Thirty-eight years ago, Palestinian terrorists attacked a school in Ma’alot and murdered 22 Israeli school children. It was so different than the horrible massacre that just took place in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and 7 adults were murdered. I have no words to ease the pain of parents who have lost children, those who have lost their beloved relatives – not then, not now, not ever. In Ma’alot, we knew the motive – it was hatred and a belief in a radical interpretation of Islam that allowed, encouraged, and blessed murdering infidels, even if they were children. Perhaps especially if they were children.
What we understood in Ma’alot, we cannot comprehend in this tragedy. In Newtown, we are lost. Why? What makes a human being do such a thing? There was anger after Ma’alot; but here, there seems to be only tragedy. There is such sadness and pain for the families, for the community, for all of America.
If there is any comfort to be found for those in Newtown, it is the universal mourning that takes place today throughout the world. Even from the family of the young man who did this. From the father, Peter Lanza, these words must offer comfort.
“Our hearts go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones and to all those who were injured. Our family is grieving along with all those who have been affected by this enormous tragedy. No words can truly express how heartbroken we are. We are in a state of disbelief and trying to find whatever answers we can. We too are asking why. We have cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so. Like so many of you, we are saddened, but struggling to make sense of what has transpired.”
It’s impossible for Israelis not to think of Ma’alot when we hear about Newtown; impossible not to think of children becoming victims in a place where they are supposed to be safe. And for me, it brought back a thought I’d had a few weeks ago. I had wanted to write about it then, but I didn’t have time to get to a computer and it slipped my mind.
A few weeks ago, Elie picked up Aliza and my heart stopped. He was joking; she was laughing and still I felt such pain. He has picked her up since she was an infant, but never the way he did this one time, with his arm hooked under her legs.
It reminded me of a picture from Maalot, of a brother, who was serving in an elite combat unit, who had raced north when he heard his teenage sister’s youth group was being held hostage in Ma’alot. She and her group were sleeping in the school when Palestinian terrorists went in and caught the world’s attention.
There were 115 hostages, including 105 students, teenagers from the city of Safed being held in the Netiv Meir school in Ma’alot (the same name as my son David’s school in Jerusalem). The terrorists threatened to kill the children if Israel did not release 23 convicted Palestinian terrorists. Twenty-three, can you imagine? At the time, it was so many; today it would be considered so few. Then, they asked for 23 in exchange for over 100; it’s just over a year ago that we released more than 1,000 for Gilad Shalit.
That is what happens when you give in to terrorists – but back then, in 1974, they were holding children. What could we do? Golda Meir announced the decision to negotiate. At that time, the decision was almost unprecedented. She explained, that Israel “cannot wage its wars on the backs of its children.”
The Palestinians had come to kill and death was their goal more than the hostages and they opened fire. When the terrorists hurled grenades at the teenagers, some of them managed to jump out of a window, a ten foot drop to the ground. One of the wounded was a 15-year-old girl named Tzipi Maimon. Waiting below was her brother. Somehow in all the confusion, he saw her jump, ran to her, picked her up and carried her to safety. The pain, the terror, is clear. I cannot let my mind think what thoughts were in her brother’s head, what agonies he suffered while waiting helplessly outside that school. He was a combat soldier trained to respond, trained to act, to do; and he was forced to wait, to watch.
The picture of Tzipi Maimon in her brother’s arms came to mind when Elie picked Aliza up and I tried hard to push it away even as I told him to put her down in a voice that sounded, even to me, strained and upset. No one was hurt; they were both playing, laughing even. I don’t even remember why he picked her up – he really never does anymore. But I wanted him to put her down; I even told him to; I’m not sure if I explained why but the image of Tzipi Maimon went through my head and it made me sick to think of Elie ever holding Aliza that way.
It also shows you how images remain – even almost 40 years later. Ma’alot is a wound that will never heal – that is the reality of Ma’alot and it will be the reality in Newtown. We will never forget the images, the agony, the pain and yes, the sacrifices and the miracles – not then, not now. What you learn is that there are tragedies that stay with you all your lives.
In 1974, I was about the same age as the Ma’alot hostages, as those who survived. They have gone on to have families of their own, quietly remembering that horrible experience. I wasn’t there but I remember the hours of waiting, knowing the terrorists had booby-trapped the school and though I was, essentially, a child at the time, I remember the panic and horror of knowing that those being held, those being terrorized, were the innocents of the world.
May the survivors of the Sandy Hook school be blessed with the knowledge that God watched over them and may they dedicate their lives to living and being happy. May the wounded, of body and soul, be granted a full and speedy recovery.
May the families of those who died find comfort somehow in the knowledge that God will care for their loved ones in a better place than this world could ever be, that many are grateful to the teachers and principal who tried to protect the children. And may the Lanza family also find comfort for what they have lost.
No Palestinians ever expressed shame or pain for what their relatives did in Ma’alot. I hope the families of the victims and survivors will find comfort in the knowledge that no one celebrates what was done in Newtown.
From around the world, we mourn with them. From a country that understands so much what it is to have someone attack their children, we send our love and our prayers.
By Paula R. Stern