People in Beersheba, the major city in southern Israel, became used to harsh realities in the last several years, when rockets launched on them from Gaza disrupted their lives. Mayor Ruvi Danielowitz won a lot of respect then, when he led his city through the rough period, encouraging his fellow residents to remain calm.
Nobody, however, could remain calm last week in Beersheba or anywhere else in Israel. On Monday, death struck the southern city from totally unexpected direction, when a man named Itamar Alon entered a branch of Bank Hapoalim in Beersheba, killed four people and held one hostage, before killing himself. Why? Because the bank had cut his credit line.
I guess that when such a horrible thing happens in America, immediately after the first shock, people say, “Oh, no, not again!” Surely, what Adam Lanza did at Sandy Hook Elementary School was beyond belief, but tragically, school shootings in America had happened before, with the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 coming immediately to mind. When reporting the gruesome story last December, the newspapers called the Sandy Hook rampage one of the worst mass murders at a school in American history, reminding readers that the truly worst case took place on May 18, 1927, in Bath, Mich., when Andrew Kehoe, a former school board member, set off three bombs that killed 45 people.
In Israel, on the other hand, we don’t have such a macabre history. Of course, people here are killed in wars, in terror attacks, in “normal” crimes. Not like last week, though, when Alon carried out his deadly rampage. When it comes to mass shootings, then, this is our 9/11.
Naturally, once the shock of the news subsided, people started to speculate. Could this have been avoided? What on Earth could drive such an apparently normal person to commit a horrible act like this? Not only was Alon a former border police officer, but in 2002 he was decorated for his bravery in thwarting a terrorist. Were there early-warning signals that could have predicted such an act? And if there were such signals, were they ignored? And whose fault was it? And so on.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama, in an emotional press conference, said that, “We are going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” But partisan politics prevailed because the president moved the event into the gun-control arena, which once again polarized a nation that was momentarily united by common grief.
Like most Israelis, I’m not versed in the gun-control discourse. You see a lot of armed people in the streets of Israeli cities, and nobody makes a fuss about it, because the assumption is that these are defensive weapons, not tools meant to take the lives of innocent people. And anyway, I doubt if there is truly a way to stop a person who has made a decision to kill.
I would rather take the words of President Obama in a different direction. While I’m not sure about the latter part of his message, of taking “meaningful action to prevent tragedies like this,” I’m more in tune with the former part, his appeal “to come together.”
Coming together, perhaps, means slowing down the gold rush that makes the few rich people richer and the many poor people poorer. According to a report published recently by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one in five Israelis and one in three Israeli children live in poverty. In comparison, in 1995 only 13.8 percent of the Israeli population were considered poor. This is a country that four decades ago was rated one of the most equal nations in the world in terms of distribution of wealth. Today, 19 families hold more than half of its wealth.
The people who took to the streets in Israel in the summer of 2011, in the most admirable, civic form, raised many flags and chanted different slogans. The spirit there, however, was one: Bring back the dignity of working men and women, which was lost long ago.
Or maybe it wasn’t lost altogether. Instead of finger pointing, the tragedy in Beersheba can maybe serve as a catalyst for us to reflect on the direction we are heading. Maybe we can still regain our solidarity, and leave fewer people hanging at the extremes, loosing hope in the system.
No need to reinvent the wheel here, because Judaism values social and human solidarity. Rabbi Hillel, one of the famous Jewish sages, summed it up: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor.” Rabbi Akiva, another venerable sage, phrased the same idea in the positive form: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If people must argue about it, and take sides, let them choose between Hillel and Akiva.