Our Brothers’ Keepers

By Jack Miles

I recently participated in a Solidarity Mission to Israel. We had an emotional and inspiring experience.

Shortly after our arrival in Israel, we visited wounded soldiers at Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon. I stayed in the lobby, feeling uncomfortable, like a voyeur.  It turns out, however, that the soldiers and their family members appreciated seeing American Jewish support.  The soldiers felt that they were fighting alone.  Our presence showed that they have support outside Israel.

Our first night, we were in Netivot, seven miles from the Gaza border, at a rest stop for soldiers, where we hosted a barbeque. It was beautiful to see the unity and camaraderie.  Barbers gave soldiers free haircuts, young religious Israelis helped secular soldiers put on Tefillin, and young and old Israeli civilians couldn’t do enough for the soldiers.

Toward the end of the evening, a soldier with an enormous gun and a flak jacket, who had just returned from fighting, thanked me for coming. I was shocked.  While this soldier was fighting in Gaza, I was probably sitting by a pool in New York.  As we hugged, dust (I assumed it was from Gaza) flew off his uniform.  Once again, our mere presence showed these soldiers that they have support outside Israel, notwithstanding what they read in the papers.

The next morning we made a shiva call to a father who had lost his son earlier in the week. Our Rabbi spoke with this man for ten minutes.  The grieving father, a seventh generation resident of Jerusalem, appreciated seeing that Israel isn’t totally isolated.

We witnessed so much sadness and pain. While we were at Mount Herzl, we saw a man at a graveside.  This man was mourning his son, who had died in Lebanon eight years ago.  (This wasn’t the son’s yartzeit; the father  just comes regularly to his son’s graveside, to mourn.)  The grieving father’s wife, who looked like a broken woman, and their surviving son stood nearby.  The grieving father addressed our group and described in detail how his son was in a tank that broke down, and how his son died a hero, trying to save others.  We all could see how therapeutic it was for this father to speak to us about his son, who was buried next to his three tank comrades.  All the men in our group hugged the grieving father and his surviving son, while the women in our group hugged his wife.

Our Rabbi’s rendition of Kel Molè Rachamim at four fresh gravesides at Mount Herzl was the most emotional part of the trip.  Before the Rabbi started, many soldiers and Birthright visitors were talking in discrete groups.  As soon as our Rabbi started the soulful prayer, all talking stopped, and all of the visitors, who had been spread out, congregated around the Rabbi; and as our Rabbi continued, one could hear more and more sobbing, with much of the sobbing coming from soldiers.  (I had never seen a soldier cry before.)  Although it was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, I had to look down much of the time to maintain my composure.

Another highlight was meeting with young children and their mothers in Netivot and Sderot, where parents and children stay underground for long stretches of time. It was so sad.  Children aren’t supposed to grow up in fortified shelters.

At the end of our first night, as our Rabbi addressed the crowd in Netivot, we could hear artillery shelling, and midway through his speech, a helicopter took off from an adjacent field and ambulances raced down the road. We knew it was bad.  Later we learned that several soldiers had been killed nearby in a mortar attack.

On the way back to Jerusalem that evening, those of us lucky enough to be on my side of the bus could see a rocket fired from Gaza being destroyed by an Iron Dome missile. I am certain it is one of the most amazing sights I will ever see.

A few days later, we attended the funeral of a soldier killed shortly after a “truce” had taken effect. This young man was 20 years old, loved to play basketball and always had a smile on his face.  While I couldn’t understand much of what was said at the funeral, I was struck by the fact that at the end of the funeral, the IDF asked for “mechilah,” or forgiveness.  I couldn’t imagine the US Army asking for forgiveness at the funeral of a US soldier.  I asked our guide to elaborate as to why the IDF had asked for forgiveness, but he tearfully refused.  Apparently, this was too personal.

While our experience was sad, it was also uplifting. We have never seen Israel more unified.  This war, which almost all Israelis view as a “war of necessity,” and not a “war of choice,” has united the left and right, the secular and religious.  Hamas will ultimately recognize that its actions have, ironically and paradoxically, strengthened Israel.

During our trip, we saw major efforts undertaken by Israel to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties. While we all believed that the death of a Palestinian baby is as tragic as the death of an Israeli baby, we also recognized that war is not “clean,” and that, unfortunately, civilians get killed in war, especially in an asymmetrical war involving a terrorist organization deeply embedded in a densely populated area.

We discussed that Israel suffers from the “soft bigotry of high expectations,” and that many of Israel’s most vocal critics have engaged in far more “disproportionate” conduct during wartime. We noted, for example, that in 1999, NATO conducted an aerial bombardment of  Kosovo, which resulted in over 2,000 civilian casualties, and that NATO’s mass killing of civilians failed to elicit more than a nominal public outcry.

Having returned home, it is clearer than ever that:

  • There is no reason for Israel or its supporters to apologize;
  • No sovereign country would tolerate incessant rocket barrages and murderous tunneling activities;
  • Israel does not have a right to defend itself, but instead, it has an obligation to defend itself, because the most fundamental obligation of a state to its citizens is to preserve their safety; and
  • The present conflict is an extension of the 1948 War, as Israel continues to fight for its right to exist.

We have returned to our daily routines, but we remain committed to one fundamental ideal — “We are our brothers’ keepers.”

We are energized, to educate colleagues and acquaintances that there is indeed a “right” and a “wrong” in this conflict, that the Israel-Hamas War is part of a greater conflict between the West and Radical Islam (e.g., ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Harem, Hamas and Hezbollah), and that, unfortunately, much of the worldwide media just “doesn’t get it.

The Solidarity Mission was sponsored by the Young Israel of Scarsdale and its Rabbi, Jonathan Morgenstern, and organized by Rabbi Morgenstern and Aaron Lauchheimer.