It’s been a difficult couple of weeks. On the world stage, there is no good news.
A plane was shot down by a missile, most likely from Russian rebels at the Ukrainian border.
An 11 year old girl was the victim of random gun violence in Chicago.
We recently saw the most violent 48 hours in of the Syrian war. More than 1700 were killed in just one week.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, identified the rise of political hate parties in Hungary and Greece.
Thousands of children are crossing the United States border without their parents, where they are placed in government shelters and released to sponsors while they go through deportation proceedings.
In Afghanistan, two motorcyclists opened fire on a taxi, killing two women from Finland. The women worked for the International Assistance Mission, a Christian group that has worked in Afghanistan since 1966.
Last Monday, North Korea fired about 100 artillery rounds into the Sea of Japan, just a few hundred yards from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.
Space prevents me from going into events in China or Iran or Iraq or Sudan or Pakistan or…(fill in the blank)….
Yet if you were to read my Facebook or Twitter feeds, you’d think the only place currently experiencing violence and human rights violations is on a small piece of real estate the separating Israel and the Gaza Strip.
For me, so far away, it’s all so very personal. I have close family and many friends there. I know I’m not alone – many of you do, too.
Israel is a country with a lot of warts and a lot of flaws. My blood boils at the misogyny that comes from certain segments of society. I cringe when statements come out of the mouths of certain politicians on the right and on the left. The gap between those who are well off and those living below the poverty line seems to grow every day. Call it what you wish, but the occupation/administration is a black cloud hanging over our heads.
And yet…I love Israel.
I feel pride and comfort when the sign on the bus normally reserved for the route number wishes us a chag samayach or tells us which day of the Omer we should be counting. There is something incredibly special about saying Shabbat Shalom to every merchant – secular or religious – on Thursday night and Friday. We have sovereignty, our own currency, our own army, our own common language. And to prove our success as defined by Ben Gurion, we even have our own criminals and our own prostitutes.
We also have our own set of profoundly deep and troubling problems.
I view Israel the same way I view my family. I love them unconditionally. They make me happy and proud. Yet sometimes, we disagree. We may even fight. But I love them, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
With that in mind, I want to suggest three simple things to share with your friends. They’re simple, because the world just can’t handle complexity.
- Israel wants peace. The Jewish people wants peace. The Psalms tell us to seek peace and pursue it. Every single section of our prayer book ends with a prayer for peace (Oseh Shalom, Sim Shalom, Shalom Rav).
- Israel is a democracy. Nobody is killed for being gay or lesbian (Tel Aviv has been named the most gay-friendly city in the world). There is a free press. Nobody will have their hand cut off for writing an editorial critical of the government. There is free speech. Protests seem to take place every ten minutes. Women can vote. They can drive. The serve in the army. Doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but look at the rest of the neighborhood.
- Israel had a right to exist and a right to defend itself. Period
Still, if you were to read much of the drivel that has come my way these past couple of weeks, one would think that none of this is true. Proportionality? Daniel Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, told CNN that there is no such thing as proportionality in war. If there was, the Nazis would still be in power. There is dismissal of the IDF’s extraordinary effort to warn civilians of impending attacks (who has ever called to say that an attack will be taking place?). There is little mention of weapon stockpiles in hospitals, schools and mosques. And then, of course, there is the upsurge of antisemitism in places like France and the Peterson Park neighborhood in Chicago.
Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Ma’asei. We learned about the long journey of the Israelites as they marched toward Canaan. We read about their stops along the way, which, for me, is about as exciting as looking at pictures from somebody’s trip to visit the in-laws. But at the end of this travelogue, we read the following:
And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess. (Numbers 33:52)
What made these journeys meaningful, perhaps even tolerable, is that there was an end game. There was a purpose. There was hope and there was promise.
So now, as we may feel like Yehuda HaLevi, that we are in the west while our hearts are in the east, we need to think about our current journey. Is there an end game, a strategy? Is there hope and is there promise. And if so, at what cost?
There are a number of ways we can lose. We can, God forbid, be defeated militarily (which is highly unlikely). We can suffer a series of setbacks like the one suffered last week when the FAA issued its temporary travel ban. We can despair and lose hope.
Or…we can prevail.
We can certainly prevail with our might. Less likely, but still within the realm of possibility, we can prevail with the right kind of diplomacy. And we can prevail by taking the moral high ground. By not becoming Hamas. By continuing to grieve and cry and mourn over every lost life on either side of the border. By spilling those drops of wine out of our kiddush cups, just like we do on Pesach. By doing what we painfully must do militarily, but at the same time, living with the hope that the world can be a better place.
How do we fight this evil that is Hamas off the battlefield and so far away? By being kind. By helping. By embracing our neighbors just as we embrace our families. By not giving in to the hate we justifiably feel. If we do, we become immune to human suffering and evil.
I love engaging in conversation with cab drivers in Israel. When I was in the country during the second Lebanon War, I was in a taxi, and as we passed a number of restaurants, I noticed signs on the windows which said “free meals to people from the north.” In the midst of our rather loud political conversation, the cab driver said something I will never forget. Ha’am hazeh yodeyah aikh l’chabek, he said. “This country knows how to hug.” We have to fight evil with weapons, and we have to fight those weapons with love.
The late poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a long poem entitled Jerusalem 1967. This section of that poem could have been written today:
In this summer of wide-open-eyed hatred
and blind love, I’m beginning to believe again
in all the little things that will fill
the holes left by the shells: soil, a bit of grass,
perhaps, after the rains, small insects of every kind.
I think of children growing up, half in the ethics of their ancestors
and half in the Torah of war.
The tears now penetrate into my eyes from the outside
and my ears invent, every day, the footsteps of
the messenger of good tidings.
So may it be.