Shortly after 10 a.m. on October 13, two Palestinians, one armed with a gun, the other with a knife, attacked a busload of passengers in the town of East Talpiot, Israel, a 12 minute drive from Jerusalem. Among the injured was Richard Lakin, a 76 year old educator who was raised in Newton, MA. Lakin died on October 27.
Lakin’s death put the recent violence in vividly human terms – his son, Micah Lakin Avni, eulogized his father: “Dad was a kind, gentle, loving person, whose legacy is ‘acts of kindness’. Dad was taken from us by hatred and evil. But he would not want us to respond with hatred and evil. He would forgive, and guide us to respond with love and kindness.”
Avni said his father was shot in the head, then stabbed multiple times, and that a video reenactment of the murder was posted, “showing how to butcher people and encouraging others to do so.”
On October 22, Barry Shrage, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Jeremy Burton, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s, led a trip to Israel to provide solace and support to the victims of violence and their families, and to gain a better understanding of the tragic events of the past few months.
Last week, we spoke with both Shrage and Burton about what their experience, as well as Jonathan Greenblatt, new head of the ADL, about the role his organization plays.
Jewish Journal: What was the point of the trip to Israel?
Barry Shrage: I make sure to get over there representing our Boston Jewish community with as many people as we can take and sometimes we take significant numbers just to let the people over there in Israel know that they are not alone. I think they need to know that people care. You sit with people whose loved one is dead or injured… it’s important to sit there and hold the hand of someone who has lost a loved one.
JJ: What is going on in Israel?
Shrage: If you read the story of Richard Lakin you pretty much understand what’s going on. Here’s a totally innocent, peace oriented, loving grandfather, 75 years old, one assassin fills the bus with machine gun fire while the other one gets on the bus and just starts slaughtering people like they’re animals. So that’s the story. But there’s another part of the story, and that’s that Richard Lakin never gave up on peace, never gave up on co-existence.
JJ: Why is this happening now?
Shrage: I think there are organized forces that have a stake in chaos, they have a stake in organized chaos and harming Israel any way they can. It doesn’t take much to know – the Jordanians know, the Saudis know, that the Israelis have no interest in upsetting the balance, the status quo, on the Temple Mount. And yet there are people who are jumping up and down and saying they are trying to disrupt the status quo on the Temple Mount. Somehow we have to push back on that, but at the same time you’ve got to fight it, they’re coming at you with arms, so you have to fight it with arms at the same time.
It’s in large measure being intentionally created, it is being incited, there’s lots of evidence of that. Of course, it doesn’t help when the western media doesn’t know the difference between the victim and the perpetrator. All of that stuff encourages bad guys to do bad things.
JJ: Has the White House failed in terms of Israel?
Shrage: The Arab governments, as well as Israel, would like at least some engagement by the American president, some caring and concern, but the Israelis aren’t expecting arms or anything different, but just some encouragement, some understanding that they’re under attack from terrorists and that there’s a difference between a person being killed by a terrorist and a terrorist being killed by innocent people and the police. There’s a difference between those things, and sometimes the press doesn’t get that, and sometimes the president and the secretary of state aren’t pushing in the right direction. Nobody likes the United States to engage militarily, but you need the United States to recognize terrorism when they see it and condemn it for what it is.
If you want to push through peace and you’re the President of the United States, one of the things you have to do is get the trust of the people of Israel. By treating the victims and the perpetrators the same you’re not going to get the trust of the people of Israel. You need the people of Israel to believe that they have a future and that the United States will stand by them and that they can trust enough to make decisions in the peace process, which I personally think is very important for them to do, not to do anything that endangers them but that at least opens the door to the possibility of future peace.
JJ: Are there geographical differences within Israel regarding how they are experiencing the violence?
Shrage: The people in Haifa have always worked very hard at coexistence and it shows. And the people of Tel Aviv are kind of locked in their own world, they’re not very affected by this, but in Jerusalem it’s a big concern and you don’t let your kids out unescorted and it has a big impact on life.
The tone in Haifa, where there’s not much terrorism going on, tells you two things: First of all, that it’s a very nuanced situation and second, that there is stuff you can do to make the situation better. Haifa’s always been a mixed city, and the political leadership has always involved coalitions with Arab parties, and therefore there are very high-level people in the administration in Haifa who are Arab.
In 2000, when the second Intifada started, there was also an intifada involving Arab Israelis which shocked the heck out of people in Israel. There were mass demonstrations, and Amram Mitzna was mayor, a very well regarded man, especially amongst the Arab population – he later ran for prime minister and lost to Sharon – and when the riots started, there were people killed in many other Israeli cities. But in Haifa, Mitzna and four or five of his Arab colleagues on the city council walked unarmed into the middle of the mob. It’s a marker of the true belief the city has in the possibility of peace. When this thing started in Haifa, signs had gone up all over the city saying, ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.’”
What you don’t want is political leadership that’s throwing verbal bombs. It might be politically advantageous to say some stupid things. But Israel can’t afford civil war with 1.2 million Arabs who are citizens in the country. But Israel has resilience. Through all this stuff, all the surveys show that Israel is the happiest country in the world.