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