Right now, even as our nation gears up for the Obama inauguration, the news comes back to Israel. After my last post, I again realized how ignorant most people are about its history. I keep hearing that Israel is attacking a bunch of poor refugees, who are rightfully angry because they were mercilessly chased off land they'd owned for generations. Let's see: there are about six lies in that statement.
Tonight I answered a phone call from a high school student who wanted to ask my husband a question about Israel. Since my husband is in Washington DC at the moment, I asked this (totally unknown) young man if I could be of help. "My friend said he had video clips that showed that the war on in Gaza started because Israel broke the cease-fire and began bombing," he related, earnestly.
It was weird enough that this boy just called up our home out of the blue, but even worse, it illustrates how gullible and lazy ignorant students are. This kid, who I suspect has some inclination toward conservative values (I'll give him that), decided to bother a stranger in order to get a "quick answer" as he put it, that he felt he could trust. Didn't even do web research. At least he realizes that "facts" on the Internet can be false.
One of the books I'm reading (piecemeal, admittedly) is called 60 Days for 60 Years: Israel, a Commemoration and Celebration, published by a broad consortium of Jewish organizations, edited by Rabbi Andrew Shaw. It's one of those books in prescribed chapter-chunks, given to me by one of my teachers, a local kollel rabbi, with the suggestion that I finish reading it in time for the annual community event, Jewish Unity Live (this year on March 25).
The book opens with an essay by Britain's chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, describing the biblical injunction to Abraham to leave his idolatrous past and "go where I (God) will show you." Whether or not you care to accept the bible, there's no doubt that the Jewish people have since then stubbornly claimed this space, even when exiled and endangered in doing so. Juda ha Levy, Maimonides and Nachmonides led groups of devotees in the 12th century, each working to rebuild. A large community lived there in the 16th century; waves of Jews spurred by religious longing also returned in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Says Rabbi Sacks: "Jews never left the land voluntarily, and there are places, especially in the Galil (Galilee area) where they never left at all. The nation states of Europe are relatively recent inventions... The connection between the Jews and Israel is longer and stronger than any other Western nation and its land."
Sometimes I wonder what made my brother and sister-in-law move their families from across the street from us in Santa Monica across the world to Jerusalem. They love America. They have enjoyed its education, its prosperity, its freedoms. Yet they prefer to live surrounded by Arabs who hate them.
Yes, Israel is a modern country that doesn't seem very much different from the US when you're there, in its high-tech lifestyle, open attitudes, and ease in self-expression. But whenever they park their car at the supermarket, the lot attendant makes them open the trunk and searches beneath the car body, looking for bombs. When they eat in any restaurant, somebody in an orange reflective vest is perched on a stool at the door, holding a machine gun. When they enter the mall to buy shoes, the mom's purse and the kids' backpacks are carefully inspected.
Why do they put themselves in harm's way? Not just for a study year abroad, like our daughter enjoyed right after high school (I was nervous every single day), but as a commitment. Jews have felt this intense pull to Israel for thousands of years. Though I am an American, I understand their attachment. And I'm sensitive enough to feel the "ruach" (spirit) when I approach the Kotel (Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. Are all points on the earth equal?
Along with the 60 Days book on my desk is a copy of a prayer I printed out, for the soldiers of Israel. It includes a plea to "preserve and rescue our fighters" but also for "the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down." It concludes, "And may there be fulfilled for them [Israel's soldiers] the verse: 'For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.'"
It's not about aggression or imperialism. Israel is responding to those "who rise up," and is seeking to be "saved." Israel doesn't ask for curtailing other religions, or an end to other countries or cultures. But that's the stated goal of Hamas--the elimination of Israel. Thousands of rockets have been launched from Gaza over three years, increasing with Hamas' ending of a cease fire. Yesterday, (Wednesday, 1-14), 14 rockets were fired from Gaza; today (Thursday, 1-15) 20 were launched. Sirens sound in Israel's towns when these are detected, giving residents 15 seconds to run for cover before impact.
Questions? Read Mitchell G. Bard's Myths and Facts: A guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
But it seems to boil down to this--does Israel have any less right to exist than the many other countries that have been formed and re-formed, shifting and conquering various peoples in Europe and Asia--and everywhere--throughout history? Modern Israel may only be 60 years old, but in that time, a tree-less, empty desert now boasts productive, irrigated agriculture, modern cities, a first-rate, accessible educational system--and offers Arabs, and indeed all citizens, the most freedom and rights anywhere in that part of the world.
This has been accomplished. Should those who believe so strongly in Israel's progress (or its sanctity) that they accept daily danger not defend what they have built?
At right, a Getty photo of Israeli soldiers at the funeral of fellow combatant Alex Mashavisky.