Why We Won't Stop Hitchhiking
Why We Won't Stop Hitchhiking

The abduction of three Israeli teenagers - 16-year-old classmates Gilad Sha'ar and Naftali Frenkel, and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah - has struck a chord here in Israel. Almost everyone in this country is practically glued to their computer screens, searching with bated breath for information, almost as if they themselves were playing a part in the search. Desperate - really, desperate - for a sign of life, and to see the boys back in the arms of their mothers.

In every community - from "secular" Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Hevron; from Bet El to Bnei Brak; from the Negev to the Galilee - public prayers are being recited daily for their safe return. In practically every synagogue in Israel, every one of the daily prayers is concluded with the recital of psalms and a prayer for our brothers Ya'akov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah, Eyal ben Iris T'shura, and Gil'ad Micha'el ben Bat-Galim.

Even the rapid spread of the #BringBackOurBoys hashtag - though it has been mocked by some cynics and hijacked by others for their own sick political agendas - is a simultaneously humbling and awe-inspiring illustration of just how deeply people care. Of course it will not bring them back, but if you think that is the point you are either clueless about social media or simply insensitive to the genuine importance of people simply showing that they care, even if there is nothing they can do.

Although I have heard and read some foreign correspondents react with some surprise at the level of sympathy, to the point of obsession, exhibited by the Israeli public as the search for the kidnapped teens goes on, anyone familiar with this country and its people will not be remotely surprised.

A way of life

There is of course the strong influence of the Jewish value of Ahavat Yisrael - brotherhood and love for your fellow - but it is even more personal than that. For many in this tiny country, any one of these boys could have been their son, or brother, or friend; for others, it could have been them personally. 

In rural Israel (not only in Judea and Samaria) tremping, or hitchhiking, is a way of life. In Judea and Samaria particularly, irregular public transportation means that many literally have no choice but to hitch a ride to get anywhere beyond their own communities. Many more Israelis who study or work in the region regularly tremp their way back home as well. Two of the boys themselves are not even from Judea or Samaria (despite the blaring headlines about "settlers") - only Gilad is a resident of Talmon in Samaria; Eyal lives in Elad, in central Israel, while Naftali is from Nof Ayalon, just 10 minutes from Modi'in.

As a resident of Samaria I find myself tremping fairly often. My wife and I share a car and, since waiting for a bus could triple my journey time to or from work (or more), whenever I find myself "car-less" and can't prearrange a lift with a neighbor, I tremp. And I have never felt "scared" or in any way threatened; not even once.

When I do take the car I often find myself on the other side, giving rides to all sorts of people. Sometimes, if I've had my morning coffee and have morphed into a sociable human being, I have occasionally found myself engaged in some really remarkable conversations with some truly fascinating people.

And although my son doesn't tremp (he is less than a year old - we're not that hardcore), when he is old enough to I will certain let him do so, just like every other kid his age does.

While the concept seems a little odd for some of our family and friends back in London, or for anyone else who lives in a big city, here in Samaria it's something you don't even think about - it's a way of life.

Hitchhiking in Gush Etzion, not far from where the boys were abducted
Hitchhiking in Gush Etzion, not far from where the boys were abductedFlash 90

So when in the past few days I heard some people - none of whom actually live here and many of whom, though not all, are conveniently also opposed to Jews living in this area altogether - mutter that perhaps, in some way, those boys or their parents were partially to blame for their own plight (after all, "why were they tremping in the middle of the night in such a dangerous place?") I could not help but respond.

First of all, the spot where these three innocent students were waiting for a tremp - a bus stop outside the town of Alon Shvut in the Gush Etzion, bloc south of Jerusalem - is not any more "dangerous" than any other in the country.

I know, because it was not that long ago that I was Eyal's age and studying at the yeshiva in Alon Shvut. My friends and I used that "trempiada" at least once a week, and in my two years studying there there was not a single incident. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has there been one in the many years since, until the tragic events of last Thursday.

Conversely, as a high school student in London - when I was the same age as Gilad and Naftali - I was the victim of an exceptionally violent anti-Semitic attack at a bus stop right outside my school in a quiet, middle-class suburb, which ended in a trip in the back of an ambulance to the hospital. On several occasions we got into scraps with anti-Semites on the bus or by the bus stop - much to my mother's despair. Go figure.

Blaming the victim

Much more importantly, let's call a spade a spade: those who say such things are blaming the victim. It is a disgusting claim, akin to misogynists who say - some loudly and others only behind closed doors - that women who dress provocatively are somehow partially responsible for being raped or sexually assaulted or harassed. It is a logic out of the dark ages, usually formed in the minds of people who are either completely ignorant or woefully self-righteous (or both).

Avia Weiss, an articulate 18-year-old from Samaria who traveled (tremped, actually) to the Walla! News studio in Tel Aviv just to respond to the critics, put it better than I could. Addressing such shameful mutterings by left-wing commentators, he asked:

"Aren't you guys ashamed to blame the victim? Are you guys crazy? Youths are to blame for the abduction because they hitched a ride at night? How did such discourse become legitimate again?

"If someone said that a woman who was raped was to blame because she dressed in an immodest way, you'd all be screaming that such discourse has no legitimacy. And you'd be right! Since when is the victim to blame?"

Speaking this morning, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was even more succinct:

"There is no place for blaming these young people or their families for the kidnapping that occurred because they chose to study in a Gush Etzion Yeshiva, or because they dared to hitch a ride, where no public transportation is available at all times... 

"By the same logic, you cannot blame those who attended the Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya [2002], diners at the Jerusalem Sbarro restaurant [2001] or Americans who were working in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as being guilty...

"...the guilty party are those who intended to kill innocent people, and they are the ones we must fight to the death. Terrorism is terrorism and we don't differentiate between New York, Netanya, or Gush Etzion." 

Keep on tremping

But putting that argument to one side for a second, there is actually something far more fundamental which must be said.

More than just an act of simple necessity, tremping is indeed a way of life here in Judea and Samaria - and it is a truly beautiful thing. 

You have to experience it to understand. 

Total strangers will stop for you at the side of the road, just to see which direction you are going and if you need a ride. Why? Because you are their brother or their sister and it is totally natural to offer a ride to a member of your family. 

Being British-born, my initial reaction was always to thank my generous benefactor profusely, much to the bewilderment of the driver, who would usually respond, clearly amused, "no problem at all!" before driving off shaking his head and thinking his last passenger was a little soft in the head. Only after a while did I realize that no one expects anything more than a courteous "thank you". It's natural, it's normal. It's almost a duty - but one done without the slightest sense of obligation; after all, you don't have to stop. You just do, because it's the decent thing to do.

It is a culture of love, trust and confidence which in many ways defines our communities here. It isn't naivete - we who came to reclaim our ancestral homeland are under no illusions as to the challenges we face, and let no armchair critics start lecturing us from New York or London about how to protect ourselves in our own backyard. But the ethos of "kol Yisrael areivim ze la'zeh" - every Jew is responsible for his fellow - is one we live and breathe without a second thought.

In this case, that culture was taken advantage of by Arab terrorists, who either lured or forced these three boys into their car and abducted them as part of an ongoing campaign to ethnically-cleanse the Jewish population here. That campaign is conducted - from the Hamas-strongholds in Hevron to the genteel suburbs of western Europe - both by killing us but, more than that, by intimidating us into leaving. 

And that begins by pushing us into a corner, by forcing us to act as strangers in our own land by barricading ourselves into our homes or only travelling when it is absolutely necessary - as if we are living in some eastern European ghetto or the darkest days of Muslim rule, fearful for the next pogrom or farhud.

It won't work. 

Every attack like this simply cements us more tightly to our homeland - through our tears and prayers, and sometimes, though please God not this time, through our blood. 

We will keep praying for our boys, and we will do every feasible thing to help the authorities find them - because that's what brothers do. 

We will keep tremping, and hiking, and breathing the air of this beautiful land, and living normal lives.

We won't listen to the cynics or the haters or the ignorami - but we do invite them, and you, to hop into a tremp to Judea and Samaria and see things for yourself before passing judgement. 

You'll be pleasantly surprised.