Guest Commentary

Irwin Cotler

A Hike In The Judean Hills

There are very few families in Israel who have not in some way been pained by the experience of terror. I think pain and loss are seared in the consciousness of the Israeli public.

Hagit Zabitsky was my niece. I remember her as a thoughtful 22-year old, shy and introspective. She was born in Jerusalem, one of five children, and was travelling abroad after completing her military service in Israel. Hagit spent the winter of 1996 with our family in Montréal.

She wrote poetry and loved the arts. Hagit volunteered at the YWCA and spent months exploring the city. She had never been away from home and this was a new experience. She felt a deep connection to the land, nature, history and culture of Israel, and found the Québec winter oppressive.

I remember our conversations that winter. Hagit was devout and traditionally Jewish; she observed the Sabbath and went to synagogue. She was rooted in the soil of Israel and did not find Jewish life as meaningful in Montréal.  We spoke often of this, Hagit and I. By the end of her stay I think she began to appreciate there was a sense of purpose in our community.

Hagit returned home in the spring of 1997 and made plans to attend university. I think she would have studied the humanities. Hagit did not get the chance.

She lived in Kafr Adumim, a settlement in the Judean desert outside Jerusalem. Hagit loved to hike and experience nature in the Judean Hills just outside her backyard.

On the day she died Hagit was hiking with a friend in the hills when she was bludgeoned to death by an Arab man. Later it was established her attacker was a terrorist who set out to kill a Jew. Hagit was not targeted; she was simply on the trail.  Her murderer was jailed. We worry he may be freed someday; Israel has agreed to release prisoners to the Palestinian Authority for purposes of negotiations.

Today there is an annual hike in Hagit’s memory. Friends and family participate in this memorial. I have walked those hills. There is a plaque not far from Hagit’s home; we gather there to think of her.

Israel is a small country. After 2000, in the wave of terrorist attacks that took place, over a thousand people were murdered in four years. This is the equivalent of 25,000 deaths in Canada in terms of its proportional impact. It’s unimaginable, but Israel has grown to live with it.

Terror affects families in different ways. Some remember their loved ones as sacrifices for peace; others say we can never have peace. Hagit’s family yearns for peace but doubts they will ever see it. All the pain of all these families takes on a national dimension, but it is a private tragedy too. Hagit’s family has not fully recovered. I think of her, and the family’s unbearable loss, and wonder what could have been.

(Editor’s note: the author is former Attorney General of Canada and retired six-term Liberal MP for Mount Royal, Que. Mr. Cotler in 2020 was named Canada’s Special Envoy on Anti-Semitism. His commentary was originally published August 27, 2017)

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