More deaths in Israel have been caused by car accidents than by war and terrorism put together. So trite is this by now that it’s become a macabre joke, as well as the focus of Knesset committees and private organizations.
Indeed, we mothers often wonder which milestone deserves a greater amount of parental panic — the day our children don their army uniforms, or the day they pass their road tests.
But due to the plethora of other major problems besieging the country on a regular basis, road carnage often gets relegated to the back burner, only to come to the fore again when tragedy strikes.
This week was a perfect example.
In spite of all the noise about the Baghdad summit between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany and Iran to continue phony negotiations on uranium enrichment; the presidential elections in Egypt; the new national unity government’s plans; and the clashes in Tel Aviv over illegal immigration, all Israelis nearly stopped breathing at the news of one of the most chilling car crashes imaginable.
Though international reportage on the horrific incident was sparse, at home it was the lead of every broadcast.
Rafi and Yehudit Attias, a couple in their early forties, were driving home late at night from a Torah dedication ceremony in honor of Rafi’s father. With them in their minivan were their seven children: Avia, 17; Neria and Elyashiv, 16-year-old twins; Shira, 11; Ta'ir, 9; Rachel, 7; and Noa, 5. At some point, Rafi realized his brakes weren’t working, and he called the police, then handed his wife the telephone while he tried to maneuver the car. Yehudit gave the dispatcher their location. The next thing the dispatcher heard was screaming.
By the time the police arrived on the scene, it was too late. The minivan had gone over a highway divider, crossed over four lanes of oncoming traffic, crashed through an iron fence, flipped over, rolled down a hill, and burst into flames.
Miraculously, 7-year-old Rachel managed to crawl out of the car before it caught on fire. She was the only member of the entire family to survive the crash — and with minor physical injuries, to boot. Her emotional scarring is another story entirely.
The child was rushed to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, where she was attended to lovingly by the medical and social work staff, as well as surrounded by members of her extended family — themselves barely having had a chance to absorb what had befallen them.
It took a few hours before Rachel was told that her mother, father and six siblings were all dead. During and following those hours, the Hebrew press was relentless in its coverage. For this, it has been widely criticized by pundits.
There is no doubt that such an unfathomable event necessarily arouses a kind of voyeurism. And it is true that the questions put to the child’s uncles, aunts and social workers were not only ridiculous (e.g., “How did she respond to the news that her family is gone?”), but had the feel of sports commentary during time-outs — much chatter surrounding no new facts.
Simultaneously, there was the inevitable discussion of whom to blame for the faulty brakes. Initial investigations indicated that Rafi Attias had bought the minivan in the past year, and that it had passed its standard annual inspection as recently as three months ago. Still, what has gripped the public is the sight of little Rachel, not whether this or that auto mechanic was negligent.
It is utterly common for Israelis to personalize and identify with the misfortune of others. In fact, it is a national trait, ranking up there with heroism. We hear of Rachel and think of our own daughters. We shudder at the thought that it could have been our own family in that minivan. We weep at Rachel’s recounting of the minutes before the crash, when everyone in the vehicle recited psalms, while her mother hugged and kissed her. We shake our heads in disbelief at the sight of eight graves, side-by-side, and try to imagine how we would ever overcome such a horror.
This is not because we are Peeping Toms. Proof of this lies in the hundreds, if not thousands, of phone calls to Rambam hospital on the part of people offering to adopt Rachel. It is a blessed and genuine gesture from good, kind-hearted, ordinary citizens who cannot bear the thought of this young orphan leaving the hospital with nowhere to go.
Thankfully, she is not actually alone in the world. She has aunts, uncles, cousins, and a grandfather. And she is being adopted by her mother’s sister, with whom she already has a very close relationship.
The public’s desire to help in some way — any way — did not wane when it learned of this turn of events. On the contrary, phone calls and letters poured in with offers of financial aid, clothing, furniture and home hospitality.
It is this side of Israeli society that the local media might consider emphasizing once in a while. But then again, if they did that, their items would never be picked up by international outlets, like CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera.
Ruthie Blum, a former senior editor at The Jerusalem Post, is the author of “Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring,’” to be released by RVP Press in the summer.