Galilee ‘rape nightmare’ tests us all

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-27-09

The Jerusalem Post recently featured a sickening story about a 17-year-old from Karmiel arrested for public urination who was beaten by the police, then brutalized in prison, enduring repeated rapes and having his ear pierced with a copper wire to denote his enslavement to his tormentors. The youth’s family, who made aliya from Miami three years ago full of idealism, is devastated. “We came with a dream,” the victim’s stepfather said. “We were prepared to work in a tomato field if we had to. But now we are absolutely going to leave.” The heartbroken mother asked, “How could this happen in Israel?”

Yes, sadly, horrible things can happen in Israel. It is a normal state; a modern, increasingly anonymous society with police who can overstep the bounds, with overcrowded and undersupervised prisons, and hardened criminals who can be unspeakably brutal. Such a tragic chain of circumstances could have happened in Miami or Madrid, let alone Moscow or Mumbai.

But acknowledging the sad realities of modern life that occasionally conspire to ruin individual lives is not enough. This horrific incident poses a challenge to every Israeli citizen and every Israeli leader. So far, the Post reported, the only official comment came from the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department whose spokeswoman declared, ever so blandly: “We have received the complaint. An investigation has been launched.”

The rules of modern society require such passive, non-judgmental, bureaucratic-speak from the “responsible authorities.” Police officers also deserve due process, the presumption of innocence, and an opportunity to defend themselves properly without being convicted hysterically in the court of public opinion. Still, just as the punishment this youth suffered did not fit the crime, the official sentiment expressed does not suit the sin.

Every person who hears this story and cares about Israel should compensate for the bland bureaucratese of this representative of the state, and try to help this family heal. The onus is on us to improvise an uniquely Israeli response to try healing this family’s broken hearts, making them feel they are absolutely going to stay. And this has to be done while respecting the family’s anonymity, allowing their suffering son the space he needs to recover physically and psychologically.

For starters, we should hear some outrage, not simply artful dodges, from state representatives. From the president and the prime minister through the justice minister, police officials and local leaders, we should hear promises that if the story is true, true reforms will follow, trying to ensure no one ever endures such nightmares again. We must be reassured that while mobilizing the appropriate state resources to investigate this incident, all the appropriate state resources to help these people heal are being deployed too.  Meanwhile, citizens should rise as one, filling the airwaves, the blogosphere, the inboxes and mailboxes of Israeli officialdom, denouncing this outrage.

And while state employees clamor to help and Israeli citizens lobby for true bureaucratic repentance and reform, Zionists in Israel and the world over should shower this family with love and support, both sentimental and material. The story reports that the family is represented by an attorney Amir Melzer. He can be the conduit for the affirmation, assistance, and encouragement this youth and his family so desperately need, immediately, on a grand scale.

What happened to this kid is an affront to civilized society. It would be a lamentable tragedy anywhere, anytime. It is every parent’s nightmare, the stuff of terrifying late-night movies. It violates the fundamental social contract underlying democratic society – we give up some freedom, our autonomy, deputizing peacekeepers, police officers, to enforce authority, empowering them on the condition they act justly. Without that basic agreement, without that trust, we are not citizens but slaves.

Yet the grieving, bewildered mother is right. This incident is a particular blot on modern Israel, insulting the Zionist idealism that forged this state – and lured this family along with thousands of others to try building a better life here. The crime mocks the Jewish values that both secular and religious Zionists wanted to embed in the state and the society. It corrodes the community sensibilities, the caring, the engagement and the intimacy, that long distinguished Israel from many other countries. And it does violence to the Zionist dream of bettering individuals, the Jewish people and the world by establishing a Jewish state in the Jewish people’s homeland.

Anu banu artzah, livnot ulahibanot bah, “we have come to the Land of Israel to build and be rebuilt,” the early pioneers sang. Knowing the magic in the words makes the report all the more tragic. The boy was so broken by his experience that Attorney Melzer reported: “I trembled when I heard it … The judge almost cried when she saw his condition” – I tremble myself while typing these words.

President Shimon Peres was quick to offer condolences when the captain of the ship Exodus died this week – where is he, where is Prime Minister Netanyahu, to offer comforting words for this youth and his family? For a country justifiably obsessed with defending itself, doesn’t self-defense begin at home, isn’t this issue truly about the strength of the homefront, the quality of the community? Shouldn’t a country that has been agonizing for 1278 days and counting over Gilad Schalit, reserve a little agonizing for this son of ours, or is it too uncomfortable when the enemy is us and not others?

In “The Israel Test,” George Gilder draws a line in the sand between countries that innovate, dare, dream, create, and are free – and those that don’t. Israel is passing that Israel test with its high-tech revolution while functioning as a free country, economically and politically, unlike most countries which are unfree, oppressive, insular. This horrible trauma poses a more basic Israel test – is this country still a place embodying the Jewish value that all members of the community are intertwined, that all are brothers and sisters? The violent police officers, incompetent magistrates, sloppy prison guards and sadistic prisoners who all conspired to torture this kid have together thrown down a gauntlet, posing a challenge to us all. Are we – as Israelis, Zionists, Jews, democrats, humanists, up to the test? I desperately hope so.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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