Upon Returning from Israel
-- Rabbi Neil S. Cooper
The trip from which I have just returned was planned as a joyous excursion to
Israel for a group of families from Temple Beth Hillel Beth El. Whenever Lori
and I lead a tour to Israel, that joyous and celebratory mood is built in to
each day of touring. And this trip was no different. We toured south and north,
we spent time on Shabbatot in Jerusalem. We hiked, we learned, we laughed and we
ate (at least some of us). But this trip was markedly different in other ways.
Shortly after we arrived, the bombing of Gaza began.
For the past eight years, Hamas terrorists have shot rockets daily from Gaza,
aimed at civilian targets within Israel. Aiming at one of the nearby Israeli
towns, Hamas hoped their rocket might score a strike with their lethal ketuska
and Grad rockets, on an elderly couple sipping tea at their kitchen table, on a
playground filled with children, on mothers and fathers out to work, shop or
riding buses. For the past eight years, during what was termed a “hudna – cease
fire”, the southwestern tier of Israel, one million Israeli citizens, has lived
under the daily threat of rocket attacks. On December 19, just days before we
arrived in Israel, that “cease fire” ended. From that point, the daily barrage
of rockets from Gaza increased to forty, fifty or even eighty per day. The
Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, spent the following week hopping from
country to country, to the United States and throughout Europe, garnering
support and asking for help to stop the unprovoked attacks on civilian areas
within Israel. Unfortunately, no intervention was effective. Israel was left
with no choice but to protect the one out of eight of its citizens living under
the threat of destruction. And so Israel attacked.
What I felt during this visit was that there are, in fact, two Israels. The first
Israel, Israel number one, is the Israel we experience on our synagogue group
trips and tours of the Land. This is the Israel of bustling streets and crowded
shops, of the normal course of activity in Israel’s cities and country sides, in
cafes and in the markets. But Israel number two, the Israel we rarely see or
feel, was very much a part of this visit. I would much prefer to speak to you
about our family trip, our experiences, and the joyful memories of this visit
with Israel number one. Certainly, Israel number one is much more pleasant to
speak about. But it is Israel number two, the Israel under attack, about which I
feel compelled to speak.
Israel number two is the Israel most of us in this country don’t see when we
visit. We don’t like to speak about Israel number two or to think about it for
that matter. Israel number two, you see, is not so joyous. It is not so happy.
It is not so politically correct. But the fact is that Israel number one, with
its joy, its miracles, its scientific advances and agricultural wonder, its
humanity and compassion, cannot and does not exist independently from Israel
number two. Israel number two is the Israel which faces danger daily, which
hears the calls for its destruction routinely. Israel two is the Israel which
considers seriously its own viability and existence each time a rocket falls.
For the last eight years, Israel two has endured daily attacks. That Israel has
been crying and bleeding on a daily basis. We have seen that blood, we have all
been aware of it, but we have preferred to ignore it. We have preferred to turn
a blind eye to the daily suffering of one-eighth of the population of Israel,
within a forty kilometer radius of Gaza, the distance that a Grad rocket can
travel, the segment of the Israeli population that lives under the daily “red
alert” which echoes through its towns and cities to announce a new rocket
That is the second Israel. The one we don’t like to think about. But on this
trip, we had no choice. We had no choice because every Israeli had Israel number
two in mind. It was sensed in the stores we entered, in the markets where we
shopped and in the news we saw and heard. But, on a more personal level, Lori
and I had no choice but to confront Israel number two because, as you know, our
son made aliyah two years ago and serves in an elite force today as part
of the Paratroopers of the IDF. His unit is trained to protect Israel and to
destroy Hamas installations located in the cities of Gaza. His job is to protect
Israel so that our synagogue group and most of Israel can live in Israel number
one and not worry about Israel number two. But on this trip, it was hard not to
think about Israel number two as her existence was again threatened.
It is hard to describe what it was like to be in Israel while Israel was under
attack and fighting a war. As a lover of Israel and as the father of a
combatant, witnessing Israel in this state was among the most difficult and
painful experiences of my life. Indeed, upon reflection, I can now empathize and
understand in a new and deeper way how Moses in our Parasha felt when he
went out among his people. Moses went out to his brothers (Exodus 2:1) and “saw
their sufferings”. Being in Israel at this time, I felt as if I had gone to
visit my own brothers and sisters. I saw their suffering, not just on T.V. and
not just in the stores, but in other very personal and poignant ways.
Welcome to Sderot. The sign reads, "Ehud Olmert - Until When?" It also notes the
number of missiles - 5726.
After our synagogue group returned to the United States, Lori and I participated
in a special rabbinic tour sponsored by State of Israel Bonds. Initially, we had
signed up for the trip because the trip included visits to the cities of
Netzarim, Netivot, Sapir College and mostly S’derot. S’derot is that small city
a few kilometers from Gaza which, over the last eight years, has lived under a
constant siren of the red alert. The people in S’derot live with fifteen seconds
of Gaza. From the moment the siren sounds, everyone needs to drop everything and
reach a bomb shelter within fifteen seconds. As the number of rockets has
increased from forty to fifty to eighty, many of the people have sought refuge
in the north. Relatives have taken in family members, strangers have absorbed
residents of S’derot. Hotels have even opened their doors freely to those
escaping the rocket barrage. But with all of that, half of the city, twelve
thousand individuals, had no where to go.
Unable to visit S’derot, the Israel Bonds office located a family willing to come
and spend a few nights with us in Jerusalem. Anat and Shimon and their four
children, ages 3, 8, 12 and 13, stayed with us for two nights. The reason we
hosted them is that their son, Ma’or, was scheduled to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah
in just a couple of weeks. Although he had learned his Torah portion and parts
of the service, he had already been informed by the IDF that it was unsafe for
him to have his celebration. The service would be held in a bomb shelter with
only closest family present. And the party which had been planned needed to be
cancelled. Unbeknownst to Ma’or or his family, they had been invited to
Jerusalem so that we could host a surprise Bar Mitzvah celebration for him.
On the first morning after they arrived, the children came downstairs smiling and
happy. Lori spoke to the 8 year old girl asking how she slept. With a big smile
on her face, the child responded, “there was no red alert!” The joy and
resilience of children is remarkable and heartening. But the twelve year old boy
was not smiling. For the past year, the barrage of rocket fire had left him
frightened. He has regressed socially. He is reticent and avoids eye contact.
His father confided in me that most nights his son wets his bed.
To see this family trying to live normally, to hear from them that they feel as
if they have been abandoned not only by their government, but by Jews throughout
the world, to see this family that lives on the frontline who live watching the
sky for a rocket to fall, I understood with new depth and meaning what the Torah
meant when it said that Moses saw their suffering. We saw, in their eyes, this
This is but one family, one story of thousands. There are thousands in Israel who
are suffering, who are threatened with destruction on a daily basis. These are
victims of the Hamas government who explicit goal is to kill Israeli citizens
each day. Contrary to public opinion, there is no doubt that in Israel there is
a humanitarian crisis, as well. As the bombing and fighting continued, Israelis
were hurt, as well. Israelis continue to be injured and killed by the rockets.
But the sense of abandonment felt by Israelis, the scorn, the hateful
condemnation from all corners of the world leveled against Israel created pain
of a different sort. Israel was portrayed in the news as the aggressor, as the
perpetrator. It was as if Israel’s desire and right to exist was, itself,
illegitimate. Self defense for Israel was portrayed throughout the world as an
immoral option for Israel.
Children in Sderot cower during an air raid siren announcing an incoming missile
Being in Israel and hearing the condemnations of Israel’s retaliations, of Israel
trying to defend itself against Hamas, hearing the criticism of Israel simply
desiring to be free from the barrage of rocket fire was terribly painful.
Neither the United Nations, the news agencies nor the people of this world had
any interest in Israel’s suffering, in the pain which Israel has endured for
these last eight years and more. The irony, of course, is that all of this would
stop, the humanitarian crisis on both sides would end if the rockets from Gaza
would stop. The irony is that there are storehouses of food in Gaza for
Palestinians to consume, but Hamas will not allow the distribution to take place
because the suffering of the Palestinian people is good PR for Hamas against
Israel. Israel has no war with the Palestinian people, only with Hamas. It is
Hamas which brings pain and suffering to the Palestinians, not the Israelis.
And, for all of the world’s concern about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, for
all of the moralizing which we hear from Europe and even from the United States
and even among Jews in this country, where was the humanitarian concern for
S’derot over the last eight years, for Israel’s civilian population not to be
targeted by rockets? Where was the concern for the Jewish people? And what of
the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the continued imprisonment of kidnapped Israeli
soldier Gilad Shalit? Where is the concern for Anat and Shimon and their four
I can accept much of the world’s condemnation because I accept the fact that
anti- Semitism/anti-Zionism is alive and well in this world. But when that
condemnation comes from Jews, from our own, the condemnation of Jews heard even
when our own are bleeding, when my son risks his life to go out into Gaza and to
engage the enemy directly instead of the Israeli Air Force bombing from afar,
all in order to save Palestinian lives, Jewish voices raised to condemn Israel
were particularly difficult to hear. When my son and his fellow soldiers risk
their lives to save Palestinians and we, Jews and Israelis are considered by
other Jews to be perpetrators and immoral beings, that hurts most. T’nu
rabbanan: (Ta’anit 11:1). When Israel is in danger and a Jew separates
himself or herself from Israel’s pain, that person will not be a part of
Israel’s joy. But whoever participates in the pain of his or her community, they
will ultimately see the community’s consolation.
Let me be clear. Israel hears the cries of the Palestinians. Israel knows that
they are in pain and sees their suffering. And we wish that the Palestinian
leaders would heed that cry and stop the rockets and cease from firing on
innocent civilians within Israel’s borders. We do hear and we are pained by
their cry. But who hears the cries of the Jews? Who is concerned about our pain?
Our suffering? The world waits to pounce upon us when we defend ourselves, but
allows others to launch unprovoked, unwarranted, illegal attacks upon us with
impunity. Where is the world’s humanity? Where is the ear to hear our cry? And
can we, at least, with all of this, count on our fellow Jews to stand together
with us while Hamas and so many others condemn us? Israel is in an ongoing,
existential battle. She needs arms to defend her. She needs fortitude to
persevere. But she needs us to stand with her in her pain, to stand with Israel
so that we can share her burden and her travail. Stand with Israel, so that we
can share her pain, so that they can feel our support and so that we will
ultimately see her consolation.
Rabbi Neil S. Cooper is the rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel Beth El in Wynnewood.
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