Remarks from Israel

I write from Jerusalem, a city of beauty, hope and aspirations, the “City of Peace.” First, thanks to so many of you who called and e-mailed with concern. I am safe and fine.

As many of you know, I have been honored to study for the last few weeks at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a wonderful place of scholarship and vision where rabbis of all dominations come together to be both challenged and inspired by some of Israel’s greatest teachers of Jewish text. Poignantly, the topic of our study this session was “War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition.” While we labored over ancient texts and their implication for our Jewish future, the reality of Israel in these last weeks has accented every word.

In my short time here, I watched a nation wait with prayerful hope that the three kidnapped teens –Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal- would be brought home safe. Sadly, I watched that hope turn to the grief and anger at the discovery of their bodies. The pain of the families burying these young victims of senseless hatred was almost unbearable; their dignity and compassion was inspiring. The national reaction was more than palatable: spontaneous prayer vigils and songs of hope and peace. And yet, it was dashed, for even before their shiva had ended, hatred and bigotry turned to murder.

Mohammed Abu Khdeir, an Arab teenager, was kidnapped and burnt alive. In those flames, I believe that part of the Jewish soul of the State of Israel burned as well. Just as the only thing black and white about the texts I studied was the way in which they appeared on the paper, nothing in Israel’s reality is so either. Life here is complicated and it cannot be reduced to the sound bites of CNN, FOX, or sensationalist pundits. Israel is complicated and complex. The country’s longing for peace and its struggle for security demand much more of us than a letter from Jerusalem can provide.

But I want to share some of my observations from these weeks. I wish to tell you that, after shuttling into bomb shelters here in Jerusalem, when the siren ends life is strangely normal. Because the common soul in the Middle East, whether Israeli or Palestinian, Jew or Muslim, desires peace. But more than this, their souls also crave normalcy. As I have visited with both Arab and Israeli friends, whom I have known for more than 30 years now, they want an end to the suffering and an end to the chaos. Yes, everyone experiences fear as you leave your car to stand by the road side when the siren sounds and rockets are seen in the sky over your head. There is fear when mothers rush to take children into the shelters, often with just 15 seconds of warning. There is fear when fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, leave home and say goodbye as they are called to military duty. There is fear, too, in the soldiers for what has to be done and for the suffering that will result.

The tensions accompanying the beginnings of “Operation Protective Edge,” the operation aimed at ending the rocket fire coming from Hamas terrorists in Gaza, have brought the frightening sound of sirens signaling rocket attacks across the center of Israel. They have also brought solidarity of belief that Israel must answer this Hamas attack on the civilian population. These tensions have equally brought the sound of another alarm in the soul of those who love this place called Israel.

These weeks have brought intensity to the question regarding the nature of the Jewish State’s soul. Israel can and will defend itself. It must. But how it uses the power to do so and to what end, is asked now in every corner of this country. Israel asks “will we be defined by what others think of us or will we be defined by what we want the Jewish State to be?” How Israel will be defined by her actions is not just an international question, but a societal question as well. Will Israeli society allow itself to be defined by the extremes? This question is played out here and abroad. We see the polarity in response to these crises. Students walk the streets here holding signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic quoting the words of Leviticus: “Love they neighbor as thyself,” while others write signs of hate against the Arabs. The global Jewish response has been polarized as well. A UK B’nei Akiva Rabbi demanded that the IDF take the foreskins of the Arabs, that we should seek revenge on all Arabs. This is at the same time that others gather in prayer vigils praying that the IDF won’t have to send in ground troops, and that they will not have to light candles for more dead children, Palestinian and Israeli.

The sound of the siren ends and business as usual resumes almost immediately. Some say: “That is our strength here, to just go on and not let the terrorist steal our normalcy.” But I believe that to resume life as normal without further thought may be to ignore our challenge and our destiny. We can’t let the soul of our future be defined by moments of crisis alone. Every Jewish organization has sent me an e-mail that states: “Now is the time to safeguard Israel’s future.” I hope you will give generously to support Israel, but not because of a crisis, but because you believe in the dream of an inclusive, vibrant Jewish State and homeland for Jews of every shape, size, gender, belief or disbelief. Yes, our funds are needed. But our voices, our hopes, our dreams and our aspirations are needed as well. They are needed to help shape Israel’s future and her soul.

May the children here and in Gaza soon sleep safely without fear. May they sleep in peace and with hope. I encourage you to join me in such a prayer. But more, I hope you will join me in the year to come to work to make this goal a reality for children and parents alike in this city, Jerusalem, and in the land of Israel where the world’s dream of a better tomorrow and a better world were born.