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We Have Been Here Before

First, we must win this war. Then, when the dust settles, we must ask ourselves what has happened to us
Children are seen in a bomb shelter of an apartment building in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on the third day of Operation Protective Edge, Thursday, July 10, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Children are seen in a bomb shelter of an apartment building in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on the third day of Operation Protective Edge, Thursday, July 10, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

We’ve been here before. That’s the whole point of the Jewish calendar. None of this is new.

We’ve been here before. That’s what Shiva Asar Be-Tammuz, the 17th day of Tammuz, which we will commemorate on Tuesday, seeks to remind us. The Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) lists five calamities that are said to have befallen us on this date. Among them, the Mishnah says, the walls of the city were breached and an idol was placed in the Temple.

Can anyone doubt that we’ve been here before?

Thanks to extraordinary Israeli ingenuity, we’ve built a wall in the sky. Missiles come streaking towards us, and usually, the “wall” stops them; the remnants of what had been a deathly threat seem to float slowly, harmlessly, down towards the earth. But not all the time, as we saw first in Ashdod. Our “wall” can be breached, and one can only assume that the breaches to follow will be much worse than what’s come thus far. The Babylonians breached the walls. So, too, did the Romans. So did the Syrians and the Egyptians in October 1973. So did Hezbollah in the Lebanon wars. So, too, can Hamas.

We’ve been here before.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, the Zionist narrative tells us. The story we tell about this country is one of utter triumph. It’s a story the early pioneers with their towers and stockades as they steadfastly spread across the land, of the desert being brought to bloom, of Tel Aviv rising out of the vacant sands just north of Jaffa, that of paratroopers firing their way into the Lions Gate, leaving the centuries-old stone pock-marked with bullets and radioing back, not long later, har ha-bayit be-yadeinu – “The Temple Mount is in our Hands.”

But that’s never been the entire story. Some of those beachheads established with towers and stockades were over-run. We lost part of Jerusalem in 1948. The Fedayeen crossed the border with impunity during the 1950’s and killed many Israelis. The war of 2000-2004 turned our restaurants and nightclubs, bus-stops and cafes into life-consuming infernos. Hezbollah made the northern third of the country uninhabitable. Never, ever have we been able to turn this place into an impregnable fortress.

To live here means to accept that our walls can be breached. To live here means to live with periods of fear, with loss, with the knowledge that as soon as it is over, the clock will start ticking until the next round. That is the way that things have always been, and it is the way that they will always be. Periodically, we or our children, or theirs, will retreat to safe-rooms, reinforced with steel and cement, hear the siren, hear the boom, wait the requisite time and exit, only to do it again down the road.

To live here means trying to make the walls as secure as we can, but knowing that whether they are walls of stone or domes of iron, they will never be impregnable. If we are to live here, it has to be not because we are safe, but because we believe it matters. Thus, if we are to live here, we have to make it matter.

Perhaps that is why the Mishnah notes both the breaching of the walls and the idol in the Temple, too. Perhaps the point is now, as our walls are being breached, we are meant to ask ourselves whether something central to us hasn’t also been defiled.

We know that it has. There is an idol in the Temple. We commuted the sentences of Jewish terrorists a quarter of a century ago, not twice, not three times, but four times. We watched as “Price Tag” operatives spray-painted “Death to Arabs,” but we said it was “just graffiti.” We watched as they uprooted olive trees, but we refused to acknowledge that they were really uprooting the very essence of who we are supposed to be. Had we forgotten that the Torah says “Even if you are at war with a city … you must not destroy its trees” (Deut. 20:19)?  Or did we just not care?

We’ve been here before, but we, unlike our tradition, have been silent. We watched as they burned mosques, but never admitted that those who start by burning mosques will one day burn a child. A year ago, Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon spoke out against Jewish terror, but we ignored him, or protested his “misguided” use of the word “terror.”

And then we burned a child. Yes, we.

Of course Bibi is right that we abhor the horror and they celebrate their murderers. Of course he’s right that we arrest the perpetrators and they name streets and city squares after them. Of course he’s right that we’re surrounded by an evil the world simply refuses to understand. Yes, that’s all true. But it’s also utterly irrelevant.

Moral equivalency makes a mockery of truth, but moral superiority makes a mockery of responsibility.

Being better than them is not good enough. “Not being revolting” is not a standard that will get our children to believe in this place. Either we build something that reflects the very best of what our tradition has stood for since those first walls were breached long ago, or we will exile ourselves – not because the walls were penetrated, but because the shame was simply too great to bear.

As I stood in the mourning tent of Mohammed Abu Khdair’s family, took his father’s hand in mine and looked straight into his father’s eyes, all I saw was horror. Emptiness. Hollowness. The devastating eyes of a man whose son had just been burned alive. Overcome with shame, sensing the chasm of his loss, horrified by what is becoming of some of us, I felt, at that moment, that Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the Rosh Yeshiva in Elon Moreh, was right when he said that the perpetrators ought to be put to death, for we must “burn out the evil from amidst us” (Deut. 17:7).

For we have been here before, and we dare not go back.

Our walls are not impenetrable; we will forever have to go to war, we will forever endure periods of fear. So first, we must win this war (whatever that might actually mean). But then, when the dust settles and the clock begins to count down to the next conflagration, we must ask ourselves what has happened to us. And we must fix it – to its very core.

Our walls have been breached, but so, too, has our heart. Something about us has been defiled and polluted. So first we must prevail, and then we must be better.

For this time, our temple must not fall.


About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" (Ecco/HarperCollins), won the 2016 Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His most recent book, "We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel," was published in September 2019.