We began at Mt Herzl this morning, the third day of the CCAR Emergency Mission of support for Israel. Mt Herzl is the military cemetery of the State of Israel where men and women killed in defense of Israel lie side by side whether they were new to the army or a high-ranking career soldier.
We slowly made our way through the cemetery stopping at places such as the grave of Michael Levin, one of those now known as a Lone Soldier. We soon made our way to the row of new graves of solders buried this past week including perhaps the name best known to those of us in North America, Max Steinberg.
Standing in front of the mounds of earth forming these graves (not yet formally marked except for that of Max) I was suddenly overwhelmed with a deep sadness as I realized that we were standing on the strip of dirt where the next row of graves would soon be dug. Moments later a group of young soldiers came walking into the cemetery, fresh in their uniforms, youthful in their faces and the ways in which they moved. Who among them might be next? Do they even think that way? They soon left the cemetery far more quiet than when they had entered.
I must admit that I do not know if this emotional moment and other experiences this week have pushed me more “to the right or to the left” about Israel and the current war it faces.
Certainly we have seen first hand that Israel cannot tolerate Hamas in Gaza indiscriminately firing missiles into Israel’s civilian population and digging attack tunnels from which it can carry out acts of terror against Israel’s men, women and children. As we visited S’derot in the south of Israel, in view of the Gaza border, talking to Israelis of all ages we could hear in their voices their anxiety after living with years of unanswered rockets; we learned of Kibbutzim abandoned by all but a few; we shared some of that fear as we too were forced into shelters as the sirens sounded in Ashkelon and later in Tel Aviv.
We have also heard first hand from Israelis who share their anguish about the civilians killed in Gaza, Palestinians used by Hamas as human shields to protect its military headquarters, rocket launchers and fighters. For example, we saw a Rueters’ film of Hamas terrorists grabbing children off the streets to protect themselves as the moved into positions. A number of our speakers and friends have referred to Golda Meir’s remarks to Anwar Sadat more than 40 years ago that “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”
At the same time, it has been made clear from those we have met with – from Members of Knesset to military strategists, from older people to younger people, from rabbis to mall employees – that living at war cannot continue. Many say that the real subject of discussion has to be “what’s next.”
What’s next? A two state solution remains the most viable option, with an empowered Palestinian Authority controlling not just the West Bank but, as Shimon Peres reportedly said today, also back in control of Gaza in place of Hamas. At this moment, press such as the NY Times reports that this is a moment when other Arab countries may be ripe for such a push: “Egypt has led a new coalition of Arab states — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — that has effectively lined up with Israel in its fight against Hamas.”
It has been nearly 40 years since my classmates and I were first year rabbinic students in Jerusalem. I hope and pray that it is not another 40 years before peace comes to this land and that the graves on Mount Herzl are for significant political and Zionist leaders only, not for the young Israelis whose lives are cut down far too young.
Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism. The CCAR consists of 2,000 Rabbis in North American, Israel and throughout the world who lead more than 1.5 millions Jews in all walks of life in congregations, community settings, universities, chaplaincies and even the U.S. military.