Rabbi Avi Shafran
Sometimes a word or set of words is just so jarring, so inappropriate or so cruel that it causes actual pain. Jewish religious law forbids such language to Jews as ono’at d’varim pain-causing words. Newspapers don’t likely consider themselves similarly constricted by Jewish law, and a recent report in The New York Times offered a good example of that fact.
Pain was already well in place this past week, when the terrorist militia known as Hezbollah and reviled by civilized people the world over fulfilled its part of a deal with the Israeli government to return two Israeli soldiers it had held since 2006. Cynically refusing to say whether or not the soldiers were alive, the terrorist group seemed to take a perverse pride in “revealing” with a flourish the coffins containing the bodies of the two young men.
In return for that demonstration of grace, Israel handed over the remains of nearly two hundred Palestinian fighters and five all-too-alive terrorists it had captured. One of them, of course, was Samir Kuntar, who in 1979 landed a rubber dinghy on the seashore of the coastal Israeli town of Nahariya on a mission to kidnap Israelis.
According to eyewitnesses, Mr. Kuntar invaded the apartment of an Israeli family, shot the father, Daniel Haran, in front of his four-year-old daughter Einat and then took the little girl outside where he smashed her skull against a rock with the butt of his rifle. A doctor testified that Mr. Haran’s daughter had died from “a blow from a blunt instrument, like a club or rifle butt.”© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Mr. Kuntar later claimed to have passed out and not seen what had happened to the child, and later still denied killing her. He has never expressed remorse of any sort for killing her father and kidnapping the little girl, which he admits; and certainly not for what the witnesses and medical evidence say he did to her.
And, as we all know and had expected, he received a hero’s welcome in Beirut, where Lebanon’s President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament all greeted him at the airport. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent him greetings. For his part, Mr. Kuntar has vowed to continue to fight Israel in any way he can.
(The very day of the “prisoner swap” saw an Agudath Israel of America National Leadership Mission to Washington. The scores of participating delegates interacted with many Senators, Congressmen and Administration officials, several of whom remarked on the sadness born of the day’s events. One Administration official, though, took heart at the stark and telling contrast of values between the determination of one side to have fallen soldiers’ remains returned to their families and, on the other, the obscene celebration of murderers and murder.)
But the pain of the actual events was intensified, at least for this reader, by the first phrase of the second paragraph of a New York Times story short that day. After referencing Mr. Kuntar and the then-expected and later realized welcome awaiting him in Beirut, the paper of record duly noted that, 29 years earlier, he had floated ashore in Nahariya “to kidnap Israelis.” But, the report explained, “That raid went horribly wrong.”
The item went on to tell of the witnesses’ accounts and medical report, but it never really got around to explaining what it was exactly that went “horribly wrong.” Did The Times mean to imply that Mr. Kuntar’s intentions were benign? That he somehow accidentally shot a man at point blank and smashed a little girl’s head in? That he is, for some unknown reason, a victim himself of some unidentified circumstances?
A campfire that wasn’t properly tended and caused a forest fire is something that “went horribly wrong.” A car trip that ends in a terrible accident is something that “went horribly wrong.” A fireworks display that misfires and hurts bystanders is something that “went horribly wrong.”
A vicious, murderous attack on innocents, however, is an example not of something gone horribly wrong but of someone horribly evil. And to portray it as some disembodied event without a conscious cause is to rub salt into the emotional wounds of every human being who may ever have shed a tear over Daniel and Einat Haran’s too-short lives and terrible deaths.
If anything went terribly wrong, it was the judgment of some editors in midtown Manhattan.
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]