Three Young Men

I am about to offend everyone.

Here are the facts: In June, three young men are kidnapped. Later, their bodies are found, buried in the wilderness. Here are the speculations: The murderers consider these young men invaders in sovereign territory, undermining a basic right to self-determination.

Okay. Are you offended yet? Because, of course, I’m talking about two events separated by almost precisely fifty years: the murder of civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in  Mississippi in June of 1964, and the murder of yeshiva students, Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel in the West Bank in June of 2014.

As a self-described civil rights nerd, ever since I saw the photographs of those three yeshiva students, I’ve been haunted by a sense of simultaneous connection and disconnection. I think about where power lies: with occupiers, with resistance, with terror, with citizenship. I think about how much the boys—both sets of boys– knew about the dangers they were facing. Did they enter hostile territory with their eyes open?

In June of 1964, Schwener, Goodman and Chaney—two white boys, and an African-American—left the training for the Mississippi Freedom Summer project early to investigate a church bombing near Meridian. Schwerner and Goodman were New York Jews, Chaney, a Mississippi native.

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Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman

It is hard to overestimate the anger of white Mississippi towards what we now call Freedom Summer. They saw it, frankly, as an occupation by hostile forces—a kind of second Reconstruction. As far as they were concerned, any racial conflict was a consequence of outside agitation, and outsiders—in the form of Freedom Summer volunteers—were about to flood the state in massive numbers.

When the three young men went missing, a rumor quickly spread that the event a hoax and a publicity stunt, and it certainly did bring publicity and a degree of federal intervention. If this were a neat little story, one might say that the deaths of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney forced Mississippi to become part of the United States of America. Of course, those deaths were a small part of a larger struggle, but I’m certain that those three did not see themselves as occupiers. They believed in citizenship in the old-fashioned and revolutionary sense: a shared responsibility to make our country live up to its aspirations.

And now, some parallels: In June of 2014, Yifrah, Shaer and Frenkel were studying in the cluster of yeshivas near Hebron on the West Bank. Yifrash and Franel lived in religious communities within Israel’s 1967 borders. Shaer lived in Talmod, a settlement beyond the Green Line. Essentially, you have two “outsiders” and a “native.” The three were hitchhiking home.

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Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach

Did the three boys know that they were doing something dangerous? It may seem absurd that they would take this risk, but I have read that it is common practice. Jews affiliated with the settlement movement consider hitchhiking a way to express ownership and say: There is no such thing as occupied territory in the Land of Israel.

What kind of Israel did those yeshiva boys imagine? We’ll never know. My gut tells me that the Israel they imagined would look a lot like 1964 Mississippi, with a majority of the population permanently disenfranchised, and economic and social distinctions enforced by state terror. But I can’t be sure. I’ve read pages and pages about the lives and opinions of the three civil rights workers; Andrew Goodman’s Freedom Summer application is even available online. They can speak for themselves. But the three yeshiva students are inchoate and underground, and others will continue to speak for them and act in their name.

At this writing, the murder has yet to be solved. Israel’s Prime Minister asserts that it was the work of Islamist group Hamas, and by the time I post this blog, “Operation Protective Edge” will probably have moved from stage two to stage three and onward, and who knows how many mass arrests are taking place under the radar in the West Bank?  The murder of those three boys will be eclipsed by other deaths that are spun in various directions by media sources, and I honestly can’t know how anyone expects this to end. I raise the 1964 and 2014 parallel out of a kind of desperation because I want to draw a lesson from it, somehow.

Here’s the best I can do: Israel and Palestine should be countries where people can hitchhike safely; I wish America were that kind of country too. But safety needs to extend to everyone—from the river to the sea. We need to stop thinking in terms of occupation; people who live somewhere grow roots. We need to stop thinking in terms of nationalism and peculiar institutions—as the South once called segregation and as Israel might well call its litany of laws that restrict Palestinians.

What does it mean for a country to no longer be divided into occupied and occupier? That is the question raised by these young men. It is a question worth considering. We owe them an answer.

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2 Comments

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  1. What a powerful and moving post. Yes, both America and Israel need to face the question of what it means for a country to truly treat all its inhabitants equally, no occupied and occupier, no privileged and underprivileged, no chosen and not chosen. This is not only a question worth considering, it is what we urgently need to make real in both countries. Thanks so much for asking the question in a such a provocative way.

  2. Simone, you make many strong points … but you are also stepping through so many minefields. What did it mean to you to say “Israel should be a country where people can hitch-hike safely” — when you knew you were talking about the occupied West Bank? Did you consciously adopt wording that positions you as an advocate of “Greater Israel?”

    Is it up to us as Jews (and American Jews at that) to say “we need to stop thinking in terms of occupation?” By the way you have chosen not to name it, you have verbally erased Palestine as a country … and assumed a right you cannot have, which is to suggest how people living under military occupation should refer to their civil condition.

    Simone, you are a dear friend, but I couldn’t bite my lips when this post came across my Facebook. For me what you have said is just like speaking to an audience of African Americans and saying “we have to stop talking about race.”

    I have no love for nationalism of any description … but I also know that it is not possible to dismantle injustice without reckoning with our own privilege, which includes our assumption as white folk that we can speak for others.

    Yes, we are all human beings … but some of us are citizens and some of us are stateless, and calls for unity that do not begin by acknowledging that difference are taking a tacit position in favor of the powers that be.

    I hope we can talk this over sometime soon …

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