I would prefer not to write what follows, but it seems to me more and more that the bombs falling in the Middle East are also falling on Judaism itself.
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
I mean the rockets landing on Israel, causing people to run to shelters, taking few lives only because of the remarkable success of the Iron Dome. I mean the bullets which kill Israeli soldiers, cut off their young lives and leave their families in grief for the rest of their days.
I mean too the bombs which land in Gaza, taking the lives of hapless people who did not choose to live in the horror-zone between Hamas and Israel, especially the lives of children, each one someone’s hope and dream, each with a future which might, had they been born somewhere less wretched on the earth, have been so different. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy. It has to stop.
Like so many others, I’m both angered, and troubled, about blame. Utterly cynically, it seems a deliberate strategy by the leadership of Hamas to goad Israel into actions which alienate its support, besmirch its image, and draw forth the international cry of ‘war crimes’. Then, itself seemingly caring little about the appalling human cost, it can point the finger and say ‘See what Israel did?’ Human lives appear to matter to some less than laying their price at Israel’s door.
For Israel itself, amidst the provocations, amidst the threats to its existence from such a cunning and cruel enemy, the question becomes unavoidable: is there any other way? Because, how is what is happening now really helping in the long term? Is it wise? Is it just? And, however much Israel warns families in advance to leave their homes, and does not deliberately target civilians, war is neither pin-point accurate, nor clean, nor free of errors, or fear, or fury, in the midst of battle. And rockets are stored in schools…
The bombs land on Judaism too, through the effect of so much hatred, from without and from within, on Israeli society. The Deputy Mayor of Haifa and his son were severely beaten in a right-wing demonstration. Racist phenomena which the anti-Defamation league in America or the Board of Deputies here would abhor, sometimes appear in the streets. ‘Every day the war continues’, wrote the respected author and President of the Association for Civil Rights Sami Michael in Israel, ‘it is liable to defeat Israel as a democratic country’.
The bombs fall on Judaism abroad too, though not literally. Vicious, indiscriminate incitement against the very existence of Israel, displays of blatant anti-Semitism: these reveal the folly and sickness of parts of other societies across Europe and must on no account in any way be condoned.
Amidst all this visceral, immediate distress, it may seem almost irrelevant, effete, to worry that the bombs’ effect Judaism and the Jewish People too; Judaism the religion which has for at least two and a half millennia taught and cultivated the often counter-intuitive demand that we respect most those who are most vulnerable, care for the stranger, welcome the homeless and feed the hungry; the Jewish People which has known like perhaps no other nation what it means to be marginalised, alienated, slandered, dispossessed and killed. What are we to do with those values now, we who are heirs to this great tradition and responsible for it at this very moment?
In these horrible times we absolutely must not step away from Israel. On the contrary, we must step closer; the country is after all beleaguered and in need.
But in my view we should step closer in order to stand behind those voices which, from within Israel and loyal to it, and from outside the country and caring deeply for it, seek to proclaim those very values for which it was created, the core and essential values of Judaism itself. Those calls may seem hopeless now, scarcely a whistling in the wind, but we would be incomparably more hopeless without them. I conclude with quoting from one of them, Daniel Barenboim, in yesterday’s Haaretz:
I am writing these words as a Messenger of Peace for the United Nations and as someone who holds two passports: an Israeli and a Palestinian one. I am writing them with a heavy heart… In my opinion, compassion is not merely a sentiment that results from a psychological understanding of a person’s need, but it is a moral obligation. Only through trying to understand the other side’s plight can we take a step towards each other. As Schopenhauer put it, “nothing will bring us back to the path of justice so readily as the mental picture of the trouble, grief, and lamentation of the loser.” In this conflict, we are all losers. We can only overcome this sad state if we finally begin to accept the other side’s suffering and their rights. Only from this understanding can we attempt to build a future together.
May Shabbat bring Shalom