As we review our transgressions of the passing year, I am noting a recurring theme: child sacrifice.
According to the prayers of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year is the day the divine gives birth to the world. In parallel, the Torah readings focus on a divine promise to the first Jewish couple to birth descendants. With Avraham, Sarah and Hagar both give birth to long-awaited children. On our days of judgement, we read how Yishmael and Yitzchak nearly meet their end in excruciating trials of faith and love among God, parents, and their offspring. On each day of the festival, angels intervene to thwart a child sacrifice at a fatal instant. These passages have evoked spiritual and ethical wrestling among Jews, Christians and Muslims for centuries about how to face monumental tests that arise in raising children.
After harrowing events in Gaza, our Israeli children are home. Some arrived in bags, many via hospitals—surgeries, amputations, and other lasting injuries, some on furlough. Most came in their uniforms with their boots on, bodies intact, hearts scarred by the horrors of war, by mortal fear, violence and destruction.
We breathe ineffable relief that the recent ordeal has passed, while the trauma for inhabitants of the Israeli south drags on—when will shelters, sirens, and chronic threat give way to the safety of daily life without fear? Many Gazans returned to pulverized homes. In and beneath their houses and neighborhoods, our soldiers found guns, munitions, explosives, rockets, loaded suicide vests. Behind kitchen cabinet doors, they found shafts descending to an underworld—labyrinthine tunnels painstakingly executed to fulfill fantasies of terror.
When one of my sons who is now a soldier was a toddler, we once passed a demolished car by the roadside, waiting to be towed. At the specter of brokenness, he burst into tears. Adults rarely bare the vulnerability of our human souls. Yet, each of us began our life journey tender and dependent, with a will to grow and thrive; none was born with a gun in hand or a desire for death—our own or anyone else’s.
On both sides of a volatile seam, we lift our eyes to the horizon. As leaders re-group on the eve of the New Year, let us fantasize together—in children’s terms, for ultimately to our children we are accountable, and to them we will bequeath our legacy.
We can all pinpoint a moment when a child grasps some dark truth about our world, when the childhood fantasy of love, fairness, honesty, beauty, and goodness wears thin. Hypocrisy or evil is revealed, and with it, our pain at the loss of innocence, embarrassment at our adult failure to fulfill simple childhood expectations. At that moment, something precious dies in them. And in us. Our young people grow to accept the unacceptable, justify the unjustifiable. And so our leaders, warlords, and profiteers escape from core human sensibilities, from children’s principles.
Freedom is one of the most precious values in the modern West. We condition freedom on pursuing a good life without impinging on another’s, without threatening or causing harm to anyone else. Free societies are responsible to socialize people to express our choices and negotiate our differences without recourse to violence. However virulent the conflict, we are to find a solution by peaceful, civil means. We learned this in kindergarden. Yet, many people and societies lack the commitment and skills to solve disputes without hurting one another. As adults, we sometimes avoid basic lessons that we are meant to practice and teach our children. Assenting quietly, we are often complicit with coercion, violence and war. Many profit. Most suffer.
It is difficult to find basic personal, social, economic, and political freedom in the Middle East. Throughout the region—where Israel is a noteable exception—coercive power determines many choices, from permitted dress and sexual relations to government and economics. Arab culture often sacrifices freedom to the value of honor. For its sake, men compel girls and women to submit to repression, even to death. For the honor of Islamism, many would vanquish Israel. Western culture often sarifices the wellbeing of the vast majority to the value of profit for the few. To these agendas, childhood succumbs early.
In relation to Gaza, political correctness respects the free election of Hamas, and the inviolability of self-determination. However, elections alone do not make democracy. Nor do elections necessarily express peoples’ free will. Democracy is a dynamic and complex process rooted in conducive social, political, educational, ethical, and economic conditions. We may fairly diagnose a lack of these conditions prevailing in Gaza. Nonetheless, deep in our heart, the children’s principle still applies. Violent aggression against others is wrong.
De-militarization is on the agenda of some who seek post-war reconstruction. In view of the formidable forces within and without vying to re-arm Gaza and further their unsavory agendas, de-militarization is an elusive goal. It is elusive partly because of the weakness of our ethical compass and the reticence of the West to hold Islamic regimes accountable.
In recent modern history, our world practiced children’s principles at the state level, albeit extremely selectively. Following World War II, regimes that practiced violent ideologies against populations were defeated, occupied and rehabilitated. The United States instituted democratic foundations for political, social and economic prosperity in the former Axis fatherlands. Between 1945 and 1952, the Americans occupied Germany for more than four years, and Japan for nearly seven. During their occupation, the Americans exercised veto power over German and Japanese government decisions and successfully imposed enduring constitutional democracy.
Based on the experience of America in Afghanistan and Iraq, the desolation of Arab summer, and upsurging Islamist brutality, it is difficult to grow democratic values in the Middle East. Nonetheless, we might fantasize the possibility in Gaza. Imagine peeling back some of the current anti-Israel self-righteousness, and with it, Western ethical impotence. Rather than verbal condemnations and protests, now is the time for the community of nations and persons who obsess about the aggressiveness of Israeli self-defense to act constructively in Gaza.
There is little doubt that Hamas violence brings misery and suffering upon Gazans and Israelis. It partakes of the ascending Islamism that forsakes the value of human life. Let us begin this childhood fantasy by recognizing the legitimacy of international action to curtail Hamas freedom to behave violently.
Might not Western states, NGOs, and people who chastise Israeli actions to defend our citizens now step forth boldly into Gaza?—to share the values of freedom, instruct in the methods of non-violence, instill critical values, culture, and institutions of free civil society. To enable women’s liberation, open the media, gather to debate, form new parties. Rather than munitions and terror tunnels, freedom can better be concretized in schools, libraries, hospitals, academies, centers for the arts, innovative and productive businesses.
Returning to Rosh Hashana, one traditional interpretation likens the shofar blasts to the wailing of a mother awaiting her son, Sisera to come home from battle. Though he was an enemy of ancient Israel, our shofar vocalizes the human anguish of a parent. Sisera never returns.
Children are meant to bury our parents. Parents burying our children sunders creation.
This Rosh Hashana, as I struggle for my own life, the preciousness of love and connection grows ever more poignant. I pray for all human beings to better satisfy the expectation of life and joy in the soul of every child, at every age. Rather than succombing to sacrifice, to the inevitability of hatred and violence, let the world celebrate birth and fulfill creation with our infinite creative spirit. In the image of the divine, we are the angels who can thwart the next sacrifice.
Planning the Gaza reconstruction and beyond, may our childhood fantasy prevail.