The PJC Trip To Israel
The PJC Israel trip was terrific. We discovered our roots, explored questions about the future of the Jewish people and our place in it, and we became more deeply connected to one another. We sang through 2700 year old water tunnels; under the magnificent desert stars in which Abraham saw each one of us 4000 years ago we rediscovered a silence drowned out by the chaos of our lives in America; we searched for the best falafel, shwarma, sabich, and hummus in Israel. And we learned. We experienced traditional Druze and Bedouin meals and hospitality. We learned about the Palestinian Israeli conflict from the perspective of a human rights activist as well as an army commander who lives in the West Bank. We learned about Jewish mysticism from a kabbalistic artist in Tzfat (it’s radical, man). We learned about the challenges of religious pluralism from a rabbi working to “build the soul of Israel.” And of course, we had loads of fun.
All the while, the constant hum of increasing tension and conflict was in the background. We arrived with the hope that Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali (זיכרונם לברכה), the three boys who were kidnapped by Hamas operatives, would be found alive and returned to their families. This hope was laid to rest on our second evening when their murdered bodies were discovered. We were with Avinoam and Havi when we got the news. We cried a bit, and then sang appropriately sad songs as a form of comfort. Two days later, the body of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir (ז״ל) was found murdered in revenge by Jewish extremists, and Arab communities within Israel exploded with riots and protests. Hamas began shooting rockets into Israeli cities and Israel eventually responded with an aerial campaign to weaken Hamas and stop the rocket fire. All the while, we were trying to tour the country.
Everything happened so fast. We found ourselves in the middle of the worst conflict Israel has seen in many years, and this made it very difficult to focus on exploring Israel and reconnecting with our heritage and roots.
Touring Through the Conflict
On the second Tuesday night, we had a long conversation with our tour guide Daniel about the security situation and his personal perspective on the conflict. Though I suspect a good number of people disagreed with his politics (he is on the right), it was sobering to hear about his experience. He is a major in an elite combat unit in charge of 90 soldiers, and he shared a bit about his work, the challenges of geography and maps, and his sense of what was currently happening in Israel (that night, over 100 rockets had been fired into Israeli cities).
The next evening, a few of us were sitting by the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) drinking wine and playing cards, as if we were in the most peaceful place in the universe. Yet our conversation was about the events of the past week. The most ironic part of the conversation was when someone asked me if it was safe to go to Tel-Aviv the next afternoon. Without a moment of hesitation or doubt, I replied that it was probably the safest place in Israel. In the past, hitting Tel Aviv was understood to be an escalation of tremendous significance. I was confident that we would be safe there.
On our first day, a few hours after our arrival, a group of us were leaving the hotel pool to return to our rooms, and while in the lobby, a rocket was fired at Tel Aviv. We were ushered into a bomb shelter and there was a lot of confusion about precisely what was going on. Luckily, the Iron Dome intercepted the rocket and we were safe.
After people returned to their rooms, I met with the head of security in order to find out what to do if that were to happen again. I then went room to room and showed everyone from our group where their shelter was and what to do if a siren went off. Folks from the shul were impressively calm about everything. I went out to buy candy for our kids so that with each siren, we could have a little sugar party in the shelter and it would be less scary for them. Outside of the hotel, I bumped into families from the synagogue going out to dinner. We were responsible about our choices, and we did not panic. This, I think, we learned from the Israelis around us.
We ended up canceling a visit to the Ayalon Factory for safety reasons, but otherwise, we continued our trip as planned. We had a farewell dinner, hugged in the airport, and then everyone went on their journey home. Some went via Turkey, others went straight home, and Tali and I brought our kids south to be with family. But the trip ended with a pressing need to continue processing our time here. It was a difficult time to be in Israel, but it did provide insight into the challenges of living in this country.
I want to share a few personal observations and feelings. Some will be political, which I generally do my best to keep private, but there are times that call for an openness to such questions, and now feels like one of them.
There was a moment that was awkward and humorous, but I think, revealed a very serious aspect of life here. On our last day of touring, our guide Daniel was discussing the situation with us as we pulled out of our hotel. He tried to end his update on a positive note. He spoke about the importance of faith and the belief that God will protect us (he is religious). He then asked me to affirm this. In jest, I said that I was more comfortable in my faith in the Iron Dome, which led to a good laugh and a riff on the famous joke (God: "But Avrumi, I did save you. I sent you the technology to build the Iron Dome....").
But part of that laughter was born out of relief, relief at the technological advances here. Without the Iron Dome, we would have been living in shelters all day and night, without any protection from missiles intended to kill us. Every day I have been thankful for this innovation (and I stopped complaining about weak Wifi in the land of hi-tech). Within 3 seconds after a missile is fired from any launcher in Gaza, the Iron Dome can calculate which city it will hit and an alarm sounds throughout the city. Residents have time to run to a shelter or for cover, and if the missile will hit a populated area, the Iron Dome will explode it in mid-air. The further one is from Gaza, the more time one has to find cover. So in Sderot, they have 15 seconds once a siren blares. In Tel Aviv, we had 90 seconds. Here in Lehavim, we have 45 seconds. But these 45 seconds mean everything, and we plan our life around those seconds, knowing the danger of being further than 45 seconds from ample shelter.
I have read a lot of posts by Americans living here right now, and there is a great deal of self-congratulatory bravado that is sprinkled throughout them. Some visiting Americans write as if they are risking their lives to "stand with Israel." To me, it seems that these folks may have lost perspective on what it means to be in mortal danger. They are not flying missions over Gaza, preparing to enter Gaza for a ground invasion, or living in Sderot or Gaza. It is important to me not to diminish the situation of people on both sides of the border whose lives actually are at risk by claiming a heroic courage for merely being here. Our presence may be an important political statement, but we are not risking our lives to make it.
So what is it actually like right now from the perspective of one American?
It is incredibly stressful and psychologically challenging. It is terrifying to run to a bomb shelter. The realization that people are purposely trying to kill me and my family shakes me to my core. But if I stay away from places without bomb shelters and minimize unnecessary driving, I am pretty safe. I am not risking my life by being here, but life as we know it has been radically altered. The notion that life simply goes on in the same way is not true. Life goes on, but the texture of daily life is totally different. We are more likely to fight with one another. Everything we do must be assessed based on adequate shelter from rockets. We don't drive much (one is most exposed and vulnerable when a rocket is shot while driving). Life is lived amidst a background of endless rockets and constant sirens and running to bomb shelters and minimizing trauma to our children. All of this engenders anger and impatience. We are generally anxious and scared. Good sleep is elusive. Over time this grinds a person down; it is emotionally exhausting. But as someone trying to describe what life is like here to folks in the States, it seems important to reduce the hyperbolic dispatches and be very clear that if one is responsible about his/her choices, our lives are not at risk.
All this being said, there is no other place that I would rather be right now, not because my presence gives strength to Israelis (many wonder why we are still here), and not because I am somehow making a difference in the conflict, but because my family is here. My people are here. And in trying times, we want to be with our people, our family.
Hamas, Politics and the West Bank
There are some who have argued that if Israel would lift its blockade of Gaza, then Hamas would not attack Israel. The idea of Hamas enjoying a port into which they could openly smuggle far more effective missiles, launchers, and weapons is as terrifying as the naiveté of those who suggest such a thing. There are others who explain this conflict with Hamas through the lens of the occupation of the West Bank. This too is naive. Hamas is not committed to ending the occupation of the West Bank or the freedom to control Gaza's borders. It is committed to destroying the State of Israel, period. If you have any questions about this, please read their charter. This is just one quote from the end of Article Seven:
...Hamas has been looking forward to implement Allah’s promise whatever time it might take. The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree (cited by Bukhari and Muslim).
A few days ago, this section of the charter popped into my head while I crouched down with my children in a bomb shelter, hiding beneath reinforced concrete. They are actually trying to kill ME! They are trying to kill my 11 year old and my 8 1/2 year old and my 2 1/2 year old. Until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This conflict with Hamas is not about the occupation. This conflict with Hamas is not about the control of the borders and port of Gaza. It is about dissolving the Jewish State, and the murder of Jews is a vehicle for doing so. It is not as if I did not know this before. I surely did. But the experience of protecting myself from rockets aimed at my family brought this reality home in a visceral way. It is terribly important for people to distinguish between Hamas and Fatah, between the occupation and Gaza. When we conflate them we become unsophisticated in assessing the political, military, and moral questions of the conflict.
Moral Responsibility and the Tragedy of Civilian Death
Even if Hamas builds their operational centers in residential buildings...
Even if Hamas demands, even threatens, that civilians must risk their lives as human shields...
Even if Hamas stockpiles weapons in hospitals, mosques, and schools...
Even if Hamas launches rockets at Israeli cities from civilian population centers...
Even if Israel has developed technology to "knock on roofs," to warn residents to flee a building that will soon be destroyed...
Even if Israel drops flyers, sends text messages, and makes phone calls to residents urging them to flee the area because of the bombing soon to come...
Even if Israel aborts missions when civilians are present while Hamas targets civilians....
Even if Hamas is morally culpable for the death and abuse of its own civilians...
Israel has still been put in the position where it is accidentally killing innocent people. It may be working tirelessly to minimize these deaths and injuries, but it is impossible to prevent such deaths in war, and each one of them is a tragedy. We defend ourselves from confronting this by immediately jumping into the question of moral responsibility. As soon as we argue that the moral responsibility for the deaths of innocent Gazans is on Hamas, we protect ourselves from reflecting on the tremendous loss and destruction wreaked by the bombs that we must drop, even if Israel is justified in dropping them.
It is essential to formulate and share the moral argument for Israel's mission. I have no doubt that this operation is morally justified. At the same time, we ought to acknowledge that many innocent Gazans are being killed, and in the end, that they are the most profound victims of Hamas. The misery in Gaza is utterly devastating and this suffering touches the lives of thousands of people. I think that Israelis and those of us who love and care about Israel ought to integrate this suffering into our own consciousness, and I am deeply inspired by the many Israelis on the right and the left who do. I know that in the midst of war this is asking a lot. But I think we ought to assimilate their stories into our sense of Israel's history and future. We ought to know who the innocent victims of this war are. We ought to know who has been orphaned and widowed. This burden is partly ours to carry, and yes, I think that we ought to do this even though Hamas bears all of the moral responsibility for their deaths and suffering. I know that many will feel uncomfortable with this, but this is the ethos of Judaism at its best.
The Mysterious "Other Way"
Some are unconvinced by the moral case for Israel's current operation and they vehemently argue that what Israel is doing is wrong. They keep saying that there must be some "other way." Somehow, the definition of this "other way" remains mysterious.
If one argues that Israel should not be engaging in this campaign then the onus is on him to outline, at least in broad strokes, what Israel ought to do instead. If one argues that Israel should not bomb Hamas infrastructure because of the civilian casualties, then one must present an alternative option. Without offering an alternative, what one is saying, in effect, is that it is okay for Israelis to live with a constant barrage of rockets being fired at their civilians. I can't imagine that any thoughtful or reasonable person would suggest such a thing. If Israel should not be attacking Hamas' infrastructure, then how should they respond to this rocket fire? This is an essential question. Not providing a reasonable answer to this question is a very loud answer in and of itself implying that Israelis ought to live with rockets raining on down on their cities.
Life is Hard; Life Hardens
I just returned from a local cafe during the humanitarian cease fire requested by the UN and agreed to by all sides. A short time into this reprieve, Hamas fired rockets into Israel, an apt metaphor indeed. It's terribly difficult to cultivate trust here.
Life is hard here, and I am the first to admit how quickly I forget that when I am in America. As I sat in the cafe, I watched a group of reservists sip coffee on their way down to Gaza. I tried to think about what is going through their minds. Since I have friends who were called up, I have an idea. What follows is their current situation painted in broad strokes.
If there is a ground invasion, these guys are going to enter an impossibly horrific situation. They will find Hamas terrorists dressed in civilian clothing who lure soldiers into booby-trapped situations and use civilians as human shields. They do this as an exploitation of IDF training which requires soldiers to increase their own risk in order to decrease the risk to innocent civilians. These reservists (who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, bankers, etc) have dropped everything, left their wives and children, and are waiting to go into a battle in which they know many of them will be killed or injured. They are aware that they will have split seconds to make decisions about who is an enemy and who is innocent, and they know that they may potentially make the wrong decision. They will have to live with that ghastly consequence for the rest of their lives. And here they sit, sipping coffee, hoping to have the opportunity to put an end to the madness created by Hamas while at the same time, fearing the endless horrible scenarios in which they may soon find themselves.
Living under fire hardens a person. Living under constant threat makes it difficult to remain open and trusting. If we want to understand the cultural and political trends in Israel we have to reflect on the psychological impact of living in this environment. It is easy to scoff at this hardening from America. It is easy to imagine that Israelis enjoy the privileges of life in America or Europe. But when humanitarian cease fires are opportunities for terrorists to fire rockets on you, when you run over and over to take shelter from rockets meant to kill you, when your spouse risks his life to go to war and families are torn apart by violence, it hardens a person. I have learned something important from my friends here who are working to build bridges and cultivate trust again: we can't simply condemn Israelis for being less tolerant and more skeptical. We have to understand the reasons for this shift and the sociological factors that lead to this hardening. If we want to reverse these trends, then we must start by acknowledging that this hardening didn't occur in a vacuum; there are significant factors that explain this shift. If we don't do this, we will be dismissed as naive, and rightfully so.
Fear and Intimacy
I want to conclude this dispatch by sharing a moment from our trip. Before we entered the ancient synagogue of Katzrin (it's one of the first synagogues in the history of synagogues!), we sat at the entrance to the ruins and studied a sugya from the Talmud. Rabbi Yosi enters one of the ruins of Jerusalem after the Temple was destroyed (it could have been the Temple itself) and he prays. When he is finished, Elijah the Prophet is standing at the entrance to the ruins and he reprimands Rabbi Yosi. He tells him that he should not have prayed in the ruins. When Rabbi Yosi asks why, Elijah asks him what he heard when he was praying. He responds, "I heard a divine voice, cooing like a dove, and saying: Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world!" When we pray, Elijah suggests, we stimulate God's attention. If we do this while standing in the ruins of a synagogue, we remind God of its destruction and the exile of His people. This causes God pain, Elijah teaches, so we should refrain from doing so.
I learned an interpretation of this sugya from Mo Martin, who suggests that this is really about the complex interrelationship between fear and intimacy. Rabbi Yosi enters a place that represents tremendous suffering, violence, and and destruction, and he is warned by a great prophet that this makes it an inappropriate context for prayer. But on the other hand, it's a place of profound intimacy. After all, he meets Elijah and hears the divine Voice. The Voice also conveys the tremendous sadness that is often a part of intimacy. We can't have intimacy without fear. We can't have intimacy that doesn't plant the seeds for moments of sadness and pain. These emotions are inextricably bound to one another. In order to experience the privileges that grow out of intimacy, we have to develop the skills to manage its shadow side: feelings of fear and sadness. It's a package deal.
After discussing this sugya, we entered the ruins of one of the earliest synagogues and we prayed mincha. We took a risk. We entered a place that once held the yearnings and dreams of some of the first Jews who risked expressing them to God, and we added our own. If God paid attention that day, I imagine that even if He cooed like a dove as He relived the violence of Katzrin's destruction, He also must have been proud to see us, His children, return to that synagogue during a time in which our Exile came to an end, not because of His doing, but because his children were courageous enough to return home and rebuild.
Part of the story of this return, like all stories of intimacy, is a story that contains sadness as well. The sadness of violence. The pain of a new exile for another people. The despair of renewed conflict. We are living that sadness and pain right now, and without the courage to find ways to create intimacy between our two peoples, we will find ourselves deeper and deeper in this ever widening conflict. Trying to connect with the "other" and build relationships is scary, but not so long ago, Israelis and Palestinians knew one another; they had interactions that were beyond surface exchanges. This conflict will not be solved by politicians, diplomats, or military men, but rather, by regular people overcoming their fear of "the other" in order to plant the seeds for intimacy. Perhaps in a moment of war, when people are hunkered down in bomb shelters and innocent people are being killed, this is too much to ask. Or, maybe this is precisely the time when it is most important. It has been deeply moving to see the way in which the Shaar, Frenkel, and Yifrach families have reached out to support the Khdeirs. They share the unbearable pain of having children murdered for political reasons, and despite the fears between the two nations, there may be few people who more intimately understand their pain than one another.
I return to the States tonight with a heavy heart. I made a commitment many months ago to attend a retreat that begins on Sunday. The intention of the retreat is to help clergy cultivate a spiritual practice through mindfulness meditation, prayer, silence, and study. Right now, this is the very last thing that I want to do. My head and soul are in an entirely different place, but maybe the best time for me to tend to my inner life is when it feels so broken.
I worry about the emotional and physical well being of my family who is staying for another two weeks. I worry about my dear friends who have been called up for a likely ground invasion. I worry about the future of the State of Israel. I pray for a cease fire and an end to the madness. I pray for healing on both sides of all borders.
I take solace in one thing: there are good people here who are tirelessly working to build the soul of this country even as its body is constantly threatened. It is they who give me hope as I pack my bags during this lull in the fighting, however temporary it may be.