Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

A Letter from Jerusalem to Australia

April 25th, 2024

Shalom Australia

When I was a child, every Sunday afternoon we would listen to Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America” on the BBC. I would like to pen a similar letter to you each week from Jerusalem. I do not have Cooke’s flair but there is certainly no shortage of material.

I am writing this first letter on ANZAC Day*.  I think about dawn services and marches down the main street which we mostly ignored, the ceremonies at school and the debate in our teenage years over whether we want to glorify wars or honour those who fought in them.

For Australians, war is something that happens elsewhere. It is impossible to imagine a war on home-soil. One can go for weeks and months and never see a soldier, much less a weapon. The idea of universal conscription is reserved for science fiction.

Australians’ relationship to war – in the distant past, on foreign soil, with almost no impact on the general population –  is one that many Israelis wish we had. In Australia, one can afford the luxury of debate.

How different ANZAC day is to the Remembrance Day we will be holding here in just a couple of weeks. Here, every family has soldiers, and that means suffering casualties and trauma. The one day in the year marked to remember the fallen, including now also victims of terrorism, is only an opportunity to do publicly what families to privately every day. We think of those who are missing – temporarily or permanently – and of those who remain behind to grieve and to face life, to manage and even to find joy.

Not only is our relationship to war different but also the rhythm of life is quite different in Israel to anywhere else in the world. The weeks are marked by shabbat and the year by the Jewish festivals.

Our national days slot in between our religious holidays. The Declaration of Independence was hurriedly signed on a Friday; shabbat would have been impossible. Remembrance Day was consciously placed on the calendar to be observed on the day before. A few years later, Holocaust Commemoration Day was added – squeezed in between Pesach, when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place, and the aforementioned dates.

It might be ANZAC Day but I am writing this first letter during Pesach. The country is in holiday mode, with schools and many businesses closed. The stock in the supermarkets is depleted as Israelis have binge-shopped for the holidays. Only kosher for Pesach goods are sold in all the major chains. Children’s theatre and arts festivals abound. Despite the heat-wave, which should be keeping us indoors, Israelis have packed beaches and parks for matza picnics and barbecues.

It is a sign of the paradox of life here. We strive to keep a sense of normalcy while in a state of semi-war. We try to feel safe even as we hear war-planes overhead – ours, heading elsewhere. We try to celebrate even though there are empty seats at the table.

This year, our festival of freedom is less a celebration of the freedom of the redemption from slavery over three thousand years ago and more a reflection on how tenuous our freedom is. After seventy-five years of complacency that having our own state would protect the Jews from being enslaved by a cruel enemy, we are living with the realty that six months ago, we were invaded and 133 hostages are still being held prisoner in Gaza.

Yesterday, we took our grandchildren to a “holiday happening” and even there, for the pre-schoolers, 133 yellow balloons were released to symbolically free the hostages.

I cannot imagine that there was a family in this country that did not remember the hostages as they sat at their seder tables.

Everyone knows someone who has been called up; most of us know more than one person who has been killed or seriously injured. We see evacuees in our neighborhoods. Wherever we are, from time-to-time, we still hear sirens and have to head for shelter.

We are very much at war. Yet we force ourselves to see beyond and to imagine a day after.

Three thousand years ago, we were almost destroyed. Over a period of some two hundred years, we were enslaved. Slavery had taken away our confidence and our ability to stand up for ourselves. It almost took away our ability to imagine an alternative reality. But we emerged and made our way to the Promised Land. We were exiled twice; the second time, lasted nearly two thousand years, but we did not lose hope. Ninety years ago, Nazism arose and six million of our people were murdered over less than a decade. The remnant of our people joined those who had begun to return to our Land and out of the ashes came the State of Israel.

Our Declaration of Independence, signed while we were under attack by those who opposed the Partition Plan approved by the United Nations, called for peace with our neighbors. In 76 years, few of our neighbors have responded to the call. Many Israelis became complacent: we could live with an absence of peace. Others maintained the vision and the dream, and never stopped advocating for a negotiated peace-settlement with all our neighbors, including the Palestinians.

On 4th October, at a large rally held by Women Wage Peace along with our Palestinian sister organization, Women of the Sun, we felt that we might be approaching fulfillment of that vision. Three days later, we discovered that we were wrong.

That date, October 7th, will be etched into our consciousnesses as the day we discovered our vulnerability to a ground invasion from vicious, evil enemies. Six months later, we experienced the largest drone attack in history as Iran pounded us with missiles of many types, including ballistic weapons. Although, miraculously, 99% of the missiles sent our way were destroyed before they could cause any damage, the attack underscored how far we are from a peaceful existence alongside our neighbors. Yet we continue to dream of a time beyond.

Last Saturday night, as I have been doing for weeks, I attended the weekly gathering in Jerusalem to support the families of hostages. Every week, family members share their anguish and we try to feel their pain. This week, the MC began with a series of questions: “How many of you will be holding a seder in two nights? How will you be able to celebrate freedom when you know that 133 captives are modern-day slaves?” A guest speaker at the rally was Rabbi Benny Lau, an important voice in the more liberal side of religious Zionism.

He asked her to stay on the platform while he spoke and he addressed her questions. He explained to us that keeping our traditions and telling our story is a form of resistance to the captors as we remind ourselves that this is not the first time that we have faced difficulty and overcome it.

At the same time, he explained, we need to use the seder to meaningfully recall the captives and empathize with their plight. We need to adjust to the reality we face now and incorporate that reality into our rituals.

This is not a new way of holding a seder. We have two key phrases in the text we use: one says that we all need to see ourselves as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt; the second is that in every generation there arises an enemy who tries to overcome us and that enemy always fails.

This is not the first challenge to our morale that we have faced and not the first time that innocent people, including children, have been turned into a sacrifice on behalf of the nation as a whole.

The Pesach story, which includes brutality and suffering, ultimately brings a message of hope, of confidence in our future, despite acknowledging the difficulty and the pain, the enmity around us and the attempts to bring us down.

I hope that you had a meaningful Pesach.

I hope that by the time you read this letter, the hostages are home. If not, we will keep on hoping.

*The date on which Australians honor their fallen soldiers, chosen because if was the date of a significant military failure of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during World War 1.

A version of this letter was aired on SBS radio Australia on Sunday.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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