War Season and the Cycle of Jewish Life

To live as a Jew is to submit oneself to the cyclical nature of the universe. Days, weeks, months, years and even millennia move in circles. Each Sabbath returns us to day one of creation. Each new year offers a blank slate on which to redraw our lives. There is a certain comfort in this repetition– a freedom in admitting that G-d’s gift of human agency comes with hard limits. But there is also a trap. The actions of people, states and armies are not inevitable, no matter how steadfast their cycles seem to be. During Israel’s predictable, bi-annual (or so) War Season, however, there is every temptation to forget this.

War Season has, for me, become a dreadful but dependable addition to the Jewish calendar, complete with its own rituals, mindsets and linguistic conventions. As it approaches, I brace myself, preparing for the transition of moderates into reactionaries. I concede that “all those people” is now an acceptable sentence subject, at least when referring to Arabs or Muslims. I recalibrate my expectations for responsible reasoning, knowing that many of the smartest people I know will now begin their arguments with pre-determined conclusions and work backwards, often in order to justify the deaths of Palestinian women, children and noncombatants.

And, most painfully, I resign myself to war’s dark, magical ability to demand that we think about today and forget all the yesterdays that have made it so. To present such horrifying whats—rockets crashing into the homes of innocent Israelis—that the whys of economics, politics and decades of military occupation become uncouth to even mention. I anticipate Israeli spokespeople proclaiming, quite rightly, that no country would allow its citizens to be so terrorized. But I dismiss the possibility that the mainstream Jewish world might grapple with the reality that an occupying power will always be at war and that war will always bring the death of civilians, ours and theirs. I realize that because Israel is by no means solely at fault for the crisis, any negotiation or concession would represent an unacceptable admission of guilt or weakness. And I concede that when the fighting dies down, we still will not debate these things seriously. Who wants to think about occupation or the growing political clout of the settler movement when there is so much in Israel to be proud of? Or, better yet, when the other side is so easy to blame?

There are two events on the Jewish calendar that make me hurt. The first is the Neilah service that concludes Yom Kippur’s 25 hours of fasting and prayer with a plea for G-d’s forgiveness and mercy. It is a tremendously powerful moment, a mixture of pain and ecstasy that forces me to declare those things that I will never be able to control. The second is the closing of War Season, with its scoreboard of death tolls and its tense, obviously impermanent peace. Both of the events feel like endings but are actually beginnings, the starts of cycles that come back around as a matter of course. In the case of Neilah, this is simply the nature of our world. But in the case of War Season it is not. The universe may move in cycles but people, age, grow, learn and change, often as a result of much pain and sacrifice. If we believe that peace is better than war, we must be honest about those things we can influence. No, simply thinking about Israel in a different light will not stop violence. But admitting that what we see right now in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank is the result of human choices, including those made by Jews, is a necessary start.

About the Author
Matt Sienkiewicz is professor of Communication and International Studies at Boston College