Thoughts on violence in Israel, May 2021
I’ve been spending some time this week sending notes of concern and support to some of the many many people I know who live in Israel -- relatives, colleagues, and friends, including many who used to live in Hoboken and Jersey City.
Though because of the time zone difference, many of these notes were sent between 2am and 4am Israel time, in many cases I got a response on Facebook or email immediately - because these friends and relatives were spending sleepless nights.
A friend in Tel Aviv described the challenges of comforting her terrified young children after waking them up to bring them into the safe room, while also being terrified herself. A colleague in Ashkelon was awakened by a barrage of rocket fire and then learned that a woman was killed by that rocket fire in her home just a block away from his home -- and another fatality was in the southern Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letziyon not far from the home of my cousins. A friend in Herzliyya sent me videos of the Iron Dome missile defense system, just beyond a eucalyptus grove from her backyard, successfully intercepting many of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets. It is so clear that without the Iron Dome system, Israeli casualties would be in the hundreds if not thousands. And yet this barrage of rockets is so large that even the minority of rockets to get through the defense system this week have inflicted terrible damage and ended lives of young and old, of Israel‘s Jewish and Arab citizens as well as one visitor from abroad, and – per its primary objective -- have been terrorizing the entire Israeli population of millions. Our hearts right now are joining our friends and family in Israel in their safe rooms, praying for their safety and security and protection, and helping them to know that they are not alone.
Yes, if my relatives and friends and former congregants lived in Gaza, they would tell a story that is similar but different. They would also be terrified by nighttime attacks and fear of injury or bereavement. They would not take particular comfort to know that Israeli missiles headed to Gaza are not for the purpose of terrorizing a civilian population and ending civilian lives, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets clearly are, but rather are an effort to get the other side’s rockets to stop -- and that large numbers of the Gaza fatalities are fighters from the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militias, as well as the victims of rockets shot from Gaza that “accidentally” also landed in Gaza. But the effect of attacks on the population is similarly horrifying as well as probably radicalizing, and the deaths of civilians are similarly devastating to their families and friends.
There’s a reason why issues involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are hard to talk about: lots of people think the situation is very very simple when it is anything but. In many such conversations -- as Simon and Garfunkel sang long long ago -- “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” There are so many data points that no one ever has trouble finding the facts that will support their pre-existing narrative. Take, for example, the conflict in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem that was the precipitating event for some of the current violence. Supporters of the Israeli right note that this conflict is really about property rights -- that homes in Sheikh Jarrah’s Jewish community, property that unambiguously belonged to Jews before they were expelled from that neighborhood in 1948 by the Jordanian army, should be returned to their rightful owners, and that the Israeli legal system is playing out exactly the way it should in a democracy. Supporters of Palestinians, however, note that if that legal principle is truly to hold, then the 30% of homes in West Jerusalem that had belonged to Palestinians before 1948 should also be returned to their rightful owners - and if Israeli law has no provision for this, that is confirmation of that legal system’s injustice. Some in-depth articles will tell both sides of this story, but those who learn their Middle East history from Twitter and Facebook or TV news are unlikely to confront the facts that are inconvenient for their own narrative. (So it is with so many other aspects of the conflict that I cannot address at length here.)
Especially troubling in these last two days has been the rioting and street violence in many cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations, cities that Israel has long regarded as examples of coexistence. Synagogues were torched by mobs in the Israeli city of Lod on Tuesday night -- and also on Tuesday night, two of those who were killed by Hamas rocket attacks on Israel were Arab residents of the city of Lod. Horrifying video circulated on Wednesday of an Arab man being beaten up and almost killed by a Jewish mob in the Israeli city of Bat Yam -- and horrifying video circulated on Wednesday of a quite parallel event of a Jewish man being beaten up and almost killed by an Arab mob in the Israeli city of Akko. The symmetry in these events does not mean that every aspect of this conflict is symmetrical, but it is a reminder that the conflict defies simplistic explanations. (I am heartened that political leaders all across Israel’s Jewish and Arab political spectrums have harshly condemned these episodes of street violence, in a sadly rare display of unity.) While urging us all to connect with and support the people we know who are directly impacted by this conflict, I would also encourage us to read reputable pieces -- left and right -- that both support and challenge some of our assumptions about the conflict. Standing in solidarity with our friends and relatives facing rocket fire is not the same thing as applauding every Israeli policy decision -- just as wanting the best for the Palestinians is not the same thing as applauding the actions of the Islamist terrorist group that is ruling Gaza.
I continue to be heartened by the words and actions of those on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who establish and nurture meaningful person-to-person relationships across difference. We have been blessed to welcome to our synagogue in recent years many such people, including Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Antwan Saca of the Israeli/Palestinian group Roots/Shorashim/Judur, as well as the students of the Israeli Jewish/Arab group Debate for Peace. The work of such groups continues even at these difficult times. The relationships that emerge from these groups help us all to remember that we are all created in God’s image, and that protracted conflict and bloodshed is in no one’s interests.
I conclude with the words of the Prayers for Israel and Prayer for Peace in our Siddur Lev Shalem, with the hope that this can be a time of safety and security for our friends and relatives and community in Israel and in our world.
“Sovereign of the universe, accept in lovingkindness and with favor our prayers for the State of Israel, her government, and all who dwell within her boundaries and under her authority. Open our eyes and our hearts to the wonder of Israel, and strengthen our faith in Your power to work redemption in every human soul. Grant us also the fortitude to keep ever before us those ideals upon which the State of Israel was founded. Grant courage, wisdom, and strength to those entrusted with guiding Israel’s destiny to do Your will. Be with those on whose shoulders Israel’s safety depends and defend them from all harm. Spread over Israel and all the world Your shelter of peace, and may the vision of Your prophet soon be fulfilled: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)
May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease,
when a great peace will embrace the whole world.
Then nation will not threaten nation,
and the human family will not again know war.
For all who live on earth shall realize
we have not come into being to hate or to destroy.
We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.
Compassionate God, bless the leaders of all nations
with the power of compassion.
Fulfill the promise conveyed in Scripture:
I will bring peace to the land,
and you shall lie down and no one shall terrify you.
I will rid the land of vicious beasts
and it shall not be ravaged by war.
Let justice and righteousness flow like a mighty stream.
Let God’s peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea.
And let us say: Amen.”
Rabbi Rob Scheinberg