Red Alert: Israel and Us. Reflections on July 15, 2014

I’m starting to hear that siren in my sleep.
Which, I suppose, is only fair.
Red Alert Israel

I loaded the “Red Alert: Israel” app onto my iPad last week so that I could know real-time where and when Israelis were being targeted by lethal rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza. (It’s not available in the US for my Droid-based cell phone, so I have access to it only when I’m in a Wi-Fi zone.) I had it by my side last Friday night at Shabbat services (where, thank God, it did not go off) and Saturday morning at Torah study (where it did, numerous times). I have it with me all the time at home (where there is rarely an hour that goes by without a siren) and at work (ditto). Here is what I’ve learned:
The sound of sirens going off is a frightening thing. It’s disconcerting during the day, when you are trying to go about your daily responsibilities. It’s disorienting at night, when you are awakened without knowing just what time it is. It is disturbing at all times, knowing that civilians in Israel have just a very few minutes to get to the relative safety of a bunker or a stairwell, before the lethal projectiles arrive, and especially when the sirens goes off in rapid succession – one after another, after another, after another.
As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, hours after Hamas rejected a cease-fire proffered by Egypt and accepted by Israel, here’s what my iPad shows: Within the last half-hour alone, there have been rocket attacks aimed at Beer Sheva, Mitzpe Ramon, Kiryat Malakhi, Moatza Ezorit Eshkol, Moatza Ezorit Hof Ashkelon, the Ashkelon industrial zone, and – just moments ago – S’derot. I’ve been to S’derot, which for years has borne the brunt of Hamas rocketry, and have seen the devastation and the way such a long siege can turn a bustling industrial hub into a ghost town.
But I cannot imagine the fear, the fatigue, the anger, the helplessness, with which Israelis shepherd their families, neighbors and friends – hour after hour, siren after siren – into the bunkers and stairwells. I cannot imagine it. Nobody can. No other nation in the world has had to bear what Israel has, hour after hour, siren after siren, barrage after barrage, year after year, decade after decade. No other nation has been under the very real threat of extinction that Israel has, since its inception.
The current battle to halt Hamas’s attacks is the embodiment of this existential threat: It may ease off for a while, but it never goes away. There’s always a Hamas, or an Islamic Jihad, or a PLO, or a Hezbollah, on Israel’s doorstep, armed with ever-more-lethal and sophisticated weaponry from Syria and Iran. There are always Jew haters, deluded peaceniks, and [Pardon the interruption: Red Alert has gone off; Hamas rockets are now attacking Moatza Ezorit Eshkol] paid publicists who will point to the devastation wreaked in Gaza’s cities by the IDF and IAF and complain about something called “proportional damage.” Which is to say: Palestinians are dying and Israelis are not, and somehow that’s not fair.
Thank God for Iron Dome, Israel’s sophisticated defense system provided with U.S. dollars, which not only detects rocket attacks but has intercepted and destroyed hundreds of rockets aimed at Israeli cities. Israelis thank God for it. Palestinians should too. It is because of Iron Dome – because it allows time for Israel’s leaders to plot out their defense – that thousands of Palestinian lives have been spared. As former ambassador Michael Oren pointed out in a conference call with rabbis this morning, if Iron Dome didn’t exist, and if Israelis were indeed dying, the IDF would have been forced to go into Gaza well before now, and with much more force.
That might still happen, of course. Israel is facing an enemy that has amassed approximately 10,000 rockets in Gaza, the express purpose of which is to kill Jews. As Ambassador Oren noted, Hamas is not just sworn to Israel’s destruction; its charter calls on the murder of Jews all over the world. For every one of us – in every one of our congregations and communities – the threat to Israel is a threat to us all.
“You start a war, you don’t know how to get out of it,” Ambassador Oren said this morning. That’s where Hamas is right now. He’s offered a plan: An immediate cease fire; American-led demilitarization combined with a massive infusion of international aid to rebuild Gaza’s ruined economy and infrastructure; the strengthening of what he called “Palestinian moderates” and the re-starting of peace talks that will blunt the Palestinian Authority’s move to seek unilateral recognition from the U.N.
Above all, Ambassador Oren said, it’s important to keep in sight what happens next. “Everybody always asks me: What’s your diplomatic end game?” he said. Yes, today, the world may act with revulsion at Hamas’s rejection of a cease fire. But tomorrow, or the next day, they will forget, distracted by the next wave of photos of death and destruction in Gaza. “We earned some time, but only some time, by accepting the cease fire,” he warned us. “We always have to go back to the diplomatic end game.”
It’s hard to try to employ diplomacy with an enemy that hides, like the cowards they are, in the vast network of tunnels and catacombs underneath Gaza’s cities, using civilians as human shields to conceal their vast array of rocketry – rockets that serve no defensive purpose at all, only offensive. It’s hard to employ diplomacy with an enemy for whom victory is drenched in Jewish blood. Israel should never have to apologize for successfully protecting its people. But, as Jews, we have a moral compass, an ethical code, a commanded purpose in seeking a peaceful resolution.
This weekend, I will be away from my congregation. I have been given the joy and blessing of officiating for an out-of-state wedding, the marriage of my very first Bar Mitzvah boy from my very first post-ordination congregation, to his beloved. But a Jewish wedding is not just a cause for celebration for a couple, or for their family, or even for their friends. The bride and the groom will circle each other three times, as a sign of their intent to bind themselves only to each other – a symbol of the way we Jews are bound together throughout history, and across continents. As part of the sheva berachot, the seven-fold wedding blessing, we will invite all of Israel to celebrate with the bride and groom, to dance with joy in the streets of Jerusalem as a new Jewish family is formed, as the perpetuation of Jewish life is affirmed.
This is the heart of Judaism. This is what, above all, we must sustain and protect – in the streets of Jerusalem, all of the Land of Israel, and all Jewish communities throughout the world. The sound of celebration, not the sound of sirens. It is our responsibility, and it is our blessing.
Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. Let us pray for peace in Israel. And let us say together: Amen.
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“This Time It’s Different” – Reflections for Shabbat Pinchas, July 11, 2014

When I applied to Hebrew Union College two decades ago, I wrote in my personal essay about the 1991 Gulf War. I described how I sat in front of the TV, with CNN on, watching missiles falling on Tel Aviv and feeling anger, revulsion – and a sense of kinship with the Israelis under attack. I wrote that I was really surprised by those feelings. I didn’t know anybody who lived in Israel. I don’t think I knew any Israelis at that point. I had been raised in an assimilated, suburban American Jewish household with no ties to Israel or Zionism. But here I was, shaking and angry, watching those rockets rain down on Tel Aviv – and feeling, really for the first time, that I was part of the People Israel.

This week is different. Hundreds of rockets are being fired into Israel from Gaza – and I know what it’s like. I spent a year in Israel. It was in between the two intifadas so, relatively speaking, it wasn’t so bad. A young Israeli soldier was kidnapped and murdered, and the whole nation went into mourning, just as they did for three Yeshiva boys just a couple of weeks ago. We ourselves had some close calls. One time, soldiers were targeted by suicide bombers at a bus stop we’d passed by just hours before, and another suicide bomber blew himself up on the Number 18 bus that I took every day to school.

Arab gunmen shot and killed Israelis sitting and eating dinner in a restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem where two classmates had just left. And when we escaped the city to have a few days up north, in Metullah, rockets were fired our way from Lebanon in response to the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan having been signed that day. We didn’t have to hit the bomb shelters – but we were told where to go if the sirens started.

This week is different. I have many friends and colleagues in Israel right now. One is there for the bat mitzvah of a granddaughter. Several are studying at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Others are on congregational trips or AIPAC information tours. Or they are in Israel just because it’s summer time and that’s what they do. And they have spent hours and hours in bomb shelters and in stairwells. In apartment buildings in Tel Aviv. In hotels in Jerusalem. They have been posting messages on Facebook with photos, showing the kindness that Israelis are showing to each other – helping the elderly and disabled get to safety quietly and gently.

This week is different. I’m on social media all the time checking to see if they are safe. Reading their reflections about their experiences. Wondering in amazement at the courage of millions of Israelis for whom this is daily life. This is what they do. This is how they live. With the daily threats. With sirens going off. If they’re driving, they get out of their cars and roll up in ditches or under guard rails by the side of the road. How was your commute today? This week, theirs is different.

But Israelis, as incredibly resilient as they are, had reached a breaking point with Hamas in Gaza. After a year and a half of relative quiet – only 75 or so rockets fired at them in all of last year – Hamas had started up again. In the three months before three Yeshiva boys were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood, 175 rockets had been fired into Israel, aimed at major population centers. Israelis were demanding their government do their job and keep them safe.

So Israel retaliated. Finally. Carefully. The Israeli military picked out where the rocket launchers were and where the terrorist leaders were, and they targeted them. Because Hamas is made up of cowards, they hide in apartment buildings and near mosques and hospitals, so that when Israel does fire back, civilians are deliberately killed. Deliberately on Hamas’s part, not on Israel’s. Then Hamas can turn to the international news media and cry out, “Oh, but Israel is killing women and children!”

Israel has been careful. When they have a target in sight – someplace where a rocket launcher is being hidden under an apartment building, for example – they drop leaflets and even make phone calls telling civilians to evacuate so they will be safe. The Israelis are doing that. Hamas is now ordering them to ignore the IDF warnings and stay put, using them as human shields, because they know Israelis value life and do not want to kill civilians. For Israel, success means hitting targets with as little civilian loss of life as possible. For Hamas – whose reason for existence is the slaughter of Jews and the destruction of Israel – success is measured by how many Jews they can kill.

This week is different. Hamas isn’t just using the short-range rockets they used even a year and a half ago. They now have rockets designed in China, made in Syria, and paid for by Iran that can reach three-quarters of Israel’s population. Imagine if the air-raid sirens went off here, and three-quarters of all of our citizens were told to hit the basements and the bunkers. How long before we would expect our government to go on the offensive to keep us safe?

I had the privilege of being on a conference call this morning with Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. We had just a few minutes with him before he went to Capitol Hill to brief members of Congress about the situation.
In a sign of solidarity among American rabbis, the call was organized by the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which invited all the rabbis from the OU and from the Reform and Conservative movements to join in. While he was speaking to us, we heard a siren going off. It was the Red Alert App on his phone, which every Israeli civilian now has access to, warning of missiles headed for yet another Israeli city.

Ambassador Dermer made it clear that Israel has one objective here. And it’s not to retake Gaza and it’s not to kill Palestinians. It’s simply to have peace on the border. To restore quiet, so Israelis do not have to live under constant threat. He told us how remarkable it was to watch the restraint with which Prime Minister Netanyahu has acted, even when so many Israelis are demanding more.

He told us how the Iron Dome missile interception system has allowed that restraint, because they now get warning of when Hamas rockets are coming, and where they are going. They have time to plot out their strategy of targeted hits, which saves Palestinian lives. And so, he said, does the support of the US government. He himself had met with President Obama two days ago, and the President and the Prime Minister spoke as recently as yesterday.

Ambassador Dermer expressed hopes for a peaceful border – however that can be achieved. But right now, he said, we are living in a different reality. Right now, he said, it’s our responsibility to protect our people. But, he added: Since we are Israel, we abide by international norms of behavior and rules of war. And since we are Jews, we must uphold our own moral values as well.

The Jewish moral compass, of course, had been called into question in recent days with the apparent targeted murder of a young Israeli Arab, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, in what may have been a revenge killing for the deaths of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel.

Some extremist elements in the Jewish community – not just in Israel but here in America as well – had called for more vengeance to be carried out and even cited Biblical imperatives in their cause.

As it happens, this week’s Torah portion does present us with, what on the surface, is an endorsement of zealotry in God’s name. The portion’s title is ‘Pinchas,’ and it is named for the priest who – seeing a Jewish man publicly consorting with a Moabite woman in blatant defiance of social norms – chucked a spear into both of them, killing them instantly.

A plague that God had spread among the Israelites for their disobedience was stayed, and Pinchas and his descendants were rewarded by God with an eternal covenant of peace because, in God’s words, “He displayed among the Israelites his zealousness for Me.”

Divine reward for Pinchas’s zealotry has long troubled our sages, who recoil at the notion of rewarding bloodshed. So much so that, when the Torah was divided into weekly portions centuries ago, they separated the two parts of the story: The spear-chucking incident was tacked onto the end Parashat Balak last week, but the covenant of peace begins this week’s portion. The spear-chucking incident is under the rubric of the Balaam story, but the title ‘Pinchas’ is given to this week’s Torah portion, which picks up the story after his zealous behavior and focuses on God’s blessing of peace.

Maybe the message to us is that Pinchas is being rewarded, not for his violent attack, but for pulling back from violence and accepting God’s covenant of peace instead. The covenant of peace is not just for Pinchas, after all, but for his children and grandchildren who follow him. Wouldn’t it be better for them if their inheritance was one of peace, and not of war? Wouldn’t it be better for them never to be stained with the blood of vengeance? And isn’t this what we should be teaching all of our children? Isn’t this what Israel is trying so hard to do right now? Sparing civilians in Gaza – even as they protect the terrorists who sworn to kill every single Jew and wipe Israel from the face of the earth?

This week is different because, yes, Jews are different. We shouldn’t have to be. We’d like to think that everyone values every single life the way we do. But, as Ambassador Dermer told us this morning, we live in a different reality right now. And our number one concern is keeping Israel secure and its people safe.

Israel was not the aggressor here. But just as peace will be met with peace, might will be met with might, until Hamas – like Pinchas – is ready to accept a covenant of peace. Not just for now, but for the generations to come.

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

©2014 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

An Unwise Call To Arms

Like other states, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a nickname (“The Keystone State”), a state flower (mountain laurel) and even a state dog (The Great Dane, because William Penn owned one). Unlike most other states, it may soon have an official state gun.

Yes, that’s right. In the wake of yet another mass shooting – this one near UC Santa Barbara just a couple of weeks ago – the state’s lawmakers in Harrisburg have decided it’s a great time to promote deadly weapons by declaring the Pennsylvania long rifle the state’s official firearm.

This effort began four years ago. Had it succeeded at that time, Pennsylvania would have had the dubious distinction of being the first state in the US to exalt its ties to guns in this way. The legislation died, but its proponents did not surrender. This time, though, they seemed to sense that a stand-alone bill might actually garner them some bad publicity and attract the outrage of groups, including those here in Pennsylvania, that support sensible gun safety laws. So they did it the sneaky way, which is often the way it happens in Harrisburg. They tagged it on as an amendment to a House bill that designated the Piper J-3 Cub, a small single-engine plane made in the state during World War Two, as the state’s official airplane. The amended bill passed the state House easily, 157-39, on June 2, and now will go to the State Senate.

Since this campaign began in 2010, four other states have jumped ahead of Pennsylvania on the “yay for us, we have an official state gun” list: Utah, Arizona, West Virginia, and Indiana. Astonishingly, Utah and Arizona’s action came within months of the mass shooting in Arizona that critically wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. When Utah became the first, just a couple of months after the Tuscon murders, its sponsor, Republican State Rep. Carl Wimmer, admitted that it was bad timing but added that, hey, we’re only part-time lawmakers and we’re in session for a short time, so “no disrespect to the tragedy in Arizona, we moved forward in doing this because it’s the only opportunity that we had.”

According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, our nation has suffered more than 70 mass shootings just since the Tuscon murders in January of 2011 and, on average, 32 people are murdered in this country every day using guns. And that’s just murders, not suicides and so-called “accidental” shootings. Yet far be it from our own proud Pennsylvania lawmakers to miss their opportunity to make history in the wake of the UCSB killings. It was far more important to honor 18th-century Pennsylvania’s gun history than to honor the memories of 21st-century gun victims.

But for lawmakers in large urban areas, this bill was a horrific slap in the face. “Having a state gun is deeply offensive to many people in Pennsylvania,” said Representative Mark Cohen of Philadelphia, where gun deaths are growing in number even as other violent crimes are on the decline. “We ought not to pass this amendment. We ought to show some sensitivity to the loss of human life.” Sensitivity clearly is in short supply in Harrisburg, though, where lawmakers seem more interested in, say, attracting gun manufacturers to the state from places like New York that are moving toward more common sense gun-safety laws.

When the governor Utah signed that first-in-the-nation law in 2011, his PR person tried to deflect criticism by contending that the bill wasn’t so much about honoring a weapon as it was honoring its creator. But what about honoring humanity’s Creator? What about honoring every single human life, created in God’s image, by refraining – just this once – from glorifying violence?

This bill is not just ill-timed. It is not just ill-conceived. It is abhorrent to all of us who believe in the sanctity of life and the intrinsic worth of every human being. We were put onto this planet to create and to tend, not to neglect and destroy. Throughout our state, people face so many challenges every day, from unemployment to ill health to lack of educational opportunities – and yes, to violence in their homes and in their neighborhoods. Once, just once, it would be refreshing for our elected officials to place public safety and welfare above petty self-interest. It doesn’t happen too often. But maybe once, just once, they could surprise us, do the right thing, and send this bill to the Biblical shades of Sheol, where it belongs.

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel, Altoona, Pennsylvania

An Absence of Faith

It’s been nearly twenty years since my dear friend, colleague and classmate, Rabbi Victor Appell, made us face the gay elephant in the room. As a first-year rabbinic student in Jerusalem, he chose as his very first sermon topic the Levitical prohibition against sex between two men as “an abomination.” He urged us to look at the verse in the context of the full Scriptural reading, which also includes the command “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I’m paraphrasing here, but this is the message as I remember it: Surely, he reasoned, God did not mean for gays to be ostracized, vilified and condemned. Surely, he urged, God meant for all of us, gay or straight, to be respected equally as creatures made “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God.

Two decades after Victor and his partner Colin met during that year in Israel, they finally – recently – were legally wed in New Jersey. But for all this time, they and their two beautiful, bright sons have fashioned a home full of love, faith, and meaningful Jewish life.

But while we celebrate with them, and with all gay couples who finally have had their marriages legally recognized for the first time, we have watched as an anti-gay backlash has crept across the country. In more than a dozen states, lawmakers have attempted to blunt the civil rights of gays with legislation that would make it permissible for merchants and restaurant owners to refuse public accommodation to gays and lesbians, simply because they are gay. That such bills as the one just vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer are even under serious consideration is loathsome. That they are being proffered under the guise of “protecting religious liberty” is, in itself, an abomination.

Let’s be clear about this. These gay discrimination bills have nothing to do with freedom of religion. They are not being proposed by people of faith who have given thoughtful consideration to the implications. They are a product of right-wing think-tanks and advocacy groups who prey on fear and ignorance to advance a particular political agenda. That they have popped up in a dozen states or more, in rapid succession, is the result of a coordinated campaign to restrict civil rights nationwide in a method we’ve seen before, such as the campaigns to restrict voting rights and those that deny women access to reproductive health services (the latter, also, purportedly in the name of “religious liberty”).

As a person of faith, and as a faith leader in my community, it is my responsibility to bring to bear the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of Jewish tradition- a tradition that Hillel the Elder stated two millennia ago boils down to one statement: “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.” Would those who promulgate such laws agree to live by them if they allowed merchants to refuse service to white Christians? Parents with children? Veterans who walk with canes, or elderly people who need wheelchairs? Judaism recognizes the doctrine of “dina d’malchuta dina,” an Aramaic expression that states “the law of the land is the law.” We acknowledge the role and importance of civil laws to maintain the social contract we all have agreed to as Americans. We recognize the need for enforcement of rules that prohibit one person, for whatever reason, from violating the basic rights of another. Human dignity and the inherent and equal worth of each human being are fundamental both to religious doctrine and to American democracy.

It is unconscionable for religion to be hijacked by those who are concerned first and foremost with power, who believe that they have some God-given right to control others’ lives – be it by turning away gays at the restaurant door, closing women’s health clinics, or restricting the ability of poor people and minorities to exercise their legal right to vote. They may be frightened by the changes in our society that are – socially, economically, and legally – empowering people once disenfranchised. But they must not be allowed to renew the oppression of the “other” in the name of religions that teach the opposite.

Israeli Government Undermines Plans for New Prayer Space

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Friends,

For some months now, I have been concerned by the Israeli goverment’s plans to move Women of the Wall and egalitarian minyanim away from the Kotel and Kotel Plaza to an area called Robinson’s Arch. Though technically part of the Western Wall (the retaining wall of the Second Temple), Robinson’s Arch not only is an active archaeological site, it also is separated and distanced from the Kotel – the site that Jews and non-Jews throughout the world equate with the historical Jewish connection to the Second Temple and Second Commonwealth.

I was equally concerned that Women of the Wall, which had fought for the right to pray freely in the Women’s Section of the Kotel for 25 years, was being co-opted by agreeing to the move. Not only did that mean giving up its quarter-century of advocacy for the rights of women to pray there, it discouraged and frustrated many traditionally observant members of WOW who want to pray strictly with other women and not in mixed-gender groups. And that has led to unprecedented fractures in this formerly united and strong group of women of faith

Unfortunately, my concerns and fears have proved to be justified. At the same time the Israeli government was negotiating with WOW and the Reform and Conservative movements through Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky on this egalitarian space, it was conducting separate, secret negotiations with a right-wing pro-settler group called ELAD – City of David Foundation, to take management control over the entire southern section of the Western Wall, including Robinson’s Arch.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “Elad is heavily involved in settling Jews in Palestinian homes purchased in Silwan through front men and foreign companies.” That is, it espouses a right-wing political agenda to displace Arab residents of Old Jerusalem. Thus, not only does this action by the Netanyahu government undermine all the progress that non-Orthodox prayer groups thought they’d been making – but, perhaps more importantly, it gives the appearance that WOW and its partners have been complicit in this right-wing agenda rather than being victimized by it.

WOW Chair Anat Hoffman was rightly angry in the message she shot to Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, Avichai Mendelblit:

“We have paid a high price – both personal and organization -for even our willingness to negotiate with the government over moving our prayer out of the women’s section, the area where we struggled for 25 years. We are committed to respectful and respected women’s prayer at the Western Wall and we do not see a way to pursue this under these conditions.”

All of us who have supported WOW over the years, including the constitutent arms of the Reform and Conservative movements in the US and its parallel Progressive and Masorti cousins in Israel, must clearly and strongly condemn this subterfuge by the Netanyahu government and demand that control over the Robinson’s Arch area be placed in the hands of those who will use it and those who will protect it – and out of the hands who those who utilize it as a cover for their political agenda.

At the same time, perhaps it’s also time we also create a parallel track and go back to the beginning – and to supporting WOW and all women who wish to pray freely, communally and vocally in the women’s section of the Kotel. After all, an Israeli court has already ruled that it is their (our) right to do so, and that the so-called prevalent ‘customs’ of the Kotel area are not to be construed as purely ultra-Orthodox. It is time now to break the stranglehold of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the Kotel as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, and make it truly a place that unifies Jews from around the world rather than separating them.

In my opinion, all the Robinson’s Arch negotiation did was serve the Haredi interests in controlling the Kotel and stifling women’s voices and womens’ rights. That is not something that we of Klal Yisrael can accept.

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