Whenever I return from Israel, especially after the kind of trip I just led, which was a solidarity mission, or after a trying period, as was the case in that we traveled shortly after the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, upon my return I am asked, “What is the mood of the country”?
It is always difficult to catalogue or sum up in a few words the mood of a country as diverse as Israel. I am reminded of the joke about the Israeli official who was asked to categorize the mood of the people in a word. “In a word?” he responded, “In a word, I would say – good.” And then he is asked a follow-up question, “How about in two words?” “In two words? Not good.”
So if I were asked to describe in a few words what I sensed, and what those who traveled with me sensed, I would have to say, “resilient and determined.” And if asked to expand, I would say, “optimistic, tempered by concern.” Wherever we went people expressed appreciation for our visit.
Our group of 11 arrived at 7:00 am on Monday morning, and hit the ground running. The first part of our trip was concentrated on visiting areas affected by this summer’s war with Hamas. We met some amazing doctors at Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva where approximately 800 soldiers brought in on 160 helicopter surreys were airlifted, along with many civilians and children who were treated for a variety of injuries and ailments, including trauma. We learned of the tension and extraordinary measures taken by people in Ashkelon when they would receive a 15 second notice of an incoming missile. It is hard to imagine how difficult and traumatic it is to live under such constant threat of random attack. We saw the nursery school classrooms and shelters, the alarm system on top of the synagogue and began to understand the difficulties of living in such close range to Gaza. One of our members, Michael Podberesky, led us in a very moving mincha service at the conservative synagogue.
In addition to visiting and meeting with people in the south, we did some volunteer work in a new community south of Sderot called Halutza. This is where the bomb shelter our synagogue donated was placed.
In addition to visiting the residence of one of the pioneers, a young idealistic medical student, who moved to the area with his wife and young children motivated by the pioneering spirit, we painted an old dilapidated bomb shelter used by the security and communications office of the community and also did work in a greenhouse to help one of the farmers with his eggplant crop. Halutza was a barren area where all you saw when looking in any direction was sand.
Yet one day it will be a thriving community because of the spirit of those who have moved there determined to make the desert bloom.
Residents of the south told us that Israelis from across the country dropped what they were doing to come and be with them during the war. The mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev told us that an 80 year old who was having a birthday celebration and his friends refused the entreaties of their children to leave the area. They had their birthday party and looked at the rockets going off around them as birthday decorations.
As always, in Israel, one cannot get too far away from history and our past. A few commented that as tough as the situation was this summer with rockets raining down upon them indiscriminately, unlike during the Holocaust, they were not defenseless or powerless. They were comforted knowing they did not need to rely on the good will of others to protect them.
Leaving the Negev on our way to Tel Aviv, we stopped at Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz founded by Holocaust survivors who held off the advancing Egyptian army in 1948 and who suffered during the most recent fighting. We saw the museum dedicated to the Warsaw ghetto fighters and the story of the hero for whom the kibbutz is named, Mordechai Anilewisz. We stopped on our way out and couldn’t help but notice some sweet innocent 5 year old children riding their bikes carefree.
We set out early Wednesday morning for a VIP tour of the Knesset arranged for us by MK Mickey Levy, a friend who has been at our synagogue and worshipped with us on the holidays, who thanked us for coming and our show of support.
A quick visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall, preceded an afternoon of briefings at the Foreign Ministry which was the second primary focus of our trip. In a short period of time we met with a number of government officials and opinion makers to study the situation in depth. We were reminded that Hamas could have avoided the war, for PM Netanyahu had clearly stated “sheket (quiet) will be met with sheket.” Hamas could have avoided much of the destruction brought upon themselves had they accepted any of the five ceasefires they were offered. In the end, they accepted the same terms offered weeks earlier, but after loss of more lives and property.
Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, shared how he approaches his work with journalists. Palestinians are experts at creating propaganda and know how to manipulate the media, such as showing children’s bodies, which actually came from Syria and not Gaza, as if they are the results of Israeli actions. We had a good give and take with the Washington Post correspondent based in Jerusalem, William Booth, to whom we expressed our concerns and frustration over the way the war with Gaza was covered. He said that he has heard Gazans express the feeling that since they have suffered so much, they want to know what they will get, not cognizant of the fact that as he put it, losers don’t usually have the right to make demands.
On our last day Israel Bonds arranged a fascinating tour and presentation for us of the tunnel being built between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the high speed train that will carry passengers between the two cities in 35 minutes. One of the highlights of the trip was the almost two hours we spent with former Ambassador to the United States and senior adviser to PM Netanyahu, Zalman Shoval, in his office. Just looking at the photographs in his office was like viewing Israel’s history right before our very eyes. He expressed concern over a “November surprise,” a possible deal the United States and P-5 countries will try to make with Iran that may leave it in a position to acquire nuclear capability. Were Iran to acquire nuclear capability he cautioned, all other Arab countries would want to as well, which would introduce tremendous instability in a highly volatile region. Hamas did not achieve any of their objectives in the recent war. The primary goal was to terrorize the population, but Israelis did not succumb to it or allow themselves to live in fear. Hamas was surprisingly alone and isolated in the Arab world, who did not rush to offer them support. They incurred heavy losses, but did not get anything in return.
With Abbas praising suicide bombers and killing of Israeli children, he asked how he can be considered a partner for peace. Abbas has not shown any movement on any core issues, such as refugees, Jerusalem, or other critical matters, and in recent weeks has made racist inflammatory remarks. Although not clear to all policy makers, we are witnessing an assault from the Moslem world on what the free and democratic world stands for. The choices in the Arab world after the recent upheavals is not between good guys and bad guys, but between those who are pro-west and those opposed to the west. The same borders the Arabs rejected in 1967 as unacceptable are what they seek now, but there is a real danger to allowing what could become a jihadist regime next door to Israel. He noted that inexplicably the United States chose Turkey and Qatar’s proposals rather than the Egyptian/Arab initiative.
After a tour of the beautiful IDC college campus in Herzliya Dr. Daphne Richmond Barak, an expert on international terrorism and international law, gave an insightful lecture about the threats presented by the international network of jihadists. She explained to us the principle of proportionality, a word often misused in the media. It involves much more than just body counts. Among the factors that must be taken into account are when an attack is undertaken – in other words, does it take into consideration the time of day, and seek to maximize or minimize the loss of life.
The concluding presentation was by Asa Kasher, an ethicist and philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University. The author of the IDF Code of Ethics, he spoke about the morality of how Israel conducted itself in the most recent military campaign. States, like individuals, have the right to defend themselves. In fact one of the reasons for a government to exist is to protect its citizens. He pointed out that there is no philosophical principle that justice resides with the weak. Rather, it is found with those who act justly. Unlike most armies, the Israeli military is guided by the principle of the sanctity of life. As result, they take extraordinary actions to reduce the loss of life. Every battalion has a population officer whose job is to be aware of non-combatants. He said that in Gaza there was approximately one civilian casualty for every combatant, and that while the loss of any life is unfortunate, especially of innocent life, the proportion in Gaza was the lowest in any conflict in the modern era. In Bosnia for example, five civilians were killed for every one combatant. Whereas Israel draws a distinction between combatants and non-combatants and seeks to target only military targets, its enemy does the exact opposite. They launch attacks from populated civilian areas into civilian areas. Just before we left, Fatah and Hamas congratulated the Palestinian driver who killed a three month old baby.
As you can tell, it was a very packed agenda. Members of our group joked that they would not be surprised if I planned a lecture for them on the plane ride home. As we settled into our seats on the return flight and were welcomed aboard by the captain, he announced that flying with us was former Israeli President Shimon Peres. Everyone assumed I arranged this so he could speak to us – but we let him rest. We came away with a renewed commitment to do what we can to make sure that Israel and Israelis know that they are not alone.
Also published on Medium.