From Day Two of the CCAR Solidarity Mission to Israel
We drove to Sederot to meet Colonel Benzi Gruber, whose PhD thesis is “Ethics in the Field: An Inside Look at the Israel Defense Forces.” He taught us: “To understand the ethics, one needs to understand how decisions are made.” It’s different when you’re in an office philosophizing vs in the field. In the field, “you have 8 seconds to decide. You’re tired, carrying 65 pounds minimum on your back. After four hours, exhaustion limits your IQ…”
But there are always ethical boundaries, even or perhaps especially in the field.
First, is force used only to accomplish the mission?
Second, is the force used to target innocents? Hamas terrorists are dressed like everyone else – so how do you know who the enemy is? And as I shared earlier, when videos reveal that a scene began with guns next to the terrorist, but then the gun is removed, and the terrorist appears to the outside world in this edited film as a non-combatant…
Israeli soldiers are taught: when in doubt, don’t shoot.
So the third boundary: Is the collateral damage proportionate to the immediate threat? If a terrorist is in a car with four children, is he laser targeted? The answer depends on whether he is literally on his way to do something dangerous. If more people would be killed in that action going forward, he and the innocent children will be killed. I saw videos of missiles being diverted into open fields because a targeted Hamas leader or terrorist was not doing something dangerous in that moment, but had run into a crowd of people, or a home, or a school…
Colonel Gruber taught: a committee of rabbis, philosophers, military leaders sat and studied Judaism and applied our heritage of wisdom to modern war ethics. These guidelines rule military behavior today. Any new chief of staff must consult those and abide by those rules.
We learned: Jewish ethics teach that property and people are not equivalent. While buildings will not be destroyed punitively, if a building must be destroyed to protect soldiers, it will be.
We asked: What’s the system for review and accountability for guiding soldiers post-decision? We learned: After each day, there are reviews in the field. Israelis do hold themselves accountable. They make mistakes – and they print them in their newspapers. They take themselves to task.
But they are not evil. They do not deliberately target civilians.
Hamas does. Colonel Gruber’s military base sits 1 mile from the Gaza Strip. It’s not been hit once, not even close. Over a thousand rockets have been aimed at roads and towns and cities – at innocent children.
Colonel Gruber emphasized: “We can’t solve the problem, we can only manage it.
Right now, we’re in defense, not in offense. We are destroying tunnels and stockpiles of rockets. It’s a ‘forward defense.’”
After lunch, we returned to Ashkelon. I was deeply moved by the Israeli flags waving at the entrance to the city. They were a proud statement of presence. This is our home.
We met with the ex-Deputy Mayor of the city, who took us to an apartment high up on the 16th floor with a panoramic view of the city and coast north and south. To the north was Ashdod and to the south, the electric plant serving Central Israel – and Gaza. Hamas has fired many rockets into that plant, causing Gaza to lose much of its own electricity.
At 5pm, suddenly the siren went off. We moved calmly into the stairwell and waited the requisite ten minutes before returning. Almost immediately, the siren went off again, and we returned to shelter. This time I went into the ma’amad, the “armored room” in the apartment.
All new Israeli buildings require this construction. Our guide Uri Feinberg’s ma’amad doubles as an uncluttered playroom for his children, so that they won’t be afraid when they need to stay there.
Was I frightened? Truly, no. The Iron Dome is an extraordinary success story. More on that tomorrow.
We turned on the news, and there was Ashkelon: rocket fire recorded and disabled.
But tragic news came later: five soldiers were killed in Gaza today. A nation mourned. Did you know that at the funerals of two lone soldiers last week, 20,000 people attended the first – and 30,000 the second? It wasn’t for the media. Hearts were breaking for the loss of two children of our people.
We drove to a mall, to purchase supplies for Lone Soldiers. Several of us entered a camping store to buy headlamps, needed in the tunnels. (Certain supplies are not readily channeled to combat units; our efforts were to help shortcut this).
Someone asked them, “Do you need headlamps?” We were persistent. In minutes, we stocked their unit of 25 men with headlamps – and socks and t-shirts. (We bought more for the Lone Soldiers whose organization we visit tomorrow).
We met Kafir, a bartender; Nir, sporting an earring; Aidan the young commander of the unit, a lieutenant; and an auto mechanic, Asaf. All but one were married with young children. All of their families are frantic with worry.
Each of them spoke of their concern for the innocent Palestinians caught in the grip of Hamas.
We walked out in silence and in tears.
How tiny is this nation, and how much we are family. No one is a stranger. Every person’s child is our own.
“When the night lies so still Oh before I go to sleep I come by, I come by Oh just to look at you In the dim light I say That in my own small way I will try, I will try To help you through.”
PS It’s 2:45am here in Tel Aviv. Just as I am about to click the “send” button, a siren has gone off. Up I jumped from my seat — knowing exactly where to grab my key and phone (everyone knows to go to bed properly clothed in case). I left the room and walked rapidly to the “ma’amad” down the hall. An instant small community quickly gathered — American, British, French, Israeli hotel guests. A small boy had a fever and we mothers shared advice across languages.
Ten minutes later, I’m back in my room. Laila tov, good night.
Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the Rabbi of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, NJ. She is also the editor of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur.