Remembering Joan: How Should We Respond to Loss in Israel?

By Sarah D. Beller

Joan Davenny was more than just my eighth grade teacher. As my Ezra Academy graduating class splashed through Ein Gedi and heard a young kibbutznik’s poem on Yom Hazikaron, walked the ramparts of the Old City and sang “Al Kol Eileh” in the courtyard of Goldstein Youth Village, Joan exuded a passion for Israel that rubbed off on every one of us. A few months later she went back to Jerusalem, to deepen her knowledge of Hebrew and Judaism. One day in August 1995, the news arrived that a bus had blown up, and she had been killed.

At that moment, sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and sister, unable to eat a bite of the fruit salad in front of us, I faced a choice. I could decide that because of Joan’s senseless murder, I would never trust a Palestinian or an Arab again and I would assume they all wanted to drive Israel into the sea. Or I could conclude that no one should have to experience violence, pain, or loss like my community and I were going through, and that I would do my utmost to fight for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

At a community gathering organized to help us cope with this sudden, shocking loss, a classmate joked sadly that Joan had probably been striking up a friendly conversation with the attacker at the time of the bombing. That’s just the kind of person she was.

My choice was clear: I would be like Joan, someone who loved Israel fiercely – and hated no one.

I bring up these memories now because, for the first time in five years, a serious push toward a two-state solution is underway. In the lead-up to Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement of the restarting of talks, many commentators expressed skepticism that we’d even get to the starting line that we’re now at.

To be sure, cynicism is an understandable response after decades of failed attempts and disappointments. But with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that Israel would release 104 Palestinian prisoners as a signal of seriousness to bring the Palestinian leadership to the table, many who brushed off Secretary Kerry’s efforts as inconsequential are starting to take note.

The prisoner release is a reminder of the real risks and painful compromises involved in reaching a peace deal and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For many American Jews who are connected to Israel, we are reminded of people we have known and loved like Joan – friends and relatives, teachers and students whose lives have been affected, and in some cases cut short, by violence in Israel.

Many readers of this newspaper were lucky enough to know Joan when she was alive, or perhaps you heard about her tragic death. I know that I am far from alone in my grief at losing someone I cared about to violence in this ongoing conflict. And together we face a choice: do we use our grief to justify inaction, or worse? Or do we honor our loved ones’ memories by putting all our weight into supporting an end to the conflict and a peaceful, secure future for Israel, living side by side with a Palestinian state?

“Al hadvash v’al ha’oketz / On the honey and on the sting,” we sang Joan’s favorite song on our last evening in Jerusalem back in May of 1995. “Al hamar v’hamatok / On the bitter and the sweet.” No one said it wouldn’t be painful. But if we don’t expose ourselves to the sting, we may never taste the honey.

 A native of New Haven, Sarah D. Beller is director of education for J Street and conference director for the 2013 J Street Conference which begins on Sept. 28.

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