On very short notice, a group of twelve American rabbis, all members of the CCAR, embarked on a five-day mission to Israel. It was our hope to demonstrate our solidarity with the people of Israel during a difficult and challenging time. It was also our hope to gain insights into the current situation, unmediated by the cacophony of cable news reports and the flood of postings on Facebook.
When I announced my plans to my congregation two days before I left, I received an overwhelming number of responses. Most people said, be safe, but so many others also thanked me for going, hoping that I could help them understand what was occurring in Israel and Gaza.
Our impulse for demonstrating solidarity was quickly validated. When we arrived in Israel, everywhere we went, everyone thanked us for just being present—for being there. That in itself was significant in many ways.
But we also went in search of greater clarity and understanding. I want to share some of my first impressions. The situation is incredibly complicated. There are no easy answers. There are not even any difficult good answers. This most recent Gaza war is heartbreaking, infuriating, frightening, but even, at times, inspiring.
This past year, I read, as well as taught and discussed, Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land. Keeping that book in mind was a good place to start in gaining a background on current events.
His book validated my own favorite phrase: All problems started as solutions. It should be remembered that Hamas was created by Israel in the hope that it would be a conservative, religious based organization to oppose the PLO, a radical secular group led by Yasser Arafat. Hamas had been seen as a solution. Today, it is the problem. Shimon Peres once said: “It is easy to be clever, but far more difficult to be wise.”
I will offer a couple of recurring themes, motifs, memes. First, there is a difference between tactics and strategy. The Iron Dome is a tactic. Tanks, planes, and drones are tactics. Tunnels are tactics. War itself is a tactic. But is there a real strategy for dealing with Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank? Tactics often maintain the status quo. True change requires strategy and vision. One can easily imagine the current tactics leading to victory, but as military conflict comes to an end, will Israel confront another eruption of violence in another year or two? Is the long-term goal merely managing the violence, controlling the population, “mowing the grass”? The realistic fear is that there will inevitably be a continuing series of uprisings unless the greater issues are addressed. Any long-term strategy must be based not on military power but on politics, economics, and education. Many feel that Israeli leadership has squandered the opportunities of the last five years to truly come to grips with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, Gaza became more and more unlivable, a place of hopelessness for a people with nothing to lose.
Instead of any possibility of reconciliation, the tactical choice for both sides was continued terror followed by a military response. In that setting, war would be inevitable. If not now, sometime soon. And, sure enough, there is war, but to my mind, this was an unnecessary war.
It began several months ago when Hamas, seriously weakened economically and politically, was forced to join in coalition with the PA. That was a political defeat for them. Yet Israel then broke off negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The kidnapping of three yeshiva students in the West Bank followed. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas for the kidnapping, and he did so with absolute certainty. For eighteen days all of Israel and the Jewish world was obsessed with the fate of those youths. Borrowing from the public relations campaign devoted to the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, Jewish social media filled with people holding posters saying, “Bring Back Our Boys”. Israel and world Jewry were consumed with the fate of these boys. But JJ Goldberg, writing in The Forward, claimed that the boys were kidnapped by a rogue family/tribe tied to Hamas but not directly answering to Hamas. Even more troubling, it appears that the boys were killed almost immediately and that the Israeli authorities knew. Some say that Israel was not certain of those deaths and could only know for certain once the bodies were discovered. That may well be true, but the ginned-up PR campaign was, in my mind, cynical manipulation that, in the end, had devastating consequences.
Once the boys’ bodies were found, there was profound national mourning, a communal cry of weeping. But genuine pain among most Israelis devolved into racist hatred that manifested itself in racist gangs roaming the streets shouting Death to Arabs, Death to the Left. Arabs were beaten up, and, most horrifically, the teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir, was burned alive by right wing thugs. In the protests that followed, his cousin, Tariq Abu Khdeir, an American citizen, was beaten by border police, and the beating was captured on video. There was revulsion and outrage in most of Israeli society, but quite quickly attention was redirected to rocket attacks from Gaza. Rocket firings from Gaza began in full strength. But were the attacks from Hamas really a direct response to the death of Muhammed Abu Khdeir?
On the Israeli side, the kidnapping of the three youths provided the pretext for the re-arrests of Hamas operatives who had been freed in return for the release of Gilad Shalit. The re-arrest could be seen as a breaking of the 2012 truce agreement. While rocket fire from Gaza into southwestern Israel had continued, the massive number of rocket attacks only began at this point. Were the rocket attacks really in response to the killing and beating or, in fact, a reaction to the arrests of the previously freed prisoners?
I offer no idealization of Hamas. I believe they are very bad actors. They use terror to try to absolutely destroy Israel. Annihilation is their ultimate goal. Their leader, Khaled Mashal, now based in Qatar, wants to eradicate the State of Israel from the holy land. Any means can be used to get to that end. In his thinking, Palestinian civilian deaths are an asset to that cause. They help weaken Israel and turn the world against it. Yes, Hamas hides in civilian areas. Their headquarters are embedded below a hospital. They put weapons in UNWRA buildings and fire rockets from schoolyards and mosques. All that is true.
Yet, with full implementation of the Iron Dome defense, Israeli leadership knew that Hamas was militarily impotent. Israel commanded the air. But Hamas still possessed the potent tactic of fear. The rocket attacks were aimed (loosely defined) at civilian populations. We visited Sderot, Gdera, and Ashkelon, towns where rockets strike terror and fear. People run to shelters. Children’s playgrounds have equipment built with reinforced concrete to be used as shelters in case of attack. Parents and children can’t leave their homes or go to summer camp or the community pool. It is an untenable situation.
But the fear of rockets, and the subsequent focus on the Hamas tunnels, exemplified the schizophrenic Israeli attitudes of invincibility and vulnerability. Israelis feel invincible from the air, both in offense and defense, but there is a feeling of great vulnerability because of the threat of the tunnels beneath their homes, kindergartens, and greenhouses.
The Iron Dome is really quite incredible. It is able to calculate the trajectory of a rocket and intercept only those rockets that would pose a real danger and let the others fall in open fields. It has been a game changer. Hamas was ultimately impotent in terms of attacks from the air. I was reminded of the Ali-Foreman fight. In his rope-a-dope tactic, Ali just took all of Foreman’s punches until his opponent was too tired to hold his arms up. Finally, in the eighth round, Ali knocked out the exhausted Foreman. With the Iron Dome in full operation, Hamas could fire off a thousand rockets until its storehouse was exhausted. None of those rockets was effective.
That is not to say that the aerial attack was not frightening, but it was ultimately ineffective.
Israelis became attuned to the sirens and warnings of the rocket attacks. Everyone had apps on their cell phones tied to the alarms and telling them where the danger might be. Three times during our own trip we had to react. Twice when we were in a meeting in a home in Ashkelon, overlooking the Mediterranean, the sirens sounded, and we found shelter in the stairway or in the home’s safe room. Once the sirens sounded at 2 a.m., and guests in our hotel in Tel Aviv came out of their rooms and went to the secure area. (I slept through that one.)
The Iron Dome was managing the rocket attacks, but the discovery of the tunnels was far more terrifying. The existence of the tunnels was not really new information. Hamas had used the tunnels before; the capture of Gilad Shalit was the best-known example. But the Israelis did not fully appreciate the extent of the tunnels. Once this became known, people could easily imagine sitting down to dinner or going to sleep and suddenly having terrorists pop out of the ground to kidnap or kill them or their children. This would be a nightmare scenario, and Israeli forces reported discovering plans for a coordinated attack on Rosh Hashanah that would have resulted in terrible deaths as well as kidnappings.
But, once again, these are discussions of tactics, not strategy. The Israelis will figure out a way to defend against the tunnels. I suggested a twenty-six mile trench. Seeing the road building engineering taking place along the Bab el Wad entrance to Jerusalem, it is clear that Israel has the capability to move mountains. There will be better sensing devices. There was talk of artificial earthquakes collapsing the tunnels. Perhaps they will sink steel plates into the earth. Give them time. There can be an effective tactical response.
Ultimately the Gaza war will end. As I write this, it appears that the IDF is redeploying and withdrawing from Gaza. The compelling question now is what will come after the war. What will be the future of Gaza and the Palestinians, and most importantly, what will be the future of Israel? The true threat to Israel is what is tunneling beneath the surface of the society.
There was overwhelming support for Operation Protective Edge. The IDF remains the beloved institution of Israel, “our beautiful self,” in the words of Miri Eisin. The soldiers are everyone’s sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, neighbors. Most every Israeli supported the goals of combatting Hamas and bringing peace and security to Israeli kibbutzim and towns. We arrived in Israel only a few days after the funerals of Sean Carmelli and Max Steinberg, American youths who had gone to Israel and volunteered for the IDF. As “lone soldiers” they were without the typical family circle of support. But their funerals demonstrated that they were adopted by the entire nation. More than 20,000 people attended their burials and, more significantly, truly mourned for them.
Israel was united in grief when soldiers died, but, when this war ends, will the sense of unity last? In all our meetings and discussions we returned to a recurring theme: what will follow the war? Israeli society has deep fissures, chasms, fractures. At the moment they may be on the back burner, but Israel will have to confront dangerous forces from within. The horrific death of teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir exposed the extent of racist fascism in certain sectors of the Israeli population. The Settler Price Tag gangs (Tag Machir) have operated with virtual impunity for the last number of years. They attacked Arabs, Israeli leftists, Christian clergy, and others. The writer Amos Oz has called them Jewish neo-Nazis. There has been little or no effort to catch them or punish them. They have been supported and encouraged by equally racist rabbis and politicians. In a meeting with Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, she said that too often in Israel the lesson of the Holocaust is that the world is against us and seeks our destruction. Instead, she said, the real lesson should be: how does a democracy disintegrate into fascism?
Many people have warned of the pending earthquake waiting to erupt once peace returns. There are great divisions in Israeli society. Avrum Burg once stated that, in Israel, there are extremists on the right, extremists on the left, and extremists in the middle. But this is now more than a humorous phrase. The Price Tag neo-Nazi gangs represent one extreme manifestation, but the Israeli Jew-Israeli Arab tension is very real. There are members of the Knesset and members of the ruling coalition that have called for the denial of some basic civil rights of the Arab citizens of Israel. More than 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, and yet their position in the Jewish State often seems precarious. Marauding gangs have also attacked leftists, or those they perceive to be on the left. In addition, and with less violence, there are two distinct worlds in tension between the settlers of the West Bank and Israelis living on the coastal plain. The settlers are seen as religious nationalistic fanatics, while the Tel Aviv, Herziliyah, Haifa Israelis are seen by the right wing as hedonistic secular heretics.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman has spoken about the multiple tribes of modern Israel. Some of the bitter animosity that exists between those tribal groups has already resulted in violence. There is renewed fear that whatever cohesion that has existed in Israeli society is quickly breaking down. There are the ultra-orthodox and the secularists, new Russian immigrants and the Israeli Sabra society, Sephardim and the entrenched Ashkenazi elite, the underclass and the oligarchs. Add to that the frustration over political corruption and a lack of opportunity for those without the necessary connections, and there is deep concern about a potentially volatile battle for the future direction of the Jewish state.
The Zionist dream was about returning the Jewish people to a normal existence. From the year 70 to 1948 Jews had lived without power. They were subjects in other countries, and they had little control over their fate. But 1948 changed all that. The Jewish people had power, and today Israel is indeed a powerful nation in terms of its military and economy. It was easy to be ethical when powerless. How does a state act with the highest morals when it is powerful and when it must battle a terrorist enemy deeply embedded among a civilian population living in a densely populated urban environment?
We met with Colonel (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, Deputy Commander of the Southern Brigade. His PhD thesis was: “Ethics in the Field: An Inside Look at the Israel Defense Forces.” Col. Gruber was quick to admit that neither Israel nor the IDF was righteous, but there were rules of engagement based on clear objectives and standards. Having said that, collateral damage was inevitable, given the nature of these battles. Israel must accept some of the responsibility for the consequences of its massive fire power. The death of innocents, especially children, was heartbreaking.
Finally, the Zionist dream was a democratic Jewish state where the eternal values of prophetic Judaism could be lived out in the real world, not just in the minds of theologians and philosophers. When the final tank leaves Gaza, and when the fighter jets return to their bases, what will be the future of Israel? Will the Settlement Enterprise continue its course in direct conflict with the definition of Israel as both democratic AND Jewish? It can’t be both, if Israel continues to occupy the West Bank. Will fascist racists continue to influence the ruling coalition of Bibi Netanyahu? Alternatively, will a coalition of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and many of the Emirates come together to create a peaceful Gaza where economic opportunity provides hope for a population that has been living lives of desperation? Will this coalition be able to create a new Marshall Plan for Gaza? More importantly, will this finally be the time to recognize that the old tactics will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? There is talk that new peace initiatives are surfacing in response to the Gaza war. If so, there may still be hope for a solution to Israel’s life among its neighbors.
Ultimately, however, the real existential threat to Israel is internal. It is quite miraculous that Israel has thrived for sixty-six years in spite of continuing war, absorbing millions of immigrants and living with deep religious and tribal divisions. But it has. The question now is what is the vision for the future? Amos Oz has stated that Israeli leadership has been driving a car with a windshield covered in black paint. The only means of navigation has been the rear view mirror. They are very aware of where they have come from, but they are unable to see the road in front of them.
I went to Israel on a last minute mission to demonstrate solidarity and to arrive at a deeper, more authentic understanding of the current conflict. As a small group of rabbis, we achieved our goal as a solidarity mission. As for greater understanding and clarity, the situation is enormously complicated. I cannot claim to have arrived at clear solutions to a conflict that has frustrated so many thinkers and analysts. Yet I continue to return to Israel. I always find it inspiring and energizing, while, at the same time, it remains demanding and often infuriating. To me, Israel matters. I always try to remember that Israel was created and built by idealists, dreamers, and visionaries. Let us hope and pray that it can be led once more by those ideals of equality, opportunity, and peace.
Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.