“Beneath You” – Rosh Hashanah Morning 2014

The following scene was related by journalist Thomas Friedman writing from Jerusalem in the late 1980’s:

“I once bought a tape recorder— radio in Jerusalem that came with a one-year warranty. After about nine months the radio broke, and I brought it back to the shop for replacement. The shop owner knew me well, as we had done a lot of business together. I put the radio and the warranty on the counter and said to the owner, “I need a replacement.” He checked that the radio was dead, read over the warranty, and then just shook his head.
‘Mr. Thomas,” he said, “if the radio had broken after one month, or maybe three months, okay, we would have replaced it. But nine months? I’m sorry.’
‘No, no, you don’t understand,’ I said. ‘This radio has a warranty of one year. One year means one year. It is not optional. It is not at your discretion.’ He just shook his head again. He did not understand one year. His mind could not see that far, no matter what the Japanese manufacturer had told him.”

Friedman wrote that he understood what the shopkeeper was really saying to him: It wasn’t just about the radio. Israel, too “is a country with a one-year warranty – that no one is sure will be honored.”

So many Israelis, whatever their background, feel that they are living on borrowed time. That just beneath the surface of day-to-day life is another holocaust, another abyss, another dark time in the history of mankind when the earth could, at any moment, open again and swallow them up.

I lived in Israel a decade after Friedman, and I had a similar situation. In my case, I needed to buy a round-trip plane ticket on British Airways in April, for a flight to Israel in early June, and a return the following May. Trouble was, the Brit Air computer system wouldn’t let me buy a ticket with a return date more than 365 days in the future. So I booked the return for the latest day possible, and the booking agent put a note in the computer system allowing me to reschedule my return trip to the correct date, once I got through that deadline.

Don was in Israel with me for the month of August, so one day we took a stroll to the British Air office in downtown Jerusalem to make the fix. This time I was dealing with Israelis, not Brits. And for the life of them, the Israeli agents could not understand why in the world I was concerned in August about a trip that would not take place until the following May. What could I possibly have been thinking?

During that year, I learned to both admire and fear the way that Israelis compartmentalize their lives. How do you get on the Number 18 bus to work today when it was blown up last week? How do you go for coffee or falafel or shop at the shuk when you know there was a shooting there last month? How do you, on one day, mark Yom ha-Zikaron, the day of remembrance, with silent commemoration of Israel’s war dead, then at midnight go out into the streets with noise-makers and silly string and dance for hours in celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence. How do you do that?

But they did. They do.

And really, what else can you do? On the one hand, if you don’t compartmentalize, you would be totally consumed by “ha-matzav,” the Hebrew euphemism for the “situation” with the Palestinians. That sense of bravado would be overcome by the sense of pending doom. You would not be able to get through a day. Not one day.

On the other hand, you could just try and ignore the situation. I hear this a lot from the international media: Oh, Israelis are fairly comfortable these days, so they just pretend the Palestinians don’t exist. Well, maybe from the outside, that’s what it looks like – but not from the inside. The borders are too close, and the wounds are too fresh, and the memories are too strong.

Fast forward another 20 years, and it turns out the Israelis we knew were right all along.

From beneath you it devours. There’s no way to compartmentalize “hamatzav” from the rest of your life when the earth literally does open up again and swallow you up.

This time, it was not some Biblical cataclysm, like the rebellious Korach and his followers being consumed in a fit of Divine anger. This time it was man-made. Slow and methodical, deliberate and deadly. This time it was the incredibly elaborate and expensive labyrinth of tunnels dug by the terrorists of Hamas deep beneath the border between Gaza and Israel.

The plan was supposed to be triggered today. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, one of Israel’s holiest days of the year, Hamas had planned for two hundred men to wind their way through the tunnels, emerge near a half-dozen communities in Israel, and wreak death and destruction. Today, Hamas was determined to slaughter Jews and kidnap others, to hold them as ransom bait for their mass murderers to be released from Israeli prisons. Today, Hamas had hoped to so terrify Israelis that they would be willing to give Hamas anything it demanded.

We saw Hamas try this several times before and during the Gaza incursion last month. We have aerial footage of bands of terrorists sneaking out of tunnels near kibbutzim that sit a few short miles from the Gaza border. But now we know these were not isolated incidents. Now, we know that they were trial runs for what was supposed to take place today.

Hamas terrorists who were captured in Gaza apparently made no secret of the plans. They bragged that they had spent years creating these tunnels 25 meters deep, where they could not be detected.

They were proud of the way they had diverted tens of millions of dollars of building materials and concrete – which the European Union insisted Israel allow into Gaza, but which the EU then failed to account for.

Hamas was easily able to use it, not to create an infrastructure of roads and homes and hospitals and schools to bring prosperity to the people of Gaza – but to create a warren of dens from which terrorists launched their attacks in the midst of those homes and hospitals and schools. And because of which the people of Gaza have endured untold suffering.

From beneath you it devours. Israelis knew this in 1948, and in 1967, and in 1973, and all the years in between. Here is what we have learned from Operation Protective Edge: That in this generation, like all the preceding generations, Israel is no closer to a state of normalcy, to a state of peace. There are only periods of calm, during which one can and must compartmentalize the terror in order to survive. But there has been no end to the fight against genocidal forces that refuse to acknowledge Israel’s existence and threaten her very being.

Hamas may, however, have misread the Israeli psyche just a little bit. Far from terrorizing Israelis, or sending them scattered in all directions, their relentless rocket fire had the opposite effect. It brought Israelis together.

It united them politically – with even the far left supporting the government’s powerful incursion into Gaza.

It united them physically – with Israelis of all ages and backgrounds crouched in shelters and stairwells, helping the elderly and disabled to get to safety.

It united them emotionally – with young Israelis supporting their brothers and sisters and friends and colleagues who were called up for reserve duty in the tens of thousands.

There was no compartmentalizing the situation. There was no ignoring it. And there was no surrender to it. Not this time. Not when the existential threat was so real that the earth really was opening up.

From beneath us it devours. Not just in Israel, as it turns out. In these past weeks, the hellmouth has opened in Berlin and in Paris and in Antwerp and in Sydney, Australia, and in New York City, and in Boston, and in Calgary, Canada. And what emerged from the darkness was not the terror of Hamas but the terror of virulent, ugly anti-semitism.

Demonstrators carrying signs and chanting slogans that all Jews must die, that Hitler should have finished the job, that Jews must be gassed. These were not people protesting the political decisions of the current Israeli government. Nor were they marching in support of the civilians in Gaza. This was pure, unadulterated Jew-hatred, cowardly faces hidden behind wrapped layers of kefffiahs and Palestinian flags, terrorizing Jews at prayer, and Jews rallying to support brothers and sisters in Israel, and Jews simply walking in public places.

And yet not all Jew-hatred is this obvious. Some of it is subtle. Some of it is wrapped in the arrogant condemnation by Western nations of Israel’s actions in Gaza, as though they would not have done exactly the same thing to protect their people from rockets and bombs and bands of cut-throats. Some of it is wrapped in the speech of “proportional damage,” as though Israel is to blame for building an Iron Dome to protect its people, while Hamas erects human shields to protect its rockets. Some of it is wrapped in the diplomatic language of Israel-Palestine, as though the two are not only morally but practically equivalent.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s Finance Minister, gave a speech at a Holocaust Memorial Site in Berlin a month ago, in which condemned the Western world’s response as what he called “a fatal blind spot for sheer evil” just as the Nazi extermination of Jews had been. Here’s part of what he said:

“Here in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, people sit in their comfortable homes, watching the evening news, and tell us that we are failing the test. Why? Because in Gaza people suffer more. They don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – that the suffering of Gaza is the main tool of evil. When we explain to them, time after time, that Hamas uses the children of Gaza as human shields, that Hamas intentionally places them in the firing line to ensure that they die, that Hamas sacrifices the lives of the young to win its propaganda war, people refuse to believe it. Why? Because they cannot believe that human beings – human beings who look like them and sound like them – are capable of behaving that way. Because good people always refuse to recognize the totality of evil until it’s too late.”

Lapid warned then what we know now is so true…that Israel may stand at the front of the line facing this evil, but that they will not stop there. Hamas. Al Qaida. ISIS. They will go after Europe. They will go wherever they need to go, to spread their brand of evil. It is not just Israel living on shaky ground. This evil recognizes no borders. The entire world is on notice: From beneath you, it devours.

There is another truth that seems to have eluded much of the Western world – the news media and the politicians alike. And that is, that it didn’t have to be this way between Israel and Gaza. Dennis Ross, who has represented the US in the Middle East in various capacities since the Clinton Administration, wrote recently that he himself laid out the path to Hamas that would have led to peace and prosperity. And they simply chose the alternative.
This meeting took place in the winter of 2005 in Gaza City, just before Israel unilaterally withdrew its troops and settlers and left Gaza in Palestinian hands. Here’s what Ross told an audience of about 200 Gazans, including a number of senior leaders of Hamas:

“This was a moment to promote Palestinian national aspirations,” Ross said. “If they took advantage of the Israel withdrawal to peacefully develop Gaza, the international community and the Israelis would see that what was working in Gaza could also be applied to the West Bank. However, I then asked rhetorically: If Palestinians instead turn Gaza into a platform for attacks against Israel, who is going to favor an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state?”

“Much of Palestinians’ history might have been imposed on them by others, I said. But this time they had the power to shape their future. If they made the wrong choice, they could not blame the Arabs, the Europeans, the Americans – or the Israelis. . . . Unfortunately, we know the path Hamas chose . . . For them, Palestinians’ pain and suffering are tools to exploit, not conditions to end.”

Ross suggests a path that many others, including Israelis, have suggested: If the enemy of my enemy is at least my partner, Israel must cultivate partnerships with those who are threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Hamas must be discredited and eventually disarmed as a requirement for the rebuilding of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority must be supported, so that its rule in the West Bank gives Palestinians a credible alternative to Hamas. Israel and the PA must work on conflict management skills, especially when it comes to land agreements on the West Bank.

And finally, Prime Minister Netanyahu must declare that Israel’s settlement construction will NOT take place on land that it thinks will eventually be part of a Palestinian state. That, says Ross, would allow Israel to offer a credible two-state solution and make it easier for Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates to work with Israel more openly.

The destruction this summer has been so devastating, and the air-raid sirens so ubiquitous. The issues seem so intractable, and the death-wish of our enemies seems so incomprehensible. Sometimes we forget what it’s like for individual Israelis who have to deal with all of it every day of their lives. Who find themselves compartmentalizing the situation – because if they did not, how could they go on?

This Sunday, our Temple Teen School students had a chance to SKYPE with a young Israeli woman named Shani Raviv, whose aunt and uncle are Nancy and Andy Gurman. She and her fiancé Uri had planned a beautiful wedding in early August on the kibbutz where they live, and the whole family was to come to Israel to celebrate their chuppah.

But then Gaza happened. And Shani and Uri, and all their friends, who all serve in the IDF reserves after they do their full-time service, were called up. Uri was on the Gaza border, because he’s an engineer whose expertise involves blowing up tunnels. Shani, the intelligence specialist, was sent north to the Golan, where the Syrian civil war in all its ugliness was spilling over the border. They wanted to keep her there indefinitely, but Shani said, Look, I just got out after seven years. I have a wedding to plan. In the end, the couple was delayed only two weeks, and Andy was on hand to dance at his niece’s wedding. But can you imagine any young couple in our community facing the same situation?

It shouldn’t have to be this way. Young Israelis, who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country, shouldn’t have to delay their weddings because rockets and tunnels are threatening their country’s survival. They shouldn’t have to put on their uniforms year after year, to face an enemy with black hearts and blood on their hands.

It shouldn’t be this way. It didn’t have to be this way. But it is this way. From beneath them it devours. Today, even with the incursion over, it eats away at the lives of our brothers and sisters, in the land where we have longed for peace for so long. Today, as every day, Israelis feel the ground beneath them shaking and shifting.

We must not shrink from this ultimate evil. We must face it, and we must demand that the world face it and name it and destroy it. Israel may be on the front lines, but it must not stand alone. For the sake of the world, whose birth we celebrate today – the world God gave us to tend and protect – for her sake and for the sake of God’s name, it must be so.

The Babylonian Talmud records this petition of Mar, son of Ravina, with which he would conclude his prayers, and with which I will end my remarks this morning:

“My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood. Let me remain silent before those who slander me. Let me be as humble as dust before all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue Your commandments. Deliver me . . . from all evils that come storming into the world. As for all who plot evil against me – speedily frustrate their designs, make nothing of their schemes! May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer!”

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

©2014 Audrey R. Korotkin


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