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The child sacrifice debate

Is there any truth to the claim that settler parents are endangering their children's lives in the name of principles, or is this a political statement disguised in humanitarian terms?

By Lily Galili

According to the interpretation of Bible scholar Shalom Spiegel, the test Abraham faced was not whether he would sacrifice his son, but whether he would reject child sacrifice, which was the norm in those days. The real test, therefore, was whether he was strong enough to reject contemporary norms and to make the unconventional decision not to go through with the sacrifice.

It seems that in the current public debate over "the children," Israeli society is divided in two. The settlers are regarded sometimes as being ready to sacrifice their children in the name of faith and ideology. The entire country sympathized with the Cohen children who lost limbs during a terrorist bombing at Kfar Darom. Everyone was pained by the killing of the infant Shalhevet Pass in Hebron. But many also leveled severe criticism against the parents of these children for their apparent readiness to put their children in danger.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the Four Mothers movement has become the symbol of an opposite approach, which seeks to protect children against being "sacrificed," thus rejecting the old ethos of an Israeli society mobilized for battle. There were those who condemned Four Mothers for apparently abandoning this ethos.

But reality is much more complicated. On the day of Shalhevet Pass' burial, Yair Lapid invited to the television studio Ruth Hizmi, a resident of Beit Hadassah in Hebron, whose young daughter, Shoshana, plays at the same playground where Shalhevet was killed. Lapid wondered about her readiness to endanger the lives of children in the name of a principle holy to their parents.

"My children are me, and I am my children. It's impossible to separate parents and children," Hizmi said.

Prof. Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University, regards this attitude as the source of the problem: "These parents see the children as an extension of themselves. This attitude contradicts the liberal approach that views children as independent entities. They don't understand the autonomy of the child. In Western society, which has assimilated liberal principles, life is endangered only in order to defend life itself. The settlers are ready to sacrifice themselves and their children for the meaning of life.".

Hurtful claims

In her home in Beit El, Emuna Elon, a mother of six, struggles with these dilemmas on a daily basis. Every Tuesday, she drives her 12-year-old daughter to horseback-riding lessons in Jerusalem. Each time she wonders whether it's worth taking the risk - after all, it's just a horseback-riding lesson - but each time decides in the affirmative.

"This is our life," she says. "We can't disrupt our normal lives and give up all enjoyment. This would be to let the enemy kill us even before he actually kills us. I realize that I might appear to many as an irresponsible mother. But it's not a matter of ideology. It's simply the most logical life I can live in this country.

"What upsets me most is when things are portrayed as if I consciously chose to endanger my children for the sake of land. It hurts me every time I hear this claim. I've often thought to myself that maybe there is some truth to it, that maybe I should have moved somewhere else for the children's sake. But, to tell the truth, I couldn't think of any place where the children would be perfectly safe, since an Israeli child is not safe when traveling on a bus or on an outing to Dizengoff Center."

Even if there is some truth in this argument, there is also a measure of demagoguery. An objective assessment would show that children living in settlements are exposed to a much higher level of danger.

"I know that it seems that way," admits Elon, a journalist and the wife of MK Benny Elon, "and we still make every effort to protect them, transporting them only in bulletproof vehicles. I really don't think the danger here is much greater. If I were to come to this conclusion, I would really have a problem. I don't believe that there is even one parent who thinks that he is endangering his children for the sake of his ideology. This includes even the most extreme right-wingers - and I regard the Hebron settlers in the same way that you regard me. People view life here as a logical reality, not only according to their ideology, but also according to their intellect."

It is difficult to see a reasoned, intellectual approach in the decision of the Hebron settlers not to bulletproof the vehicles that transport their children to school. Their explanation is that bulletproofing their vehicles would only elicit a more violent response from the Palestinians, thus creating a greater danger for the children.

Elon agrees with this logic: "When we bulletproofed our vehicles, we knew that we were making a mistake. Without this, the government would have had to deal with the security issue in a more far-reaching way, and perhaps we would have never reached the stage of shooting at children."

Bulletproofing dilemmas

The dispute between the Hebron settlers and the Ministry of Education, which demanded during Yossi Sarid's tenure as minister that the vehicles used to transport children be bulletproofed, reflects not only the way these settlers view reality, but also the general public's uncomfortable feeling with this reality. If the settlers really use their children to serve their ideology, it is a "successful" form of exploitation: An injury to an adult settler is widely regarded as the price he pays for his choice, while a child is seen as an innocent victim. Nothing arouses sympathy for the settlers more than an injury to a child.

But if the settlers are accused of using their children for ideological purposes, one must also recognize that their critics also make political use of their own children. No one criticized the residents of Kiryat Shmona for endangering their children by living under the shadow of Katyusha rockets. On the contrary, they were portrayed as "heroes," until they themselves tired of it. No one made a call to evacuate children from Sderot after the city was exposed to mortar fire.

A foreigner looking at Israeli sees the entire region as one of high risk, and many indeed wonder how it is even possible to raise children here - in Tel Aviv just as in Beit El. From this perspective, the distinctions between the two are merely nuances. The condemnation of settlers for endangering their children is nothing more than a political statement disguised in humanitarian terms.

It seems that Israeli society has not freed itself from what is regarded as the ethos of heroism and sacrifice; most parents are still proud if their son serves in a combat unit and derive status from a son serving in an elite unit. Likewise, they are embarrassed if their son fails in preliminary tryouts for elite units. This attitude does not only characterize the political right. Just remember the scathing condemnations of Tel Aviv residents who fled from the city under the threats of Scud missiles during the Gulf War in 1991.

"The use of children is two-sided, almost ritualistic," says Moshe Halbertal, professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University and at the Shalom Hartmann Institute. A member of Netivot Shalom (Pathways of Peace), a left-wing religious movement, Halbertal says: "I object to any notion of 'we sacrificed the children' - which is basically paternalistic. It is certainly not true in the case of soldiers. Unlike small children, the soldier is not a passive victim. The binding of Isaac as a metaphor for soldiers, the image of the son/soldier as an innocent victim - I find these very problematic. Soldiers are not innocent victims, but people who bear responsibility.

"Something in the Four Mothers expresses the organic concept of the family, the concept of the son as an appendage of the parents - an outlook attributed to the settlers. There is no notion of ownership of children in Jewish law. On the contrary. 'A father shall not be put to death for his children, nor the children for the father,' it says.' Each shall be put to death for his own sin.'"

Illegal gambling

Halbertal distinguishes between small children and soldiers. He holds a very critical view - also based on Jewish law - of the refusal of parents to bulletproof vehicles used for school travel in Hebron. Halbertal regards the argument the settlers use to justify this refusal as gambling with the lives of the children: "A person can gamble with his own life, but not with the lives of his children," he explains.

In this context, Halbertal recalls a phenomenon that appeared among Ashkenazi Jews in the 11th century: Parents chose to kill their children with their own hands to prevent them from being baptized and raised as Christians. The masters of Jewish law regarded this as murder.

"Though this was done as sanctification of God's name, it was regarded as murder. And national struggles certainly do not fall under the category of laws that you should not violate even at the pain of death," Halbertal argues. "Applying the language of martyrdom to a national struggle is very problematic in my eyes. Still, I don't think that there is an ethos of sacrificing children, even in the most right-wing circles. Rather, they have a different assessment - a tragic one, from my perspective - of the situation."

In his view, a situation could arise in which it would be appropriate to evacuate children from the settlements. The public should be prepared for this possibility - without regarding it as an act of surrender.

At the settlements, at least publicly, no one is thinking about a situation like this. Emuna Elon says that of about 1,000 families in Beit El, perhaps only 20 have kept their children from traveling outside the settlement since the outbreak of the new Intifada. Sometimes the children themselves ask questions - mostly, "How long will this last?" rather than "Why are we here?"

In response to the question of whether the children will later resent the parents for raising them in a dangerous environment, Elon points to the fact that most young couples remain on the settlements after getting married and many even seek challenges in more distant and dangerous settlements. Her daughter and son-in-law live in Ofra and would like to move to a more isolated settlement called Emuna.

The issue of the safety of children is sometimes discussed among parents in internal forums on the settlements. There are certainly parents who wonder whether they're doing the right thing. Their answer: There is no other alternative, since there is no place that is truly safe today, and there is no chance of a secure tomorrow if there are no settlements.

Thus, the issue returns to the basic political debate between the right and the left

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