Sunday 14 November 2010

A Country Amongst the Nations

A family tragedy in my home town of Ra'anana has shocked Israel to its core, and reopened many questions about pressures under which people live in this country. The story involves two young girls aged 4 and 6 who were found dead in the flat in which they lived. The person under suspicion for strangling these two young girls is none other than their own mother. The events have left me feeling so shocked that I have been forced to delve deep into myself to try to rationalise how this could have happened.

The phenomenon of parents killing their own children seems, unfortunately, to be on the increase around the world and in Israel. The pressures of modern life along with a lack of coping mechanisms has ensured that more and more people see no alternative solution for their families. There can be no doubt that anybody who goes to such an extreme is suffering inordinate pressure, and probably some form of insanity. Quite frequently, this is also accompanied by the suicide of the murderer, and sometimes also the murder of the other parent. Most family murders are committed by the father of the family, which makes the Ra'anana tragedy even more horrific. The awful nature of this crime comes as a shock to many inside and outside of Israel, who have a different expectation from a Jewish country.

When Israel was established in 1948, it was expected that it would be an extension of a Jewish neighbourhood in Europe or America. All of the regular Jewish stereotypes came to the fore when anticipating the character of the Jewish country. It was expected that there would be an oversupply of accountants, doctors, musicians and scientists while there would be a shortage of farmers, bus drivers, carpenters and electricians. There was a notion that the worst crime that would be committed in the nascent Jewish state, would be that of over-eating! Most of those who had come into contact with the Jewish community in Europe, the USA and other countries knew Jews as white-collar workers whose mothers were more concerned about them getting a good university education than anything else.

As always, the Jewish stereotypes arose out of necessity. For many years in Europe, Jews had been prohibited from engaging in certain professions and taking on particular jobs. The Jewish spirit never gave up, and mothers insisted that their children received a good education wherever possible, as "they could never take this away from you". Jews did whatever they could to stay alive including trading and money-lending. These skills, born out of lack of alternative, ultimately gave rise to some of the world's greatest and best-known companies including famous names such as Rothschild's Bank, Salomon Brothers and Marks & Spencer. Even though these behaviour patterns gave rise to Jewish stereotypes, they showed that Jews could be adaptable, and were prepared to do whatever it takes in order to stay alive.

This survival spirit showed itself when Israel came into being, and served to defy those who expected Israel to be annihilated by her Arab enemy neighbours. The fact that Israel succeeded in surviving the onslaught of the Arab attacks and has gone on to build one of the most potent armies in the world has turned all Jewish stereotypes on their heads. After all, Jews were typically non-combatants whose mothers would prefer them not to get into fights. And yet, out of this arose a fighting force which, man-for-man, is arguably the strongest in the world. It is a force which has Jewish boys and girls at its front and at its rear, and not only in the back rooms.

The State of Israel was founded as a mostly agricultural economy. This, too, was surprising to many who had never heard of a Jew turning the soil. Agriculture was a way of demonstrating not only the close links to the physical land of the State of Israel, but also a way of reversing the stereotypes that had been forced on Jews for centuries before. Jews could also be farmers, and proved themselves to be good farmers who could produce food for their own communities and for export to the rest of the world. The Jaffa orange and large volumes of Israeli flowers seen every day in European cities bear testament to this.

Although the country in the early years was dominated by those who had arrived from Europe, the population was soon boosted by Jews arriving from other countries, particularly from countries in the Middle East. They arrived with their own stereotypes as well as behaviours inherited from the countries where they had been raised. Soon, these clashed with the dominant European behaviours to produce interesting, and sometimes bad, results. Over time, these behaviours were added to by those arriving from the former Soviet Union who had, over the period of Communism, been forced into different survival tactics. These immigrants were doctors, scientists and musicians in large numbers, but not accountants nor economists. They also seemed to consume larger quantities of Vodka than Israelis had ever seen before.

It was former prime minister Menachem Begin who saw this mix and clash of cultures as an inevitable part of the development of Israeli society, and an Israeli nation. Begin said that Israel would only be a country "amongst the family of nations" once it also took on all the negative characteristics of other countries in the world. He was of the view that Israel would only come of age when there were Jewish prostitutes.

In the most unfortunate way, Begin's "dreams" have come true. Not only do we now have Jewish farmers and bus drivers, we now also suffer from Jewish alcoholics, prostitutes and even murderers. While I would gladly live in a society that does not suffer these evils, I can see Begin's point. If Israel wishes to be integrated into the world structure and economy, it is inevitable that the pressures and strains suffered in other countries will also be felt in Israel. Having said this, it is incumbent upon us all to learn lessons from social decay experienced in other countries, to try to prevent it from manifesting itself in ours.

For me, it is pleasing that the level of crime on the streets in Israel remains lower than in many western countries. This means that it remains safe for our children to be out alone at night, and to be able to live independently from a very early age. This reflects the Jewish neighbourhood mentality where we all care for the country's children, even if they are not our own. I would also like to believe that we can learn lessons from tragedies like the one suffered last week, to respond in a way which reflects our Jewish heritage. Mothers, like the one in question, need more help from society in order to provide them with skills and coping mechanisms to overcome the inevitable stresses and strains of modern living. The social services and friends and neighbours are required to respond to prevent such tragedies happening in the future. This is where the Jewish adaptability and ability to respond will really be called upon to get over a tragedy like this, and to prevent this from happening in other families.

It is my prayer that the memories of little Roni and Natalie Aloni z"l, who were taken before their time, will be for a blessing. May Hashem comfort the mourners amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

No comments: