again. They were killed, we now know, 1210 days ago in the attack in which they, or their bodies, were captured. The number 1208 was mentioned today by Hayim Avraham, Benny's father, as the number of days that they survived without knowing. Now, he's getting his son back. Not alive, but back. And for the first time in 1208 days, he and his family will go to sleep knowing with certainty that Benny is dead, that he's not in the hands of the same sorts of "people" who blew up a bus full of children and civilians in the heart of Jerusalem today, or who for more than three interminable years kept the most basic humanitarian information -- that the boys were dead -- from their suffering families.

Those families will go to sleep now knowing that their boys are not suffering. That they didn't suffer, at least for long.

The prisoner exchange, in which earlier today we returned more than 400 prisoners for three dead bodies and a probable criminal who apparently got himself captured by Hizbollah only by virtue of his involvement in some nefarious attempt to make money, has been the subject of intense, and now impassioned, debate in Israel. There are those who think we've made a grave mistake. And those who aren't sure. And those who believe that you simply have to "bring the boys home."

That's been the refrain of everyone today, those who agree, and those who don't. Israel "brings the boys home." No matter what. It may make strategic sense, it may not. It may get us information about Ron Arad, the navigator who was shot down five days after our daughter, Talia, who's now being drafted, was born. It may not. It may have been worth it. It may not have. But it has made one point clear. We bring the boys home.

Israeli national television has been broadcasting nothing else (except for periodic interruptions for coverage of the aftermath of the bus bombing -- the bomber, by the way, was a Palestinian policeman from Bethlehem .) all day. At one point, Avi had a friend over, and they joined me watching TV. Here they were, two 14 year olds, headed out to the same army, and perhaps the same fronts, in just a few years. I watched their eyes as they watched the screen, as they watched the video segments of parents who've been interviewed over the past three years and four months, who didn't know whether to mourn or to hope, as they watched the more recent pictures of parents who now know that the hope is over but that relief is ironically just beginning, and I saw them processing. Wondering. What will be. What could be. What would be. Who would do what. At what expense.

And for that moment, at least, it seemed worth it. Without question. Those kids watching TV with me need to know that we bring boys home.

Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Souad came home today. But they came home to a very different country than the one from which they were stolen. A country that's been at war for three years. A country that when they were killed was just weeks post Camp David, when we thought that virtually anything and everything was possible. To a country that no longer yearns for a peace that we suspect will not be, but still hopes for the sort of quiet that we had for a while. Until this morning. They were stolen on October 7, 2000, just weeks after everything began, when we were foolish enough to imagine that things were bad. We had no idea back then how bad they could get. Or would get. But we're still here. They've come home to a country that has stared evil in the eye, and has persevered. And that brought them home, against all odds.

Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Souad came home today. They came home to a country that is not afraid to cry. Israeli television tonight alternated between coverage of Beirut, and of the air force base at Ben Gurion airport. Beirut, with the fireworks lighting the sky, the backslapping among the prisoners, the sickening, endless speech by Nassrallah in which he intimated a threat of more kidnappings, and hinted at the possibility of information (just information, though) on Ron Arad in exchange for all the remaining hundreds of prisoners we still have, evoking laughs, jeers and clapping from the throngs of people listening. And then to the air force base, at which a quiet ceremony took place. A ceremony in which no one laughed. Where people cried. Where you could have heard a pin drop, and where you watched fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, and a few grandparents, stifle their cries and wipe their tears away.

They came home to a country in which the carnage of burning buses in our cities, in parts of the country far from anything contested (unless, of course, the whole country is contested, which is clearly the case) has grown so intolerable that we're building a wall, a wall which keeps them out but also pens us in. But it's also a country in which many of us see, sadly, no real alternative to that fence, as problematic as it undeniably is. They've come home to a country that will be "brought to trial" at the Hague for the "crime" of that wall, a country that's now referred to in some quarters as an Apartheid State because of that fence.

I thought about that Apartheid accusation a few times tonight. When the coffins were carried from the plane to the jeeps waiting for them, and the coffin of Omar Souad, a Bedouin, a career soldier who decided that defending the Jewish State was how he wanted to spend his life, was carried to the jeep. Six soldiers, three on each side of the coffin, arrayed to carry him one step closer to his final home. Four who looked Jewish. One who looked Bedouin, though it was hard to tell. And one, an Ethiopian. All by the side of Omar Souad, and then, all saluting him. And then the Chief of Staff, and the bearded IDF Chief Rabbi, standing at the side of his coffin, saluting him and standing at attention. Quite an Apartheid state.

And then during the ceremony, the two Jewish fathers standing together and reciting Kaddish. And after the Kaddish, an Imam, by the side of Omar's father, chanting an Arabic memorial prayer, as his mother sobbed and the honor guard stood at attention, along with the Prime Minister, the President, the Chief of Staff and others. So much for the Apartheid state.

Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Souad came home today. To a country that's not been weakened by the past three years, but that's been hardened by it. I drove Talia's carpool for the first time in years, yesterday morning. She's got a five minute walk to school, so we never drive carpool, but this wasn't school. She and some friends had to be at the Jerusalem Convention Center at 7:00 a.m. to be bussed someplace else for part of their draft process, so I drove them. Three kids, not really kids anymore, whom I remember just years ago as chatty adolescents, now talking quietly as I drove through the still awakening city and its mostly empty streets, talking about what forms they'd filled out, what they'd have to do during the day. And when I got home from work at about 9:30 that night, she still wasn't home. She got home closer to 10, grabbed a bite, and went to sleep. No fanfare. No complaints. In the past three years, those girls have learned a lot. That the battle to stay here isn't over. That to stay here, they, too, are going to have to do their share. That we have real enemies.

We went to a parents' meeting about a month ago for parents of religious girls about to enter the army. One particular unit was trying to attract these girls, and this evening was for parents to find out more about it. Some of the parents were worried that the unit would make their girls work on Shabbat. The unit had assembled a few of the soldiers, a couple of them kids whom we knew from when they lived in the neighborhood before they left for the army, and a couple of rabbis (among others) to talk about life in this part of the army. Well into the meeting, one father got up and asked one of the rabbis, in a rather aggressive tone, whether the girls work on Shabbat. The rabbi paused for a moment to gather his thoughts, when one of the girls stared the father right in the eye and said, "Of course we sometimes work on Shabbat. The enemy works on Shabbat."

I almost laughed out loud. These kids get it. They understand that there's nothing automatic about our being able to stay here. They understand that staying here means having real enemies. And watching the ceremony tonight, watching the agony of families who should have known three years ago that their sons were dead, I watched Tali watching them. With eyes of steel. Because she, like her friends, knows that the enemy isn't a concept. They bomb the cafes she eats in. The blow up the buses she still rides. And they keep these parents awake for 1208 nights, not knowing if their sons are alive or dead, suffering or in peace. Our kids get it. They know what sorts of neighbors we have.

And they're not running. They grow up too fast, I think, but they know who they are and what they stand for. Few of us would want it otherwise.

These kids get it long before they get drafted. A father of one of Israel's POW's (not one of the three returned tonight) came to Avi's class last year. He talked about how his son was captured, and what they're doing (and have been doing for more than twenty years) to try to get him back. But kids will be kids. They're not afraid to ask what they want to know. So at the end, one of the kids asked him if he's worried that they're torturing his son. No, he said, he didn't think about that. "But when I get into bed each night," he continued, "I worry that maybe he's cold." Avi talked about that for days. And on the rare occasion that he still lets me tuck him into bed at night, I think about that, too. You know, at moments like that, that we just have to bring the boys home. No matter what.

The country to which the boys came home tonight is one in which kids who shouldn't have to be hardened, unfortunately are. When we heard the news of the attack on the bus this morning, I SMS'ed the kids to make sure that they were OK. They were supposed to be in school, but who knew where they really were? So I SMS'ed them on their phones: "There was an attack in Jm this morning. Sms me to tell me you're OK." Talia wrote back to say she was fine. Avi wrote back a short while later.

He wrote, in classic SMS fashion: Im fine and all my friends are fine.

It was my friends bus tho so if he would have been late 2day he would have been killed

That was the whole message. When Adi, Avi and Benny were captured, it would have been unthinkable to us that a fourteen year old could talk about such things so matter-of-factly. Or that he could home and tell us that the mother of one the kids in his school is still unaccounted for, but half an hour later want to discuss the relative merits of the iPod versus the new Dell MP3 player. But that's what things have come to. And perhaps because of that ability to compartmentalize, and to stare evil in the face, we're still here. And no one's thinking of budging.

I remember the second time that Adi, Benny and Omar died. For a year, every Shabbat, our shul had been mentioning them, and the other six (Tenenbaum among them) just after the Torah reading, in a prayer for Israel's captured soldiers. First a prayer for the State. Then for the

army and its soldiers. Then for those in captivity. Nine names only,

so after a while, you know the list. You know it almost by heart, and you certainly notice if someone changes it. Then, about a year after they were captured, the army declared them dead based on new intelligence. Some of the families sat Shiva, but didn't really believe it. And in our shul, that next Shabbat, the person reading the "mi she-beirach," the prayer in which their names were mentioned, started reading, and then stopped. It was as if he couldn't bear to read the list without their names. As if even though he didn't know them, he couldn't give up on the hope. So he didn't mention any of the names, and instead, said something like "all those held in captivity." It was a moment that few of us who were there will ever forget. I was struck then by how personal this was. How despite everything that is wrong here, and that's quite a bit, there is so much that is right. And how, the more they push us, the more we are bonded even to people we never knew. It is, I think, one of those immeasurable things that makes living here so compelling, despite everything. It's one of those things that remind us what a real home is.

As does the evening news. Throughout the entire broadcast tonight, there were two Hebrew words at the bottom right hand side of the screen -- "ve-shavu vanim." "And the sons will return." It's a quote from Jeremiah 31:16, of course. The entire verse reads, "And there is hope for your future, declares the Lord, your children shall return to their country." And that's exactly what happened.

Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham and Omar Souad came home today. Tomorrow we'll bury them, along with the victims of today's bus bombing.

Yehi zikhram barukh. May their memories be a blessing.

(c) 2004 Daniel Gordis

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