One of the cruelest realities of the so-called “knife intifada,” which first engulfed Jerusalem – and later much of the country – one year ago, is that the terrorists were deified as “martyrs” within their communities.
That reality has been most painful for family members of the victims, who not only had to endure their profound loss, but witness widespread celebrations of the murders and ongoing incitement by Palestinian media.
The son of murder victim Richard Lakin – a gentle and celebrated 76-year-old American- Israeli educator, who was shot in the head and repeatedly stabbed by a terrorist on a bus in Jerusalem last October – is doing something about it, in his father’s name.
Citing his father’s legacy as an elementary school principal, activist and author who educated thousands of children to be kind and compassionate, Micah Lakin Avni on Thursday said that his violent death has inspired him to ensure that his legacy endures – despite the malevolent geopolitical climate threatening it.
Avni, a married 47-year-old father of four who manages a commercial finance company in Tel Aviv, spoke about his late father, the incitement that led to his death, and the importance of addressing the deadly climate that encourages other killers to take innocent lives.
“Any death of a family member is a difficult and traumatic experience,” Avni said by phone from Boston, where he is meeting with victims of the 2013 bombing of the city’s marathon and lecturing about the dangers of radical Islamist incitement.
“Terror is a particular trauma though, because it’s not something that we are prepared for, and it is intentional and evil. And it’s a very painful touch to the soul that creates an energy that you have to deal with… I’ve taken that energy and tried to focus it on positive things, because it’s an inordinate amount of energy.”
Noting that the traumatic feelings terrorism inflicts can lead to self-destruction or self-empowerment, Avni said his father’s life has helped him focus on the latter, not only to heal his own pain, but prevent it from destroying other lives.
“You can focus that energy on positive things, or you can focus the energy on negative things, and I have chosen to focus it on positive things,” he said. “And the first thing me and my family have focused on is the building of my father’s image in the public eye.”
Citing Lakin’s book, Teaching as an Act of Love, which featured his core philosophy that “every child is a miracle that needs to be nurtured with love,” and a memorial at the Connecticut school his father taught at honoring his impact and decency, Avni emphasized that his image must be actively promoted.
“Yesterday, I was at the elementary school where he was principal for 15 years, and I went to see a plaque they put up and I was moved, not only because the plaque stated how he devoted his life to promoting kindness and compassion and understanding and peace, but because they put a wall up next to it where children post reports about acts of kindness they have done,” he said.
“I was standing there crying with the principal, and it was a tribute in that we left Glastonbury 32 years ago, and there were still teachers, parents and former students who made this happen because they remembered how he affected them, and they loved him.”
The school also built a section in its library devoted to books on kindness, and instituted a reading program about kindness to honor Lakin’s memory, which Avni said his father would have been deeply moved by.
“It’s imperative that terrorism victims speak about the legacies of those killed, so others can learn about it,” he said.
“And a couple things that I think we can learn from the attack in which my father was murdered, and his legacy, is that terrorism affects everybody, and by promoting his image, people who have not been directly impacted by terror can understand the pain and scope of the problem.”
To that end, Avni – who has been published in The New York Times, Newsweek, and several other publications about the devastating impact of incitement and terrorism – said he is now dedicated to addressing “the juxtaposition of educating toward love, or educating toward hate.”
“My father educated toward love and understanding, and education has a ripple effect – he affected thousands of people, and they in turn, affected thousands of people,” he said. “But the opposite is also true, and this is critical to understanding that incitement to hatred and violence creates a motivation toward terrorism.”
Lamenting that his father’s killer, who was shot dead by police, has been elevated to hero status in Palestinian society – which has named schools, sporting events, book-reading programs, and summer camps after him – Avni said the ongoing glorification campaigns of terrorists promoted by the PA must be addressed through countermeasures.
“There is a whole generation of Palestinian children being educated to hate and carry out terrorism,” he said. “In order to deal with the root causes of terrorism, we need to promote education toward love and coexistence, and how we can stop education toward violence and hate.”
While conceding that changing Palestinian schools’ curricula and its society’s ethos will take many years of intervention and reform, Avni said that an immediate measure that can be taken is preventing incitement on the Internet.
“Terrorism is growing exponentially around the world, and is not just an Israeli phenomenon anymore,” he said. “And it’s only going to grow if we don’t slow it down.”
Noting that radical Islamist incitement is routinely broadcast across the globe to millions of impressionable youth via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and innumerable other social media platforms, Avni presented a bill to the Knesset in July to outlaw such incitement.
“These ideas are being spread in a massive way, and the only way to stop this is at the source,” he said, adding that a reenactment video glorifying his father’s murder uploaded by Hamas has been viewed millions of times.
“When people started complaining about [child] pornography on Facebook years ago, Facebook ignored them – until they got a call from Toys R Us saying they would stop advertising if they don’t deal with it. A couple days later, the board had a meeting about it and within a week there was no more pornography on Facebook.”
“Now,” he continued, “if you post a pornographic image of a child on Facebook, within a matter of minutes your account will be blocked forever, and within hours the information will be passed to the FBI, which will open an investigation.”
The same model, Anvi said, needs to be applied to deadly incitement.
Citing financial losses as the bottom line in affecting such change, Avni said he helped author the Lakin bill, awaiting Knesset approval, which would enact prohibitive fines against social media companies for every instance of incitement to terrorism on their sites, until they are removed.
“What we decided to do was create a pressure system to bring Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to a point where they have no choice to self-regulate,” he said.
Although it will take several more hearings to get the law passed, Avni is hoping that it will one day continue to make Israel an international leader in counterterrorism measures.
For now, asked what he would say to his father if he could see him one more time, Avni paused thoughtfully.
“In addition to the obvious, which is I love you and I miss you, I would say: Thank you for explaining to me the power of education,” he said. “He understood it his whole life, and I didn’t understand it until he was murdered.”
Avni added, “And when I saw the outpouring from his students who said he changed their lives, I understood the power of education, and that if you teach positive things like love and understanding as he did, you can have a large impact on the world.
“The decision to educate to love, or to hate, is critical,” he said. “And I’d say thank you to my father for teaching me that lesson.”