I travelled to Israel at the end of July, one of 13 rabbis, organized by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as a solidarity mission while the war raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The goal of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” is to disable Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into Israel, now capable of reaching Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. And to destroy the network of tunnels Hamas has been digging and reinforcing with cement intended to build schools, hospitals and homes; tunnels dug across Israel’s border as a terrorist tactic to instill fear in those communities underneath which the tunnels reach, intended to kill or kidnap Israeli civilians and soldiers. Any sovereign nation has the right, actually the obligation, to defend itself against enemy attack. Israel can claim that right to justify its extensive military operation. I wanted to travel to Israel, on behalf of Temple Solel, to show up for our brothers and sisters, collect and bring needed supplies to IDF soldiers, understand more deeply the complicated politics at play in Israel and the surrounding region, and return to share my experiences within Solel and the greater community. Here’s one story from the beginning of my trip.
It was motzei Shabbat, the end of Shabbat, and I heard on the news that there was going to be an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Rabin, Rabin Square. I took a cab from my hotel to the square. On the radio in the cab, driven by a Russian Jew who made aliya in the mid ‘90’s, played the traditional music marking havdalah, the ritual that moves us from Shabbat into the new week. What other country would you hear a cabbie play such music? The music concluded with the prayer of hope that Eliyahu ha’navi, that Elijah the prophet, who in our tradition will usher in the Messianic age, will arrive soon. Such an irony, as I stepped out of the cab to an anti-war rally. There were no signs of Elijah.
The square was quite a sight to behold. An estimated 5,000 Israelis were gathered peacefully, with speaker after speaker denouncing the level of force Israel chose to use in Gaza, the resulting high number of civilian deaths, physical devastation, and the emerging humanitarian crisis. These were not fringe Israelis. These were proud citizens, with children fighting in Gaza, who themselves had served in the IDF. And, of course, there was a counter rally. A few hundred flag-waving Israelis, shouting loudly at their fellow citizens, denouncing them as traitors, who had turned their backs on the IDF soldiers fighting on the front lines. And, literally in the middle, was a large police force, on foot and horses, protecting the anti-war protesters from the counter protesters; Jews protecting Jews (and some, very few, Israeli Arabs) from Jews. It actually was a powerful reflection of Israel’s democracy in action – freedom of speech. If only the peoples of the surrounding Arab countries could speak so freely.
The square is named after Yitzhak Rabin (z”l) who, on November 4, 1995, was assassinated by an Israeli Jewish religious extremist, Yigal Amir. Rabin, a military man, a warrior who fought for the modern State of Israel, as an elder statesman, led with the greatest courage of his life, for peace. As Israel’s Prime Minister during this time, Rabin took the bold steps to put a halt to further building in the West Bank settlements, and was prepared to make land concessions with the Palestinians, for the sake of peace – bold steps for which he would pay with his life. Rabin, to garner public support for his actions, held a massive peace rally, in this very square (previously known as Kings of Israel Square). After an inspiring speech, challenging Israel to seize this window of opportunity for peace, departing the square, Amir shot Rabin in cold blood.
Now, almost 20 years later, off the square, down a dimly-lit pathway, in ear-shot of the rally, I stood alone, next to the memorial statue of Yitzhak Rabin, in the very spot he was assassinated. For any number of contributing factors, mostly a lack of political will and courage on both sides of the table, Israeli and Palestinian, the prospects for peace has taken a detour in the past two decades, a peace now barely discernible. Alone with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the barely illuminated dark, I could see the bronze bust of his proud, pensive, determined demeanor, shaking his head from side to side, with a tear rolling down his cheek. Had all for which he sacrificed been in vain?
Israel, indeed, needs to defend her borders and her people. Yet, as a warrior amongst warriors, Rabin understood, with the hard-gained wisdom of battle and age, only a political solution will break the cycle of violence. If we are ever to see the Prophet Elijah, it will take men and women, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, with the imagination, creativity and courage of Yitzhak Rabin to reach across the table to one another, for the sake of peace. Someday, God-willing, I, or my son, or my grandchildren will stand in this place, along side Elijah, and see Rabin nod up and down, with a smile on his face.
Rabbi John A. Linder is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel, Phoenix, Arizona.