February 2009

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Reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.blogspot.com.

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 attack.

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 family’s suffering.

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 from Gaza.

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 children?

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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