Israel Journal - January 29, 2009
I love being here in Israel, especially Jerusalem. The air is fresh and clear, cool but not cold, and I breathe it in deeply. There is a bakery across the street from us, and the fragrance of warm pastry wafts around the neighborhood. My pleasure is certainly enhanced by the fact that I am on sabbatical and get to lead a less pressured life for a while! As I walk home with groceries or sit and reflect, I am keenly aware of my spacious schedule here, and breathe out my gratitude frequently. I hope everyone reading this is blessed with similar moments and opportunities.
My pleasure is compounded by the simple fact of being in Israel, a place that I love and in which I feel deeply at home. Certainly there are many reasons that contribute to my "special relationship" with this country: my father's origins here; my knowledge of Hebrew; my comfort at being in a culture that primarily follows the rhythms of Jewish life; and so much more. I am so happy to be here.
Yesterday, for example…
Yesterday I had to travel to Tel Aviv to pick up my camera. I had dropped it and it needed repair, and the authorized dealer was in Tel Aviv. As I walked through the famous open air market Machane Yehuda on my way to the central bus station, I happily took in the sights and sounds: the colorful produce, the trays full of olives and nuts and dried fruit, the bakeries, the fresh cheese stores and the butcher shops, and the calls of the vendors. One fellow in particular made me smile. To sell his fruit he cheerfully bellowed his own new lyrics to familiar old religious melodies. Instead of "Mi Pi El" (From the Mouth of God) came "Metukim" (Sweet! These strawberries are sweet!).
I then walked along the main street, Jaffa Road, which is a colossal mess as they lay tracks for a new light rail system. An election is coming up in Israel in two weeks, and election posters are everywhere. Israel's parliamentary system allows any number of parties to compete, and the horse race is on. I scanned the sides of the buses as I walked. First, a poster for the Green Party: a baby, with the caption "If he could vote…" I don't know if this approach will win them much support in the current wartime climate in Israel. Then, a shocking (to my American eyes) poster for the Shas Party, which caters to the religious Jews of North African origin: their ageless and strange leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, with his customary sunglasses and turban, accompanied by the famous battle cry of the Maccabees, "Whoever is with God, come with me!" The line between democracy and theocracy blurs dangerously on the right flank of Israeli politics.
At the new and efficient Central Bus Station (I still remember the old one!) I went through the metal detector and look for my bus to Tel Aviv. It was my lucky day. I climbed onto the bus, arrived in Tel Aviv in less than an hour, and located the bus to Bialik Street, which left as soon as I step on board. I explained to the bus driver that I had only an address and little idea where I was going. After a few moments the driver indicated that I should get off at the next stop, which was literally in front of the camera store. As I stepped off the bus I happily said to the driver "Yesh Elohim!" – "There is a God!" and we smiled.
Back in Jerusalem, I was walking back from the bus station when I heard someone call my name. It was Barya Schachter, whom I have known since he was a little boy. Barya is the youngest child of my beloved teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. When I lived near his family in Philadelphia during my years in rabbinical school, I befriended little Barya and we had a sweet connection. Barya was walking with his young wife (whose name I cannot remember) and their little girl Tzedakah was asleep in the stroller. We shared an enthusiastic greeting. I was careful not to offer my hand to his wife, since they are clearly very orthodox. Barya wears what I will call the "Orthodox Hippie" uniform: Big white kippah, scruffy clothes, peyes and tzitizit. He works as a healer. Barya's card lists reflexology, Jewish Reiki, therapeutic massage, and healing prayer. His practice is called "Refuah Shlaymah" – "Complete Healing". I wished him well.
When I returned home, our downstairs neighbor graciously invited us to tea. This evening Timna and I engaged in intense discussion as she studies and begins to sort out the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another good, full day.
Loading Boxes for Gaza
The ceasefire with Hamas indeed arrived in time for the Obama inauguration, and is holding more or less. I encourage all who are interested in remaining informed to utilize the many reputable news sources that are on the Internet. I have gotten hooked on Haaretz.com as my main Israeli source of news and opinion http://www.haaretz.com. (I also check the Jerusalem Post and other Israeli sources, and I have even been scanning Arab news sources to get an idea of what they are broadcasting. The Internet is a mind-boggling resource.) Haaretz is a leading Israeli newspaper, left-leaning, that does not shy away from printing a wide spectrum of opinion in its pages. As usual, the ever-present debate inside my own head is well mirrored in the open debate in the Israeli press. The situation is terribly complex, urgent and pressing, and I do not know precisely which path might ultimately lead to the most prosperous, just and peaceful outcome for Israel and her Palestinian neighbors. Maybe George Mitchell will make some progress. I certainly wish him well. I tend to share the fairly pessimistic assessment that Tom Friedman expressed a few days ago http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/opinion/25friedman.html?_r=1 and yet there is no excuse not to keep trying. So we will.
A few days ago my friend Melila called me and asked if I could help load boxes of clothes, blankets, mattresses, dried milk, flour and similar items onto a big truck heading for the Gaza Strip…right now. Nomi and I happened to be at the lending library just a few minutes walk away, so we headed over to the Youth Center where everything had been stored. A dozen or so young adults were loading a big moving van. Melila put Nomi to work coloring in hand-made Hebrew posters that said (roughly) "The Fellowship for Lighting a Candle of Love and Friendship". I helped carry boxes. I learned that as soon as the ceasefire was declared these young Israeli organizers had put out a call for material assistance to residents of Gaza. They had been literally overwhelmed by donations and had to ask people to stop bringing donations. They were filling 7 moving vans that would be entering Gaza the next day. This outpouring was matched in other parts of Israel. The newspaper reported about the efforts of a female college student in Sderot of all places (the very town that has borne the brunt of Hamas missiles over the past 8 years) who had organized donations for the residents of Gaza and had filled 10 trucks that would be transferring basic goods to Gaza.
Melila explained that all of this organizing was happening below the radar and without waiting for government action. She said that many Israelis, even as they supported the military campaign to silence Hamas' rockets, also felt desperately badly over the plight of innocent Gazans. Melila was not at all sure that this gesture of support would make much of a difference in Gaza, but it was clear to her that these Israelis needed to do this, for their own souls. Melila's friend Lee was the lead organizer. Lee has negotiated the convoluted terrain of Israeli and Palestinian bureaucracy for years in order to organize joint Israeli-Palestinian efforts for dialogue. Lee said that getting clearance for these trucks to enter Gaza and reach the hands of reputable NGO's for distribution made all her previous organizing seem like a walk in the park. You can watch a short video of this undertaking at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-ndnHnn0CU&feature=channel_page I feel fortunate to be witness to these gestures of common humanity.
Watching the Inauguration
Speaking of common humanity, thanks to modern technology my family and I were able to join the millions of people on the Mall in Washington D.C. witnessing the inauguration of Barack Obama. We went to Rabbi Miriam's apartment and gathered around the television to watch the inauguration. It was 6:30 pm in Israel. I certainly was uplifted by the proceedings. It seemed to me that everything that is good about American society was on display at this historic moment, from our capacity for a peaceful transition of power to the words and images that conveyed an embrace of the true ethnic and religious spectrum of the American people. I'm stirred by the potential in this moment for Obama to lead our country with a new tone and in a new direction. I was particularly amazed by the phenomenon of President Obama's televised remarks to the Arab and Moslem world. Here is a dark-skinned man with an Arabic name who is now President of the United States, and he is telling the Moslem world that he and the nation he leads are reaching out a hand to those who would welcome the overture. I am sure it is making many heads spin in the Arab and greater Moslem world. I find it a wondrous moment to be witnessing, and I am eager to see what happens next.
Shabbat in the Galilee
This past Friday we rented a car and drove 2 hours north to visit my brother's family for Shabbat. All four of Danny and Roberta's children made the effort to join us from their various busy lives, and brought their partners, too. It was delightful. Nati and Sefi, the two youngest kids, are both helicopter pilots in the Israeli Air Force. Nati pilots a big search and rescue chopper, and Sefi is training as an attack helicopter pilot. Had Sefi, who is 20, been finished with his training, he would almost certainly have flown many missions in the war in Gaza. It is shocking to contemplate, really. We asked Sefi if he and his fellow pilots were being schooled in the ethics of warfare. He told us that ethical decision-making was an important part of their training. The pilots have strict guidelines to follow about when to possibly endanger civilians, but they are also given much autonomy to make these decisions. He explained that compared to ground forces, who are typically very frightened in the heat of battle, pilots had more time to think and assess before reacting, and are therefore given more responsibility. At the same time, Sefi said that the pilots were encouraged to keep an emotional distance from the targets of their attacks – they are soldiers, of course, and in order to be able to kill an enemy they must suspend their sympathies.
The costs of war extend to every horizon, for fighters and innocents on all sides. At the same time, the army has been a profound training ground for all of my brother's kids, and they have emerged as responsible and thoughtful adults, ready to contribute to their society. They do not express bloodlust, but rather an eagerness to serve. May God preserve their bodies and their souls; may they live responsibly and love fully.
I asked my brother how he felt about the war in Gaza (and I hope I represent him accurately here). I deeply respect his and his wife Roberta's opinions, and their perspective on life in Israel strongly informs my own. Dan said that, given the circumstances, the war had been necessary, but that in his opinion it also represented the failure of Israeli decision making over the past 40 years in relation to the Palestinians and the occupied territories. Although it was completely within Israel's rights and interests to execute this war, Dan was sad. He felt that as a result of the brutal tactics Israel had employed, Israel could no longer claim to hew to a higher moral code, and while that in no way made Israel less legitimate than any other nation, it also made it no better. Israel was now "just another country", and for a Zionist like my brother who moved to Israel 30 years ago with high ideals, that is a sad development.
The Israeli Elections
The almond trees are blossoming in Israel, including outside the window of our apartment in Jerusalem, and that means we have entered the month of Shevat. The almond trees are the earliest sign of spring. (I have heard how bitter the winter is in the Hudson Valley!) Soon it will be Tu B'Shvat, the New Year for Trees. And the day after that will be Election Day in Israel.
I would think that the recent war in Gaza should have strengthened the hand of the current leadership, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, as they compete to become the next Prime Minister. Hamas appears to be crying "uncle" even as it blusters to the media, and despite the intense international criticism of the IDF's tactics in the recent conflict, public opinion in Israel views the outcome positively. Yet Kadima and Labor are declining in the polls, while the more extreme right wing parties are gaining. Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud currently stands to become the next Prime Minister. Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra-nationalist (and overtly racist, in my opinion) Yisrael Beiteinu Party is making gains, as is the religious party Shas. I don't understand the Israeli mindset well enough to understand why the elections might result in this move to the right. I do know that political leaders in Israel are currently viewed with intense cynicism and distrust, and there is currently no counterpart in Israel that can galvanize a large section of the electorate in the way that Obama succeeded in our own recent elections. A right wing coalition government in Israel will make George Mitchell's job of bringing the combatants to the negotiating table even more daunting. We will know who won on February 10.
So there it is again, the contrasts of life in Israel: On February 9 we will celebrate the blossoming and fragrant fruit trees, and on February 10 this flawed but functioning democracy will go to the polls and cast a vote colored by war.
But along with the season, hope springs eternal.