I write these words upon returning from an intense journey to Israel. Within an hour of landing, we received our first briefing on the current situation in Israel. Only a few hours later, everything had changed.
The mission was designed as a progressive rabbinic mission, the first of its kind by AIPAC. We were to visit Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists, scheduled to engage in serious conversation about “the balance,” as Yossi Klein Halevi phrased it so eloquently during dinner our first night, “between the need to retain our humanity and the need to protect ourselves.” Well, as of that very evening, the theoretical conversation is over. I sat later that night with fellow rabbis in Jerusalem during a red alert. We were guided into the staircases of our hotel lobby when the siren went off, and then hotel staff distributed instructions for what we should do in case of another air raid siren. This was our new “normal” that night.
Once that moment passed, the hotel lobby became a mass of status-updating and family-contacting. I shared with my colleague Rabbi Dan Cohen a moment of impromptu pastoral counseling for a family of tourists from Colombia and Miami, asking us, “can you please tell us what’s happening” with eyes that spoke a fear and vulnerability they were only visiting but that Israel knows all too well. This vignette pales, though, when compared to a call my brother-in-law-to-be received from a neighbor, who was waiting in a bomb shelter with her two small small children, and didn’t know if it was safe to come out yet.
Friends, the theoretical conversations are powerful and significant. They are also radically far from the reality on the ground. As Halevi shared in his provocative presentation, an evening that feels like it occurred years ago already, the last few years of relative quiet for Israel have now come to an abrupt end. In one hour that night, and in every hour since, rockets were fired from Gaza, reaching Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Herzelia, and Binyamin. More than 1,000 rockets have struck Israel in the past two weeks & dozens were intercepted by the Iron Dome. Millions of Israelis, from Haifa to Be’er Sheva, are under threat and must be ready to take shelter within 90 seconds. (For those seeking the comfort of a small miracle, one rocket from Gaza exploded that night next to an Ashdod event hall hosting multiple weddings, and there were no casualties.)
My innocence was lost some time ago, but portions I’ve been desperately clinging to have been torn at yet again. When the terrorist kidnapping and murdering of three Israeli boys was met by the Palestinian Authority handing out treats in celebration and the Jewish terrorist kidnapping and burning alive of a Palestinian teen was met by global Israeli and Jewish condemnation, my hope for imminent peace evaporated. Theoretical constructs for reconciliation being bandied about on social media are good (and less-good) theories. Today, yet again, is the end of theory.
That first night in Jerusalem I sat in shock with rabbinic colleagues who came to Israel to amplify the progressive Jewish values that define us as a People, values we will continue to work to amplify in our homeland. We will never abandon those sacred principles. As Halevi reminded us, they are the crucial balance to what we experienced first hand tonight: the urgent need to keep our People safe in the face of real threats to our very existence.
There can be a severe disconnect between the many conversations that take place in the abstract and the immediate reality on the ground in Israel. Back home in Berkeley, this often occurs in what I’ve come to feel is the “extreme-sport” of fierce anti-Israel rhetoric being met by the defensive posture taken by the Jewish community. That defensive posture ignores the necessity of Israel‘s military response to terrorism. Jewish tradition teaches that the true measure of might (“gevurah“) is restraint, to which I bear testimony tonight. Hamas, part of the Palestinian Unity government, positions its rocket launchers in civilian population centers because it knows Israel‘s historical restraint from firing at civilians. Halevi pointed out that, since 2000, Hamas has shifted its tactics: instead of a war against the Israeli army, it is conducting war against Israeli civilians. Israel‘s restraint is sorely tested, time after time, bus after bus, hotel Pesach Seders, youth discos, coffee houses and kidnapped and murdered teenagers. Israel‘s restraint in the face of terror is simply incalculable. Despite facing the monsters who intentionally murder civilians, we refuse to become monsters.
That Israel has not unleashed its power beyond defensive tactics is important to know, share, and applaud. I’d do more of that, if I weren’t so shell-shocked from hiding that night in a bomb shelter with scared friends and strangers, Jews and others, residents and tourists. We all felt like children, wondering if it was safe to come out yet. Two days later, I witnessed Iron Dome knock our a missile right above my head. There is nothing theoretical about me being alive to write these words. I am grateful to the United States for standing with Israel as it continues to struggle for its very existence.
While I pray that Israel continues to demonstrate the sacred strength of restraint, I stand in solidarity tonight with residents throughout Israel knowing that our national safety will tragically demand more than readiness from the 40,000 reservists called up, the more than 20 soldiers who have lost their lives to date in surgical strikes to decimate Hamas’ weapon-smuggling tunnels.
I’ve never been more determined to bring our family together, to be strong and stand together. I was so glad to be in Israel. Leaving was excruciating. How can I bear to be far from my family when it is under threat?
I feel to my soul these days that Israel is where I belong. With my family. With our People. And, if we do not live in Israel ourselves, standing shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers, we have a duty to stand with her, speaking, posting, marching, weeping, celebrating, lobbying, and praying for her safety and peace.