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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I suppose the next step is pictures on milk cartons

While Israel certainly has it's share of 'real world' problems and has unwisely (IMHO) run headlong after some of the worst fashions and trends in western culture, there has always been the sense of innocence... and a blind faith that here in this tiny corner of the middle east that kids could be kids, at least until they reached army age and had to finally grow up.

Israeli children and teens have traditionally enjoyed an autonomy unheard of in the US since the 1950s.  Kids here think nothing of taking buses, riding bikes and walking to distant friends after school and on weekends.  And for a large portion of Israel's youth, hitchhiking is still a perfectly acceptable way to reach destinations, near and far.

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece entitled 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Holy Land' which was, admittedly, a wide-eyed American's take on this practical means of getting around the country.  However one of the things I downplayed in that piece was the inherent danger involved.

In early January, 18-year-old Maayan Ben Chorin, a high school senior from a small town in the north, was reported missing by her parents.  During the couple of days leading up to the discovery of her body, friends and eye-witnesses aided the police in piecing together her last known movements... and the one thing that became fairly clear was that she had been hitchhiking.

Maayan_ben_chorin
Maayan Ben Chorin (Z"L)  Photo (C) Jerusalem Post

Besides the obvious shock of a young woman being brutally murdered, I sensed an undercurrent of dismay as the country was once again reminded that hitchhiking was no longer the wholesome, carefree convenience it had once been in the early days of the state. 

For many years now it has been illegal for Israeli soldiers to hitchhike. But it has remained an open secret that many conscripts from remote parts of the country relying only on 'authorized' means would never be able to reach their destinations before public transportation (buses and trains) shut down for shabbat... and that they would never be able to return to their bases on Sunday morning in time to avoid a 'mishpat' for being late unless they made use of 'less-than-kosher' conveyance. 

Therefore, it is safe to assume that hitchhiking is tolerated... and even expected... by the IDF.

But despite the obvious dangers inherent in getting into strange cars and traveling through remote, uninhabited areas... many rural and suburban teens (and even pre-teens) still apparently rely heavily on the kindness of strangers to get from point 'A' to point 'B'.

Such was apparently the case with the unfortunate Maayan Ben Chorin (Z"L).

She first caught a ride with one of her teachers who dropped her at a gas station near the entrance to an Israeli Arab village.  She then caught a second 'tremp' in the direction of a remote farm where she intended to apply for a job.  She was apparently dropped by the second driver at the head of a long unpaved road down which she would have to walk in order to reach her destination.

According to police forensic sources and the confession of her killer, she met her end after walking only about 700 meters down this lonely dirt track.

Here's where I start to wonder at the wisdom... not of the young hitchhiker... but of those who were nice enough to give her a ride.   

I suppose one can give her teacher a partial pass for at least dropping Maayan at a gas station since it is a public place with cars coming and going all the time.  The fact that it was near an Arab village might, in retrospect, trouble some people reading this... but it is my understanding that this isn't such a sticking point as the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the north of the country are somewhat more cordial than, say, near my home in the Judean hills.

However, in my mind, the driver who took her from the gas station and dropped her in the middle of nowhere at the head of a dirt track has to bear at least some of the responsibility for the events that followed.  Obviously the real blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the man who actually killed her... but there is plenty of peripheral blame to be shared around.

Nearly every day during my commute through the south Hevron hills and northern Negev desert I pick up and drop off hitchhikers.  Some of them call me in advance for rides, but a lot of them are simply people that I find waiting at intersections and bus stops along my route.

You can read my earlier piece if you are curious about Israeli hitchhiking etiquette, as I don't want to revisit it here.  What troubles me is that few of the drivers, nor the hitchhikers themselves, seem to have adjusted their mentality to the unfortunate dangers that now exist on and near the roads.

Countless actual and attempted kidnappings have taken place at such hitchhiking posts, and roadside shootings and stabbings have become so commonplace as to sometimes not warrant media coverage.  Yet I still find young men and women standing alone, quite literally in the middle of nowhere waiting for someone like me to come along and pick them up. 

I have a policy that if someone asks to be let off at a remote intersection or bus stop I will always take them down the road to the nearest town, settlement or army check-point.  This is more than a courtesy... it is common sense.  I wouldn't let my own children off in a setting where they were vulnerable to any passing danger... why would I potentially put someone else's children in harm's way?

I take a small measure of comfort in the expert and timely police forensic work that led to the capture of a suspect whose DNA is apparently a match to tissue found under the victim's nails.  But I hope that my countrymen (and their children) will take a lesson in common sense from the events that led up to this tragedy and adjust their hitchhiking habits accordingly.

Yes, it is sad when a country loses the last vestiges of its innocence to tragedies like this.  But unless we wake up and take the necessary precautions for ourselves and our children... the age of pictures on milk cartons probably won't be too far in Israel's future.

Note: All of my knowledge about the case comes from news sources such as this one.

Posted by David Bogner on February 21, 2007 | Permalink

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Not to mention the danger to the driver who stops to pick them up. I trust that you are selective about who gets in your car, but many people aren't.

Posted by: K Newman | Feb 21, 2007 12:54:42 PM

As a child of nine (1954) I used to travel from New Jersey to New York City (about 40 minutes with public transpiort) without worry or problem. Indeed, no one even paid me any mind.

Now, of course, if a lone child is spotted on public transportation, his parents will end up being arrested.

I miss that innocent time.

Posted by: bernie | Feb 22, 2007 3:10:09 AM

I can't even imagine hitchhiking... anywhere. Even if I knew that most people would be doing that and it's perfectly safe... growing up in NYC has imbued me with a deep sense of distrust towards strangers... which is why it's a little difficult for me to relate with the sense of safety hitchhikers share in Israel.

Posted by: Irina | Feb 22, 2007 6:58:43 AM

I read on jpost about the terrible thing that happened to this lovely young lady. So tragic. I didn't realize that hitchhiking was commonplace in Israel. I grew up in Canada and we would never have dreamed of doing such a thing. People are so distrustful that last summer when my sister's car broke down she stood nearly 5 hours at the side of the road trying to get someone with a cell phone to pull over. A young lady all by herself in the dead heat of summer and nobody would stop. It's a sad world.

Posted by: Shosh | Feb 22, 2007 7:07:26 AM

It's not safe to tremp anywhere but Israel is still statistically safer than the US--over 50% of hitchhikers in the US have a criminal record. Knowing this, most people don't pick up hitchhikers--so of course the drivers who do pick them up are frequently sex offenders hoping for a fresh victim.

Posted by: aliyah06 | Feb 22, 2007 4:22:39 PM

K Newman... Very careful. But being armed also give me a small comfort zone about picking up strangers. :-)

bernie... Me too.

Irina... You really lose so much when you can't trust strangers in your day-to-day life.

Shosh... As time goes on I imagine that kind of thing will become common here as well.

aliyah06... Even if those statistics aren't exactly verifiable, they still give one pause. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 22, 2007 5:49:57 PM

you are very sensible in your policy of where you will let off pasengers. i never thought about this when i've picked up people. a few years ago i dropped off a kid on the jerusalem-tel aviv highway at night. his ultimate destination was somewhere in the shomron. i looked him like he was crazy and i asked him if his mother knows he travels like this. he looked back at me like i was the crazy one: how else did i expect him to get home?


but still in this case i don't think the driver is to blame. she was 18 years old, not 12. and her parents likely knew this was the only way she could get to the interview. so you can blame them also. or egged for not providing better service. i really don't think we should be looking for culpability beyond the scumbag murderer himself.

Posted by: ari kinsberg | Feb 22, 2007 7:11:17 PM

My 2 year old son loves to pick up people at the trempiyada. He will yell out "mitzva" every time we pick up or drop off someone. to me it is one of the simple pleasures of living here. I just hope it'll be safe enough for him to do it when he's older.

Posted by: Max Power | Feb 25, 2007 9:47:28 PM

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