Opinion

Remembering a Christian Arab Israeli Hero

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Posted: Apr 08, 2022 12:01 AM
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
Remembering a Christian Arab Israeli Hero

Source: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Normally, when one goes to express condolences to a family mourning a deceased relative, you know one of the family members, if not the deceased. At a certain age, one goes to console a friend whose parent died, but with whom you didn’t have a person relationship, if at all. It’s rare to show up at the home of someone you don’t know, grieving over the loss of a loved one who you also didn’t know either. But that’s what I just did.

Here’s why.

During my last week of a 3.5-week trip throughout the US, while I was away from home there were four terror attacks in Israel. 11 people were killed, and dozens injured. There have been many more attacks in which, thank God, there were no injuries, and as many as 15 others reportedly stopped due to good intelligence and swift military operations to prevent the terrorists from carrying out their hateful goals. 

While Israeli security forces are on high alert, for many Israelis this “wave of terror” triggers PTSD from previous incidents. Now, 11 more families are mourning and many more are suffering injuries and trauma. I took a full day to visit one of them. 

A Christian Arab Hero and Victim

As of this writing, the deadliest recent terror attack took place in Bnei Brak, a city in central Israel with a large ultra-Orthodox population. Five people were killed including two Jewish Israelis, two Ukrainians, and a Christian Arab Israeli policeman, Amir Khoury. Some may be confused by the idea of a Christian Arab Israeli being a victim, much less a hero as one of the security forces that stopped the terrorist. Amir is credited with racing to the scene of the terror attack, opening fire and neutralizing the Palestinian Arab terrorist. But he was also mortally wounded in the process.

This week, I visited Amir’s family. Because he is correctly being hailed as a hero, they were receiving visitors from all over the country in tents outside their home adorned with Israeli flags. Some see it as a paradox to have a Christian Arab becoming a hero of Israel. It’s not. Calling Amir a hero is not just rhetoric that one says while mourning a loved one, or consoling a mourner. Had Amir not acted as decisively as he did, the carnage would have been much worse. Calling him a hero is an understatement.

Because of the wider conflict, thinking of Arabs as loyal Israelis is not the norm, nor is it understood by most because it contradicts the simple narrative of Arabs hating Jews and Israel. Thankfully in recent years, it’s become less of a contradiction. In fact, Israel has seen a growing number of Christian Arabs volunteering for the IDF, making a commitment to serve their country with honor, despite the risk of threats from the wider Moslem Arab population which sees many as traitors.

Signs on the Wall

It's common in Israel to see signs posted outside the home of a mourner, an obituary notice, mentioning who died and times for condolence visits. These look more or less the same graphically, just with the details changed, so that anyone walking by seeing such a sign will know that someone is mourning there. I don’t know if this is practiced in other cultures and countries, but I never recall seeing such things living in the US. I have seen them in Arabic in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city. But it was particularly striking to see the sign in Hebrew for Amir. Not that we needed a reminder, but Amir wasn’t “just” an Arab. He was an Israeli. One of us. That he died how he did, and the family would expect many Israeli visiting who didn’t read Arabic, made it practical to have such a sign in Hebrew. Considering that there was a large mourning tent adorned with Israeli flags, the signs were superfluous. But that they were there, in Hebrew, underscoring the importance of why I (and so many others) instinctively knew to go to visit.

A Warm Welcome

In Jewish tradition, mourners remain seated on low chairs and visitors approach them. As soon as I walked into the larger of the two tents, Amir’s father rose and embraced me, speaking to me with warmth, wanting to know who I was, were I came from, and why. As we spoke, we stood together, hands clasped, as if Amir’s father was using all his senses to experience the comfort and condolences that had come from all over. He pegged my American accented Hebrew and asked where I was born, when I made Aliyah, and about my family. If one didn’t know that he was mourning the murder of his son a week earlier, one would never imagine that he was not just being a gracious host. As I sat down, I was served strong black coffee with enough caffeine to keep my jetlagged body alert for my three-hour drive home. 

I spent considerable time speaking with Amir’s father, mother, brother, sister, and brother-in-law. As we sat together, I couldn’t help but recall the verse from Psalm 133, "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” The original Hebrew says “shevet achim gam yachad” which can be interpreted as dwelling, but also sitting. There we sat together, mourning a victim of a hate-inspired terrorist who wanted anything but for us to dwell together in unity.

Without their permission to share the most intimate aspects of our conversations, I will share the essence of the visit and why it was meaningful, but refer to Amir’s relatives, in most cases and in no particular order, as A, B, C, D, and E.

“A” stood in front of the mourning tent. I noticed a cross hanging on a necklace beneath “A’s” shirt. When I asked if this is where the family was sitting, “A” welcomed me and told me “A’s” relationship to Amir. We chatted for a few minutes. The warmth with which I was greeted, as they did with everyone, made it hard to discern who, if any, were actual close friends and family, or just strangers like me. 

I learned that one person drove six hours from Eilat, visited for 30 minutes, and then drove back. Others came from throughout the rest of the country: Jews of every background, Arabs, most government cabinet members, current and former ambassadors, rabbis, and more. Amir’s family derived comfort from all this, and his father particularly noted how touched he was hearing from someone who was a neighbor in Tel Aviv decades earlier when he was first married, not even knowing how that former neighbor got his phone number. 

A “Settler” Among the Arabs

While I didn’t come from the furthest distance, the family was impressed that I came from Gush Etzion in the Judean mountains south of Jerusalem, because there’s a stereotype that “settlers” don’t care about or respect Arabs. That’s part of the political baggage with which we live and, like many stereotypes, is built on myths. Not only was my visit appreciated, but there was also no hint of any discomfort with my being a “settler,” another stereotype inferring that Arabs specifically don’t think we have a right to live in Judea and Samaria. We didn’t talk politics at all. It was a wide-ranging visit about Amir, about them, and about our shared society. They liked my accent which we joked about as old friends. 

Genuine Comfort and Grief

Across the board, Amir’s family was comforted by the endless visits from all the people who visited and called, including the dignitaries. They were aware, however, that as soon as the visitors stopped coming, the tents taken down, and they had to get back to life, that’s when the mourning and missing Amir will really begin to be palpable. 

“A” shared that “A” has not been able to sleep this week. Maybe that’s why “A” looked less engaged than others. As I sat with “A” for some time, talking about Amir, “A” described Amir with a trail of adjectives that would seem rehearsed as if one had nothing better to say, but all of which were clearly sincere. For “A” and all the others, there was literally nothing bad to say about Amir. C, D, and E echoed this in their own ways, talking about Amir as a child, sibling, and never hating or being angry with anyone. No, these were not platitudes. He died a hero, but it was clear that he also lived as a hero as well. 

Just Remember Amir

When asked what I could do for them, what they needed, universally the answer was just to remember Amir. It was not rehearsed. They’re thrilled that Bnei Brak will name a street for Amir (no little thing for a mostly ultra-Orthodox Jewish city naming a street for a Christian Arab). But all they want and need is that Amir be remembered. By reading this, you’re providing them vicarious comfort. 

I didn’t just go visit myself, but brought with me dozens of condolences and prayers from others. The night before I posted through my social media and chat groups that I was going to visit the Khourys. I invited others to send notes. In just a few hours, dozens of people sent their condolences and prayers, along with donations, so we can do something meaningful in Amir’s memory. That so many people sent their condolences in writing was also a comfort. More continue to do so. 

While sitting with “B” my phone rang. It was a Christian friend waking up early in the US who was praying about my visit and the Khourys. When I replied that I couldn’t speak, she wrote that she was just waking up and wanted to send her love. I texted back that I was sitting with “B” at that time and my friend wrote, “Please extend my love and condolences, my heart goes out to the family.” When I shared that with “B,” it clearly hit a nerve and was most appreciated. 

Learning of Amir’s Death

I spoke with “C” who wept while recounting how the family found out about Amir’s death. They were watching the news with live reports of the terror attack. They had a bad feeling because calls and text messages to Amir went unanswered. Each shared how s/he dealt with this, but that they had each lost it when seeing the police outside their front door a little after 10:00pm, two hours after initial reports of the attack. From that moment, all their hopes were dashed. As they recounted this, I held back tears, imagining their fear, and then the nightmare beginning. Dark circles under their eyes testified to endless tears and lack or sleep.

“C” also expressed concern for “B” who was taking it very hard despite outward appearances to the contrary. “C” said that “C” was strong, but worried for “B”. “B” expressed something similar about “C,” confiding in me as if I were a trusted old friend. “D” expressed concern for all the family, aware it was going to be hard for everyone when the guests stopped coming and their lives had to get back to whatever “normal” would be. 

Not a Hero for All

While Amir is being hailed as a hero throughout Israel, Palestinian Arabs and other extremists look at him as a traitor. It’s a public secret that Moslem Arabs take advantage of and threaten Christian Arabs in a variety of ways. I’ve written about this before, but always carefully because one cannot call too much attention to it without fear of reprisals. “D” affirmed this, noting that in some places in the Palestinian Authority, and even in Israel, Amir’s death was being celebrated. This is not a new risk among Christian Arab Israelis, but with Amir’s heroism being cast into the spotlight, there’s concern that others have his family in their crosshairs. 

As an Israeli, it bothers me to no end that the sense of lawlessness within the Arab community is allowed to fester. Threats and violence against Christians are just one symptom of a reality that estimates one illegal weapon in the hands of every four Israeli Arabs. One Arab friend said nothing will change until the violence spills over into Jewish communities, which it has. But I am also concerned for the well-being of the Arab community. Last year saw a record number of murders within the Arab community alone. Something has to be done.

Several months into a new government with an Arab party as part of the coalition, the rate of Arab-on-Arab murder has not decreased, and there’s no palpable difference. This must have enraged Amir who not only committed his life as a loyal Israeli Arab citizen to law enforcement as a career, but who also studied law. Perhaps something good will come out of it on that level. I pray it will be so. 

For Such a Time as This

Even though Amir was the youngest, “E” shared how everyone looked up to him. Not just because he was tall. “C” and “E” echoed that there was comfort in knowing that Amir died as a hero, engaging a terrorist, something he once said he wanted to do. Does that mean Amir was in the right place at the right time? Sitting with a family of devout Christians, I couldn’t help but think that Amir, like Esther, was put in a situation “for such a time as this.” I couldn’t bring myself to pose this thought to Amir’s family. But comparing Esther’s outcome to Amir’s, both saved lives. I wonder if like Esther, Amir raced to the scene of the terror attack thinking, “if I perish, I perish?”

One thing is for sure is that Amir was an angel for a whole community. Had it not been for Amir, it’s unthinkable how many more people would have been killed. One cannot count how many lives were saved, but many were. Amir’s actions and, sadly his death, are also important to breaking down of stereotypes within Israeli society. In a different context, this was affirmed by “D” who understood that most Israeli Jews just look at all Arabs the same, whether Christian, Druze, or Moslem. Some of that is due to fear and distrust. It’s hard for Israelis to understand that there are loyal and proud Arab Israelis, and specifically Christians and Druze who serve the country openly and with distinction. It shouldn’t take a tragedy like Amir’s death to remind us, but hopefully that will be a positive outcome as well. 

The Family I Wish I Never Had

Many people have relatives who they’re not so fond of and would disinherit from the family if that were possible, if not just distance themselves from. Visiting the Khourys for hours, I felt that I had just inherited a new part of my family, however people who I’d rather never have known, much less under the circumstances. In meeting and speaking with each one, I avoided saying “nice to meet you,” but rather that it was an honor to meet them. I’d have preferred that I never had the occasion to know them, or know of them. But the reality is that we did, and in parting, “E” underscored this, that we are now family, not just friends, and that somehow God ordained it. 

How I wish I never had this new family, that I didn’t meet them under these circumstances, in fact that I never knew them. Whether one believes in destiny, that everything is somehow ordained from God, or not, the reality is that as a result of Amir’s death, this is one positive outcome. My dear family, I wish I never knew you. But now we have met, and we need to make something purposeful from that. 

No Hate, No Peace

At one point, “D” blurted out, quietly, that “The hate needs to stop.” “D” says that “D” doesn’t hate, and neither did Amir. I asked, “What about the terrorist who killed Amir, do you hate him?” “D” replied, “No. I don’t hate the terrorist. I don’t want to know about the terrorist. I feel sad for him.” 

Did “D” believe that the hate will ever stop, will there be peace? “No,” “D” said without hesitation. “There will never be peace. Not until Jesus comes back.” “D’s” faith was as inspiring as “D’s” words were jarring. For an Israeli Arab to realize and articulate that there will never really be peace, no matter how many times there are peace talks and negotiations, is sad. “There are too many who hate, they’re lost,” “D” said, using a Hebrew word that literally implied lost souls because of their hatred and terrorist ideology. 

The only awkward moment took place when, sitting nearby, a Jewish woman chimed in about hating “them.” Her comments straddled a thin line between appropriate and inappropriate, partly in the context and partly because at that point she was not there to listen or comfort, but to espouse her thoughts. I caught this and guided the conversation back to Amir. But it also highlighted the paradox that “D” noted that most Israelis look at Arabs as Arabs, and not with the distinction in faith, politics, national service, etc. It’s very easy to slip a toe, a whole foot, or entirely leap over that line, something I am probably guilty of from time to time, and about which I committed to be more careful. 

Being careful and not hating may not bring peace, but it doesn’t hurt. With or without peace, we are all destined to live together. Who knows, maybe “D” is wrong. 

Before Leaving Home

As I was leaving my house, my son asked why I was going to visit the Khourys specifically, and not to the families of the Jewish victims. I explained that Amir was a hero, not just a victim. Comforting mourners is a tremendous obligation, but because they are Christian and Arabs, and because Amir died saving others, it was all the more important I go there. Not in place of comforting anyone else, but as a priority.

Also, that I work building bridges between Jews and Christians, its important to show Christian friends overseas that Jews and Christians are united in life, and death, here in Israel. Often Christian friends here will complain that they receive barely any interest or actual support from Christians overseas, something I address where appropriate and explain as Jews and Israeli being tribal, but Christians less so. Anyway, not knowing that thousands of other Israelis and others would show up at the Khourys home, I felt it was important to go. I wish my son had come with me. He’d have understood much better than I could explain then, or still can. 

What to Do

Sometimes, when there’s a terrorist victim with connections overseas, or a victim whose story is particularly sympathetic, there are major fund-raising appeals for the bereaved families. I have long felt this is problematic because most victims don’t have these connections or are more relatable to people overseas. The family of a 19-year-old yeshiva student or national service woman (real examples) leaving behind parents and siblings is no less bereaved than the family of a mother or father leaving behind children.

A few years ago, I was speaking to a major American Jewish leader about this. He agreed with the observation and went further. He shared how he met the loved one of a particular terror victim with ties in the US very shortly after the terror attack, and came away with a profound and disturbing feeling that the person with whom he was talking was simply trying to monetize his loved one’s death. Amir’s family is nothing like that. They’re kind, modest, and each thinking about one another, not him or herself. They want nothing other than that Amir be remembered. 

A number of people have already donated generously, in addition to sending their condolences and prayers. The truth is, some expected me to transfer cash to the Khourys, to be a direct blessing to them. I knew that was wrong, but went to visit with several hundred dollars in my pocket, just in case. I was right, the idea was wrong. It would have been offensive. However, while there will be a street in Amir’s name, along with other projects, there’s a strong interest to create a project that will preserve his memory and heroic legacy. Several ideas have been discussed, but nothing will be done without the blessing and support of his family.

Undertaking this on behalf of the Genesis 123 Foundation whose mission is to build bridges between Jews and Christians and Christians with Israel, there’s no better way to be able to bring Jews and Christians together for such a purpose. While the formal mourning period has ended, the grief and loss have not. Anyone who wishes to send a note to Amir’s family can join the Genesis 123 Foundation at https://genesis123.co/blessasoldier and send condolences, prayers, and words of comfort which will be delivered to them directly. A donation of any size will go toward a project in Amir’s memory. For further information, please be in touch at Gen123Fdn@gmail.com

Please join us to be a blessing to Amir’s family, honor his memory, and in prayer that he will be the last victim of hate-inspired terror.