During my most recent trips to Israel, I paused and marveled at the international representation at Ben Gurion airport. Taxing to the gate you could see tail fins of plans from China, Korea, South America, two from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Canada, Morocco and more. Not to mention the carriers and cities that were being serviced in the United States. United flew from Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago and Newark, twice a day. American was flying daily from Miami and JFK. Delta had daily flights from New York and Boston and Atlanta. I did not even mention the dozens of carriers servicing all of Europe. The only real airport in Tel Aviv was a bustling hub of energy that allowed connections to all four corners of the globe.
Today taxing in, it was like the clocks were set back to 1947. The only tail fins one could see was El Al. I felt lonely.
No US carriers are flying to Israel. None of the major European carriers have been here since October 8th. The flags of the various airplanes represented, have figuratively been hung lower than half mast. They are not visible. Will they rise again? If so, how long will it take? Will it be different and how?
I sat next to a Saba and Savta on my flight. They looked out the window with me upon arrival to Israel, noting landmarks and calling them out, like a grandparent who sees their grandkids from a distance and calls out their names and how they have grown. They realize their hand helped contributed to that next generation. These grandparents calling out Netanya and Caesarea and Tel Aviv were naming these places like they were part of the hands that shaped these places. You could sense pride, accomplishment and deep love in each syllable of every city that called out.
I deplaned gingerly. Everywhere I stepped, there was broken glass (not literal). Shattered dreams and broken reality in tiny pieces, strewn everywhere. What was lost and the hopes of what could be in 75 years, were littered on the floor not yet swept up. That was either because the powers that be wanted the brokenness to serve as a reminder, or because in the business of war, the priority of sweeping fell by the wayside.
We were greeted with shelter signs, should rockets begin to rain down. A cold reminder of where we were and what was happening around. This was not a war that was. It is.
The large windowpanes that look out into the airport fountain from the arrival hallway, where thousands of people sip their last cups of Israeli coffee and spend what is left of the shekels in their pockets, grabbing souvenirs that escaped them on Ben Yehuda Street, is empty. It is a ghost town. Vacant. Like an abandoned property. It gave me the Cold War 80’s movie, The Morning After vibes. Just chairs and shops, most closed. Not a soul could be seen, except the lone immigrant in a uniform issued jump suit, sweeping the same floor he wiped yesterday, that has had no traffic since his last rounds.At our synagogue, like most, the walls in our sanctuary are lined with bronze yahrtzeit plaques. I never spent too much time thinking about those plaques and what it means to our community. It has new resonance for me.
For almost two decades I would see people meander up to their loved ones plaque and weep. Often they would take their fingers and caress the raised bronze lettering as if touching the face of a parent or a spouse. I have come to appreciate the presence of memory in our sacred space is a testament to history and our journey. It is that sense of memory which propels us forward. It is a reminder to everyone in the room praying, celebrating a wedding, listening to a lecture, observing a holiday or coming to meditate, that the memory of their loved one is amongst us.
Ben Gurion airport has opposing ramps, both that are walked down. Upon arrival, one ramp is oriented towards passport control. Upon leaving the country, one ramp takes you through the duty free and to the gates. Ironically, coming to Israel is called Aliyah, which means to raise up. But arriving and departing is made simpler. There is no climb. Just a stroll down a ramp to, or from, the Promised Land.
Equidistant on both ramps (which are visible one to the next, regardless of coming or going) are picture signs of each of the 242 hostages being held in Gaza. One sign per person. Infants, toddlers, kids, people my age, grandparents, Americans, Thai workers and Israelis, all side by side. In a not-so-subtle message, the government and people of Israel are telling any visitor, first aid worker, government official or clergy delegation the reality and pulse of the country right now, in their first steps amongst the proverbial shattered glass. What is being said without words is, you cannot step foot on the soil or have your passport scanned without knowing the trauma you will be entering. When it comes time to leave, you cannot escape the reality that still lives and breathes here every second those 242 souls are held against their will and their families cannot know their welfare or well-being. You might be able to leave, but they cannot, and their memory should be the last thing you see here, before boarding to leave Israel.
I saw pictures of people whose stories I have come to know. Noa Argaman’s face is seared into my memory. I can see her eyes filled with fright as she was forced on to a motorcycle and dragged into Gaza. Edan Alexander’s picture made me pause. He is a 19-year-old boy from our hometown in New Jersey. Seeing his face on that poster which is also plastered all around our hometown was surreal. I saw the pictures of babies and toddlers and grandparents, not much different than the couple who sat next to me, or the innocent children who clapped when the plane touched down. The pain and hurt was immanent.
Usually, the luggage carousel belts are humming, and the porters are frenetically running to and fro. Israelis are returning from trips abroad wearing Lebron James jerseys and grabbing suitcases stuffed so that they can barely zip, filled with amazon purchases and technology that is cheaper in the Diaspora. Christian pilgrimage groups, wearing matching white hats and lanyards dangling with name tags, usually gather near skinny, post army kids holding up placards collecting groups and marshaling them to their awaiting bus. Bar Mitzvah families land eager to watch their kids get called to the Torah at the Western Wall. Tune in your hearing aids and you can usually hear Russian, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Amharic and Arabic even though each of those native speakers break their teeth answering me in English. None of those sounds or energy were present. Just emptiness and a haunting silence. In the High Holiday prayer, Unetaneh Toqef, the author describes a similar silence with the poetic words, Kol Demama Daka, Yishama – a quiet sound that almost forces you to hear your thoughts.
The ground crew were bored. They were lazing on a drive-able conveyor belt waiting for our arrival with little else to do before or after.
The arrivals hall was the most jarring to me. I am used to wading through the throngs of people holding balloons and flowers greeting cousins from their weekend trip to Cyprus to find a taxi awaiting. I always insist on Cafe Hafuch – the Israeli name for cappuccino – and a bite before I leave the airport, so I can get the flavors of the country into my bloodstream as soon as possible.
Today, smack in the middle of the day, the arrivals hall was empty. No one was there. No balloons were visible. All the flowers were wilted in the refrigerated vending machine. Most of the shops were closed. Between most of the workers being called to reserve duty and so few people arriving every day, the lack of pedestrian traffic meant it is financially prudent to stay closed.
I asked a security guard how to get to a particular exit door where my driver was waiting. His face was tired but he looked me in the eye and gave me detailed directions. He was more focused than usual. There was no typical dismissive words or body language.
When I thanked him profusely, he just looked at me. No, “you are welcome,” was uttered. He didn’t even nod. Just a look. Israelis cannot fake it very well. They always sucked at being disingenuous. I guess this was his way of saying, of course I can help you, but I, and we, are in no place for pleasantries. That is fair.
Cabbies are camped out in the trunk of their car hoping for a fare. They look eagerly my way. When my eyes tell him I have ordered a ride, they hang their heads low again while taking a long drag of their cigarette. They go back to waiting.
The Israel that I had come to expect and know had all the same bones and muscle, but its spirit was shattered. I did not need to leave the airport to see, smell, hear, feel and taste the pain that would pave the streets to my destination.
Above, I referenced 1947. It was on purpose. On Shabbat morning, our congregation was honored to host former Minister of Diaspora Affairs and MK, Nachman Shai. We had a lengthy conversation with our community. At one point, I referenced this moment feeling like 1947. He corrected me and said, “You mean 1948.”
While I am not above correction, I meant 1947.
On the 29th of November 1947, the United Nations voted to partition a piece of land which was governed under British rule, and before that under Turkish control during the Ottoman empire. The land was referred to as Palestine, though there was never a Palestinian country or Palestinian government in that place. There were Palestinian people living there, along with Jewish people and a myriad of other ethnicities, especially recent emigres from war-ravaged Europe.
The United Nations proposed taking this strip of land and divorcing it from the current British rule. It would then be split: 48% for a future Jewish State that had never to date existed in modern times. 48% for a future Palestinian State, that had never existed to date in modern times. The remaining 4% would be an international area near and around Jerusalem that would be governed by an international body.
This proposal was exuberantly accepted without any preconditions by the Jewish people. It was summarily rejected without any negotiations by the Palestinian people.
About six-months later, on May 14, 1948, upon Britain packing up their gear and leaving town, in a small art gallery in Tel Aviv on the eve of the Sabbath, David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel. Minutes later, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt all attacked the infantile country now known as Israel. The citizenry fought for over a year and lost 1% of the population only to ensure the Jewish people would indeed have a homeland. We won, but at a heavy cost.
When the cease fire was made, the Jewish people had a State. The armistice lines dotted a map with different borders than proposed, shaped by bloody and painful war with six neighbors. Jordan gained land, as did Egypt in the battle. The Palestinians were stateless, still.
I continue to refer to this time as 1947 with intention. The UN partition plan was rejected by the Palestinians and voted against by most of the Arab member states of the United Nations because they did not want ANY Jewish state to be present. Even if the territory were limited to Tel Aviv, or a strip the size of Gaza.
Today, on the mean streets of London and amongst the radical protestors shutting down Grand Central Station, none of these demonstrators are waving a flag begging for two-states for two-peoples. They are not questioning any more about borders or right of return or how to deal with Jerusalem. The rhetoric has taken a violent turn backwards to turning what is known as Israel into a solely Palestinian State. It is a 76-year continuation of denying the right for a Jewish homeland and refusal to share any of the land with the Jewish people.
Hamas set our clocks back to 1947.
I volley between shock and resolve. I am shocked at the sheer audacity of continuing to deny Jewish sovereignty. I am dumbfounded that after turning the desert into a garden and sprouting skyscrapers, hi tech inventions and engineering baby eggplants to grow in sand, that we are supposed to walk away because Palestinians will settle at nothing less than the entirety of the land without any Jews present and will spill any amount of blood to achieve that goal.
I then lean towards resolve. I take mild relief at knowing what we are really up against; a Palestinian mindset that explains the rejection of 1947, 1967, 2000, 2008 and more. It was never about their State. It was about ours. It was never about sharing land. It was about all of it for them and none for us.
After I brush off the shock, my spirit and resolve become steely. We are not going anywhere. We are not budging. We are not moving. We will not clean up the mess the Palestinians make over and over again by their poor choices and cries of victimhood. We will not fall prey to the crocodile tears of the Arab countries who care passionately about Gaza in a time of war and could care less about their poverty and self-inflicted squalor any other moment in time. Why? Because our enemies are fortified in demonizing Israel but have little desire to prop up Gaza and Palestinians.
It is 1947 again. The UN plan has been rejected again, so to speak. And until Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, along with all of the member countries can vote unanimously for the right of Israel to exist in peace, in sovereignty and self-determination in its ancestral homeland, well, then there is no conversation to be had and no negotiations to engage in.
If we have to turn the calendar back to November 30, 1947, we can go it alone. The United States was then, and is now, our staunchest and most loyal ally. We will forever be indebted and appreciative for our shared values and deep, bipartisan friendship. But if Syria, Iran, Iraq and Yemen all choose to shoot rockets and throw hate our way, we know we triumphed once and we are confident we can do it again.
I am not cavalier about what that will take. Much blood and tears were spilled to build homes that sparkle as the sun rises against the Jerusalem stone. It will not be easy to rebuild our spirit and clean up the shattered glass. But we can and we will.
Jews have always been a people that carry lots of glue in our pockets. We take the broken and shattered pieces – of our Temple, of our exodus and persecutions in Spain, Russia, Eastern Europe, and of October 7th – and we put the broken pieces back together, even stronger than they were originally. It is a painstaking task that has constant reminders that we are not whole, perfect or pristine. But we are strong, even if we are so very fragile.