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Mideast Conflict: Experiences and Hopes in Israel

The air raid sirens in Israel are haunting. Normally, they reverberate across the country two times in April every year, once to remember the victims of the Holocaust and then to memorialize those Israelis who died to create and defend a nation state for the Jewish people. Everything stops. Cars pull to the side of the road. People stand at attention for two full minutes until the siren ends. Then life resumes.

Israelis live with an awareness of how our Jewish people have moved from powerlessness to relative power in a short time. The past still affects the present. How could it not? Before the Holocaust, there were 17 million Jews in the world. In 2014, there are still only 13.5 million. Almost half live in Israel, our ancestral home never left by a remnant of Jews in more than 3,000 years, now surrounded by a chaotic Middle East.

I have stood for this siren memorial many times in Israel over the years.

Last week, I heard the siren twice while studying in Jerusalem. My first instinct was to stand. Then slowly, absorbing what was happening, I moved toward shelter. You have seconds before the missiles will come, I had been told. The first time, I was near a bomb shelter. The second time, I was in the Old City in Jerusalem and went under a stone archway with other passersby. Moments later I could see one of the five missiles intercepted by Iron Dome and heard the explosions of the others. Then life resumed.

I am grateful that Israel invested in new technologies to create Iron Dome — generously funded by the United States — to protect its citizens and visitors.

I am grateful but heartbroken over the situation.

Hamas is a terrorist organization. Israel protects its citizens with weapons; Hamas protects its weapons with its citizens. The result has been tragic in Gaza. Children and other civilians have died. I mourn every child, every Palestinian who has been killed.

Israel does everything possible, with remarkable techniques, to minimize civilian deaths, as compared with any other country in history. I have met Israeli soldiers who speak of seeing the image of God in every human being. They are not perfect; they are held accountable in courts of law; none of us has enough information to condone or condemn.

It is so important not to view this complex situation in black-and-white terms. Israel is not fighting Palestinians as a whole, nor, thankfully, are all Palestinians fighting Israel.

Nevertheless, there was a sense of inevitability with this current round of violence. Rockets from Gaza targeting civilians in Israel have never ceased in the past decade. During peace negotiations, more than 100 rockets were launched earlier this year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative for two states ended in failure in April without a Plan B. Israeli settlement building — though mostly in areas that Palestinian negotiators agree will be part of Israel in any two-state solution — complicated negotiations.

Then the extremists made it personal. Three Israeli Jewish teens were kidnapped and murdered, an act grotesquely cheered by Hamas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, however, rightly condemned the act. To Israel’s horror, Israeli extremists — in revenge — gruesomely murdered an Israeli Arab teenager. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly condemned the act. The day after her own son’s funeral, Rachel Frankel said: “The shedding of innocent blood [is] in defiance of all morality, of the Torah … of all of us in this country.” Last Tuesday, I joined 350 Israelis to offer condolences to Mohammed Abu Khader’s family at their home in East Jerusalem. Our presence, we hoped, would express a measure of humanity, especially now.

This humanity is needed by all. Last year, Minnesotan Muslims, Christians and Jews hosted a Palestinian and an Israeli who had both lost loved ones in the conflict. Wajih Tmaiza and Roi Golan, from “The Parents Circle,” told their stories in a forum titled “Reconciliation not Revenge.” Their message: Coexistence is possible. We need to find a way to live, not die together.

“There is no mercy in the Middle East,” noted Israeli journalist Ari Shavit said in March before 600 people at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul in conjunction with the Jewish Community Relations Council. “Israel must be tough to survive. But the source of our strength is belonging to the West, its values and our Jewish values.” May those values bring calm and coexistence soon.

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker has been rabbi at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul since 1997. He returned from Israel last Friday from a congregational trip and personal study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This blog originally appeared last week in the Star Tribune. 

Israel Rabbis Reform Judaism

Reflections and Concerns Upon Returning from Israel

I returned this morning from a week in Israel. I had planned to, under the auspices of AIPAC and with 17 other “progressive” rabbis (AIPAC’s term) see first-hand the multitudes of ways that Israel society is coping and excelling despite its continued security and societal challenges. Of course, what I got was a very different trip. I missed the first day due to a funeral back in Chicago. What I saw after that was a series of meetings with people of various backgrounds; the common word for all of them was that the situation is complicated. We met with a Palestinian demographer, GLBT activists, various professors, statesmen and community activists. Because of the war with Gaza there was much that we could not do, or at the very least there were many places we could not visit. Instead, we got to hear sirens, warning that Hamas missiles were incoming. We rushed to bomb shelters or stairwells. It all reminded me of a visit to Israel in late 2000, with the Second Intifada underway. The only difference was this time, thanks to the Iron Dome, the terror wasn’t really terror (at least for those not in the south). The terror was inconvenient. Which is to say it didn’t feel like terror at all.

Gaza security fence.
Gaza security fence.

My concern is for those with children, who cannot be so cavalier about the “they incompetently shoot missiles and if they are actually coming close by we zap them with Iron Dome”. My concern is for the soldiers, like my nephew, who may have to go into Gaza. And my concern is that the violence will not end soon. I came on the trip already believing that American Jews should support Israel much more than they should speak out against Israel. Actually I don’t think they should speak out at all. Unless they make aliyah of course, then be my guest. But I am grateful that Israelis themselves see the bigger picture. Most of those with whom we spoke will not give up hope that some agreement can be worked out.

On our last day (yesterday, actually) we visited a small hospital in Safed. This is a place with doctors and nurses of all religions and ethnic groups, including of course Jewish. For a year and a half they have been treating hundreds of Syrians who make their way to the board. We met with a three year old who was shot in the leg and who is getting excellent treatment. His father was the first Syrian I had ever met. I know he will always be grateful for the menshlikheit of the Jews and Arabs who saved his boy’s leg, if not his life.

One final thought, translated by me from the Hebrew of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s press conference last Friday: Hamas uses civilians to cover their missiles. Israel uses missiles to protect their civilians. That’s the difference.

I cannot wait to return to Israel, hopefully in a time of quiet and opportunity for peace. In the mean time I come away with even greater respect for Israel, a country that, in the words of Dr. Donniel Hartman, wants to be Scandinavia but is stuck in the Middle East.

Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Note from Israel: A Rabbi Reflects on a Difficult Week

It has been a difficult time in Israel. I have been here in Eretz Yisrael for more than a week now. Arriving just before they found the bodies of Eyal,Gilad and Naftali. When the news of the discovery of their bodies came over the news I was with several colleagues and it was a palpable moment that took our breath away. Israel went into mourning. Jews from the right or left cried with their families. I was surprised how few cars were out in the streets. I was glued to watching the funeral and crying too. And then in the midst of mourning, a young Arab teen burned alive. Retribution by a gang of Jewish thugs; it was cold-blooded murder.

A country and a Jewish people that prides itself on the value “choose life” has within it such depravity – it shocks the nation. The burnt body of Muhammed Abu Khadeir gave Israel another blow and made many realize that the rhetoric that they have espoused has consequences. Words matter and the words of revenge, the cycle of violence represented by this has given Israel pause. This was a reason for more tears for Muhammed, his family and for my Israel who is so conflicted and so battered from every side, even as the Army went door to door on the West Bank searching for the 2 murderers of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad.

IMG_4124But these deeply saddening events have taken place against a background of a barrage of rocket and missile fire from Hamas. Since the agreement of Fatah and Hamas to create their “unity” government, the rockets have fallen through the south with increasing volume. And then yesterday, as Israel called up reservists and gathered at the border of Gaza the rockets reigned down on an ever increasing circle of Israel. Sderot, Beersheva, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Last night it took me a minute. I heard the sirens. But it didn’t compute. The TV was on. I was watching it and hearing it as if numb and realized this wasn’t just far away but overhead.   Hurriedly I found the safety of the shelter with others in the hotel. Shaken and realizing that Israel has entered a new and frightening phase it was a night of little sleep. All of Israel is vulnerable to the missiles.

Even though I have had many tears this week, I am strengthened in my commitment to Israel by being here. By sharing in the Israel experience, not just in times of quiet and celebration, but in these extraordinarily difficult times. And I know our rabbinic presence in Israel bring strength to Medinat Yisrael.

May Israel be kept in our prayers. For peace outside and within.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and is President Elect of the CCAR. You can follow her travels this week in Israel @deniseeger #rabbinicmission2Israel. Or @AIPAC