Shabbat Hazon 2006

Friday July 28th 2006 / 3 Av 5766

Dear All,

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hazon, which you would think would be the sort of time I ought to write something to our list.

But then one recalls that Shabbat Hazon is not about “hazon” – vision – in a positive and inspirational sense (which is largely why Hazon is called Hazon) but rather about a prophecy of destruction and despoliation, especially in Israel.

And then I think: well, perhaps I should indeed write something…

So in the remainder of this email I want to write about what’s been happening in Israel these last few weeks, and about how I respond to it. And about how, if at all, that connects both to Hazon as an organization and to Shabbat Hazon this weekend.

(I will say in advance – this will be 3,000 words by the time I’ve finished. And you need to read it to the end to follow an argument that leads occasionally in rather different directions. Feel free to hit the print button and read this later when you have the time. I’ll happily engage with people who disagree with me – but please read to the end before you hit reply…)

There is a peculiar rhythm to awful events in or connected with Israel . At first everyone is shocked, and watching the news. Then, after a brief pause, lots of emails start to fly around. And then, after some while, people adjust to a new reality, and forget the exact details of what happened, and resign themselves to some new ongoing level of trouble. And people retain their pre-assigned perspectives; the lens through which we see is remarkably impervious to the unfolding of events, so that “right-wingers” and “left-wingers” continue to maintain their views regardless of troublesome facts.

Although I recognize these instincts, I find myself in a far different place right now. I am not losing interest; I am not resigned; and I do not feel confused. I do feel sad, but far more I feel angry. It was Golda Meir, I think, who said something like “I might be able to forgive them for what they have done to us; but I can never forgive them for what they have made us do to them.” That sums up one key aspect of how I’ve been feeling these last three weeks.

It is of course the case that no human life is any less precious than any other. He who saves one life, it is as if he has saved a whole world. It’s a famous line from Jewish tradition, but we too rarely think of its obverse: that he who takes one life, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world. And of course he has – the life lost; the children as yet unborn; the family and friends devastated by the loss. There are more lives that have been lost in Lebanon and Gaza these last few weeks than in Israel, and more worlds destroyed.

But I support Israel right now – its state, its people, its government and its armed forces – more resolutely than at almost any time in my life. I hold responsible for this mayhem those who initially unleashed weapons on Israel, those who crossed the border to kidnap and murder, those who – far from seeking not to injure civilians, as the IDF has done – have instead gone out of their way to launch missiles indiscriminately pointed toward civilian centers, and have placed offensive armaments amidst children and old people.

TV news is unremittingly uncontextual. It shows images, the more visceral the better, and with more lives being lost in Lebanon than in Israel there is an inevitable logic to news crews broadcasting from there, and the gradual litany that “there is terrible bloodshed on both sides, and awful loss of life, and Lebanon is being devastated, and there ought to be a ceasefire.”

It is an easy position for news journalists to reach, but I am not in any way persuaded that it is correct. The death of the murderer and the death of the victim are not equivalent deaths. Those who launch missiles randomly towards civilian centers, and cheer when they “succeed” and those who seek not to kill innocent bystanders, and who are deeply and visibly upset when they do so, are not equivalent.

I have been on the left of the Jewish community for most of my adult life. I can recall Shabbat meals in London and Jerusalem when I argued that Israel ought to recognize the PLO – when it was illegal for Israelis to meet with members of the PLO – and people were truly shocked. I have been in favor of peace; I have been in favor of a Palestinian state; and I have been in favor of territorial withdrawal. But to my considerable sadness and my even more considerable anger, these last few weeks have proven me at least partly wrong.

Last year, the first day of our Israel Ride took place on Yom Ha’Atsma’ut ( Israel’s Independence Day.) More than 100 of us (including the Palestinian and Jordanian students who are part of the Ride) cycled towards and then alongside Gaza – together with a 10-mile traffic jam of right-wing protesters, flying orange flags on their cars, driving to the Jewish settlements of northern Gaza to express their opposition to the withdrawal.

And I was happy that we cycled there that day, because although I was in favor of the withdrawal, I felt a considerable difference in tone between the attitudes of those who were in favor of withdrawal here in the US and those in favor in Israel, and I thought it was important for us as visitors to experience some of how Israelis experienced the issue. In the US the tone was “of course Israel should withdraw” – and that was that. In Israel it was more nuanced. On the one hand there was some sadness for the people leaving their homes. I empathized with that sadness, but that did not seem to me grounds not to withdraw, if the withdrawal in broader terms made sense. But there was a second reason for concern, and it was one I expressed at the time to a number of people. “I’m cautiously in favor of the withdrawal,” I said, “but I’m also a tiny bit scared that the Palestinians, in having full control of Gaza, will one day import heavy weapons into Gaza . And if, G!d forbid, they launch missiles at Tel Aviv and kill 20,000 people, then the withdrawal will have been a mistake, and those of us in favor of it will have been wrong.”

That’s the backdrop to what’s happening now. Israel withdrew from the Lebanon, and then it withdrew from Gaza. And from shortly after the withdrawal from Gaza, missiles began to land in Israel. From first Gaza and then Lebanon, murderous attacks were launched into Israel – attacks from which a number of soldiers were killed, and three soldiers have been kidnapped, and are presumably being held right now in circumstances one can hardly imagine. I do not believe that there is anything that the Israeli government could have done but to respond with massive force; because in the face of enemies who are determined to kill us, and who have the wherewithal to do so, the only possible deterrent to further and further incursions is an “excessive” response. One which, in the case of Lebanon, makes plain to the Lebanese people and the Lebanese government that they bear responsibility for their state and its borders, and that they have two choices: to maintain peace at the border by disarming Hezbollah, or else to see their country ruined and innocent people tragically killed. I trust that in due course there will be a ceasefire or a cessation. When the dust clears, I cannot imagine that the Lebanese people will not wish to prevent Hezbollah from launching attacks on Israel again. If that is the case, Israel’s response will have been not only morally justified but also effective.

And until then, when you see the TV and read the newspapers: remember that the death of every innocent in Lebanon is an act of murder no less committed by Hezbollah than if they had pulled the trigger themselves. Not one of the people who has died would have lost their lives had Israelis not been killed, inside Israel, in the events that triggered all of this. I no more hold Israel responsible for the deaths in Lebanon than I hold England responsible for innocent German deaths after the Nazis invaded Poland. And I can only imagine what the American response would be if 70 million people across the northern tier of the USA were in bomb shelters, just as a quarter of Israel’s population in the north is again either in bomb shelters this Shabbat or else have fled their homes to stay with friends further south. Last night I saw John Simpson’s report on the BBC news. He flew over northern Israel – deserted. Streets empty; beaches empty; roads empty; fields untilled. We witnessed one million people leaving New Orleans last year; imagine what it would be like if a quarter of this country had to leave their homes.

And as each day goes by, and as the disproportionate number of deaths in Lebanon continues, ask yourself what you would do if you were the Prime Minister of Israel. Ask yourself what you’d do if you lived in northern Israel and knew that there were people on the other side of the border who, if not stopped, would choose to launch missiles towards you and your family at any point. And, further – and perhaps most sadly for those of us who hoped to see Israel withdraw from other territories and establish two states at peace with each other – ask yourself whether and under what circumstances you would ever want Israel to make further territorial concessions in the face of such murderous enmity.

Before I say one or two things which I hope will be more positive, I want to say a few last words to friends on the left. There is a place where, temperamentally, it is hard to accept what one sees. There is a place where one wants to be somewhat critical of Israel, or not overly critical of Palestinians, or Moslems, or whomever we identify as “they.” There is a place where one instinctively says, “on the one hand…” and then “but on the other hand…”

Those instincts are psychologically understandable – but they do not alter a harsh and brutal reality when that reality is too harsh to avoid. The question is not whether one has compassion for innocent Lebanese who have lost their lives, or for whole parts of Lebanon that have been destroyed. The question is where the blame for that lies, and whether Israel could have acted otherwise. Israel’s response may indeed not make Israel wholly safe; but failing to have responded in something like this way would I think clearly have endangered the lives of far more Israelis than have already been killed. No government and no people could allow such attacks to proceed, and those of us who don’t fear missiles as we go to bed this night should think twice and thrice before venturing to criticize those who do.

So then: In the face of this utterly depressing logic, what can we do?

I offer a number of suggestions.

The first is a classically Jewish answer: that the heart of changing the world and changing oneself is to learn. That means reading – read Ha’Aretz , read the Jerusalem Post . And feel free to read those who hate Israel or disagree with us – that will do you no harm. (I read some of the blogs on the Guardian , to which I have broadly two responses: a/ there are some horribly prejudiced people out there and b/ I wish they’d have some similar interest in the rights of people in Tibet and Darfur and elsewhere.) If you don’t subscribe to the Forwardor the Jewish Week (or the London Jewish Chronicle you should do so. Visit Israel and travel to the north. Don’t be intimidated intellectually by the notion that “it’s all too confusing” – face the reality of what’s going on and explore for yourself and think about what you’d do if you were in Israel now.

The second response is not to lose hope. The English orthodox chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, wrote an entire book, a rather good one, in which he argued that hope was a Jewish virtue. The haftorah that we read tomorrow is a vision of destruction – but it is interlaced with, and ends with, a sense of hope. I have no idea how Israel will see itself through this latest challenge. But I have hope and I have faith that Israel will indeed do so, and each of us in our own way has the opportunity to play some part in that.

The third answer is to express your views within the political system. As a European I look at the response of European governments to Israel with a mixture of sadness, astonishment and anger. I do not think that terrorists murdered 3,000 New Yorkers on 9/11 because America supported Israel ; it is at least as true that Israel is hated because it is a bastion of ” America” – meaning democracy, western liberalism, feminism, respect for gays and lesbians, and so on – in the Middle East . So express to your elected officials – local and national – your support for Israel and your support for American policies that reflect an understanding of the challenges that Israel faces. It’s easy to find their contact info on the web, and the more that you express an opinion in your own voice, the more useful that will be.

Fourth, the way of tzedakah. I believe that it’s appropriate to support a range of different organizations, each of which plays a different role in the eco-system of organized Jewish life.

These are some that I support, and the reasons why:

UJA Federation –– because the federation remains the single central address for the Jewish community and for Jewish people in times of need. It is far too easy to criticize federations. I’m reminded of the G K Chesterton line – “my country, right or wrong, is like my mother, drunk or sober.” Although the Federations have launched emergency mailboxes for donations to Israel, that is not the primary reason that I think one should support them now. It is rather that events like these are a reminder of our ongoing obligation to contribute to federation. I’m struck by the fact that in a horrible way, which we none of us like to accept or believe, what is going on right now represents a fundamental attack on the Jewish people itself and on our right to live as a free people. The Federations are good organizations, led by good staffs and good layleaders – but they would be strengthened immeasurably if they had twice as many donors and volunteers. Federations are a money-weighted and sweat-equity-weighted democracy, and if you want to see a more representative Federation then make a donation that is meaningful to you and offer to become involved in some way.

New Israel Fund . One has only to look at events in the US and the UK these last few years to know that times of war and fear place stress on even stable civil societies. Israel’s ultimate and deepest security depends on being an equitable society in every respect, and New Israel Fund is the central address for helping Israel to become that society.

Seeds of peace . I still remember the Shabbat of chol hamoed pesach in Israel, the week of the Netanya bombing. At lunch and se’udah shlishit we were with friends each of whom had had kids’ called up to the army that week; as Shabbat went out my friend’s cellphone went and it was her son to say that he was about to go into Gaza – and he was fine, and she shouldn’t worry. Then we went over to Ned Lazarus and his apartment with volunteers from Seeds of Peace. They were getting text messages from Palestinian kids who were terrified of the Israeli army – texting that they were in the village outside, and what should they do?

Just as I say to people on the left that we ought to support Federation, so too I would say to those on the right that it is absolutely necessary to support Seeds of Peace. What Israel is doing in Lebanon is a brutal response to an unconscionable series of attacks. At its best it may deter future equivalent attacks. But it will do nothing whatsoever to create peace; indeed, the murderers from Hizbollah and Hamas who began all this precisely wanted to prevent the possibility of peace, and one source of my rage is that they have been horribly successful. Peace, if it ever arises, will build within the timespan of Jewish history – which is to say, it’s going to take a long time. In a world where I get irritated if I have to wait more than three minutes in a restaurant, or 10 seconds at an ATM, it is no wonder that having to wait possibly generations for peace seems unbearable. But this is again a place where Jewish tradition now requires of us emotional resilience. The clichéd line from Pirkei Avot – we are not required to complete the task, but neither can we desist – applies to the process of peace-making.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies . I leave the greatest hope for true peace till last. Many of you on this list have supported AIES, directly or indirectly, by sponsoring someone in our Israel and NY Rides. Nearly one thousand people on this list have met students from AIES, either at our NY Ride or the Israel Ride. In bringing together students who want to become professional environmental leaders in the Middle East, AIES has created the most intense laboratory of Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinians, Jordanians, Palestinians and Americans living closely together anywhere in the middle east. It’s a small blessing for the AIES that they’re in the south, out of range of what’s happening elsewhere in the country. The world needs Israelis and Palestinians who are out of range of the missiles, who can continue to argue with each other and still remain friends – at the very least, still maintain warm and cordial relationships – in the midst of disagreement. The rather harsh things I wrote in the first part of this email derive from a determination not to shirk realities I find uncomfortable. But it is that same determination that made me place a page about “Naqba” ( the destruction); how Palestinians refer to the establishment of the State of Israel – alongside the page about Yom Ha’Atzma’ut in last year’s Israel Rider Pack. Just as Hezbollah has forced Israel to act violently in the north, with violence leading to more violence, so too respect and listening generate understanding and then empathy and then affection. I haven’t talked about “politics” with many of the Palestinians and Jordanians I’ve met through AIES. I don’t feel I know them well enough. It is good enough, for me, that I know some of those students personally, and like them, and talk to them, and hang out with them a little, and vice versa. And know that they are learning in Israel and opening themselves to our people and our traditions. That reminds me of my obligation to learn about their families and their narratives. The place of hazon – of a vision of peace and not of destruction – is rooted, as the words of tomorrow’s haftarah close, with justice, repentance and righteousness –

“Zion shall be redeemed with justice; her repentant ones with righteousness.”

Shabbat shalom