Strange Meeting

As I write, a fragile three-day humanitarian truce has begun between Israel and Gaza. Few would dispute the hope that it should last, then outlast those three days, then become the beginning of a deeper and more abiding change. (In fact, it seems it’s not holding.)

Where does one draw hope in these dismal days? There is suffering for Israel, with the killed, the bereaved, the wounded, the fear for the whole population about where the next rocket may fall, the special anguish of those whose children are in the army. There is suffering among ordinary Palestinian people caught in the fighting, the children, the injured, the bereaved.

In this bleak, tragic terrain, it is not difficult for ideologies of hatred and violence to thrive. Looking from Israel we see Hamas, Islamic Jihad and beyond it Isis. Others, from their perspectives, see different kinds of weaponry, drones, bombs dropped from heights they cannot even perceive, and, far underground in hidden places, nuclear arsenals.

These matters concern not just Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, but everyone anywhere who cares about life. August 4th marks the centenary of the start of the First World War; we don’t want to be back again where we were then, only worse. We don’t want to offer hatred a victory.

If so, what does winning mean? It’s foolish to think that security and self-defence are not critical to the survival of the free world and humanity everywhere. I don’t believe there is another choice, except to pursue them. But they are not alone sufficient to win a different future. As David Grossman wrote (Haaretz, 27 July) ‘There is no military solution to the real anguish of the Palestinian people, and as long as the suffocation felt in Gaza is not alleviated, we in Israel will not be able to breathe freely either.’ His words apply to many situations well beyond the Middle East.

Somehow, there needs to be a human victory. Sometime in 1918, after four years of madness, Wilfred Owen imagined a Strange Meeting between two dead combatants in an underground tunnel beyond the grave. Here they finally recognize each other: ‘Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also’…‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ We have to try to keep faith, however impossible it may seem, that beneath the layers of fear and projection with which we dress each other, we will one day encounter in at least some of those we have considered enemies the human visage. Many are striving, and succeeding, in doing that even now as I write.

There needs to be a moral victory. We cannot allow purveyors of hate, whoever they are, to recreate us in their own image. We must not be driven into actions which cut us off from our moral foundations. We therefore need to stand for long-term justice, justice for ourselves as Jews with our long and bitter history of being persecuted, justice for ordinary Palestinian people, and justice throughout the world. That is, after all the essence of the Jewish vision. But it’s not just, or even mainly, a ‘Jewish’ issue: this is a challenge which every nation and every faith has to confront.

There need to be economic victories. There clearly exist ideologies which want to bully us into thinking otherwise, but we have to believe that the vast majority of people want lives which include education, work, family, children, happy memories and a good future. We all need to help make such futures possible. The rich world must not continue to leave people in wretched corners where they have nothing to lose, and nothing to gain except how expensively they can sell their deaths.

There needs to be a spiritual victory, of appreciation that God is the God of life, that every human being carries God’s sacred image, that all life on earth matters, that we must share and honor our sacred home, this earth. It is the ceaseless duty of all religions to affirm and live out these truths with all the passion and commitment of which they are capable.

I put my hope not so much in these beliefs as in those people, in Israel, the Middle East and across the world, who strive to live by them and whose successes, which often seem small in the face of great violence, are the foundation for our future. 

In Holesov

(which I visited for the first time this week)

My father said, ‘One day we’ll go to Holleschau together’. He always used the German name of the town, ‘Holleschau’, not the Czech ‘Holesov’. We left it too late. He’s been gone seven years now, and here I am without him, to visit his grandfather’s grave, to see the old synagogue where he served as rabbi for almost 20 years until 1914, to gaze from the street at the house from which his widow and daughter were deported, to wander the uneven pavements of this small, poor town and stare at night at that railway siding from where they were taken, first to Uhersky Brod, then to Theresienstadt, and then…

My great-grandmother never got to Palestine to join the three of her six children who escaped there to a new future between 1933 and 1937. By the time the papers came through it was too late to travel. Maybe, had she stayed in Berlin, she would have made it out even then at the close of 1939, or during 1940. But she’d gone to her eldest daughter back in Holleschau, in Moravia, and from there the Nazis allowed scarcely any emigration. 

‘I’m entirely at one with our beloved Papa, visiting him once a month, but in my thoughts I’m with him always’, she wrote on January 17th 1941, ‘and the little vase with flowers always stands next to his picture on the night table. My prayer every morning and evening is that our good gentle father should protect you on all your paths and lead you to where you can live in quiet and at peace and free from worry.’

I went to the old Jewish cemetery today with my daughter Libbi. The beautiful Ohel, the chapel, was closed. We’ll see it tomorrow. We followed the path my great-grandmother must have taken every month over those bleak years, to where the solace of her great love might embrace her. We paused to decipher weather-beaten Hebrew inscriptions, to puzzle over details on different stones:  did that mother and daughter come back here after the horrors, or did the June 1945 date indicate that this was a memorial placed here by others to one whose foot found no resting place even in death? We managed the more recent German better; Libbi asked why there were more in German than in Czech. We wondered why the graves were facing not just south-east but in every possible direction.

Then we saw it: there before us was my great-grandfather’s tombstone, tranquil amidst the resting dead, peacefully protected by the crumbling walls of the cemetery, the over-long grass: ‘Here lies buried Rabbi Yaacov, son of Rabbi Avraham Chaim Freimann; he wrote many books and taught Torah in great congregations’. His death in December 1937 released him from the fate which would not spare his wife.

I looked around for signs of withered forget-me-not leaves, the blue flowers which had often filled that bedside vase to which my great-grandmother had referred. I failed to find them; maybe they too were by now forgotten.  

 My great-grandmother made her last visit here in the second week of January 1943: ‘My dear children’, she wrote, ‘Today I took my farewell from your beloved and good father; may his spirit hover over us in these difficult times’. She and her daughter Sophie knew that this would be the last letter. ‘So that you know where to look for us afterwards’, Sophie had written; as the continuation made clear, what she really meant was ‘where to look for our possessions’.

My great-grandmother was a lady who embraced whatever fortunes God sent her. And yet she had not been able to help reminiscing as she contemplated Pesach under Nazi rule in 1941: ‘In the year of ’35 we arrived in Palestine during these very days; the joy of our dear departed Papa when he saw the land from the ship was indescribable.’

How she would weep for all its wounds if she knew how little that land had been able to find peace; how she would weep for all the children. But she would never have lost her hope. ‘In spite of everything, my faith in God remains unshakeable’: that was her final testament as remembered and recorded and transmitted to the surviving family after the war.

Dusk had brought on the twilight birdsong; the call of a swift accompanied our prayers as Libbi and I washed our hands at the stone basin: ‘God has swallowed up death forever, wiped the tears off every face’.  Amen and may it be God’s will!

And soon.

Later that night

I went back after midnight to the deserted station

to stare at the empty tracks:

So it was from here?

Slowly the nose of an inquisitive hedgehog

emerged from among the sleepers.

I hastened to the platform to check

the yellow schedule:

‘Hurry’, I willed it, yelling in my head, ‘Hurry’

as it lingered between the lines:

‘You have till 3.12 precisely. Get out of here!’

Bombing Judaism

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.

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

Innocent life

It’s so hard to know what to say in these terrible times. We pray for the lives and safety of those we love, and for all innocent life. ‘The whole country is a battle front; this can’t just be allowed this to happen’, said my friend from the Parent Circle. Rockets continue to be aimed and the sirens to sound across the country. No country could allow such a situation. Were it not for the iron dome, matters would be very different.

At the same time my friend has stood through these days in Tel Aviv together with other Israeli and Palestinian bereaved parents, hoping and working for less cruel, more compassionate times. We hope Israel gains freedom from the rockets and other dangers which prey on it. We hope and pray that both Israel and Gaza gain a truce, which may one day become a peace, with a real future, a human future with hope for all people.

Every untimely death is a tragedy, especially death through violence. The suffering of ordinary people is terrible, especially the suffering and death of children, whoever they are and wherever fate has placed them on this earth. We regret the loss of innocent life. We pray that the children of Israel and Gaza should one day grow up to encounter not conflict and hatred but the blessings and opportunities of family, education and freedom. Today these sound like vain, idealistic prayers, but, as David Grossman recently wrote:

The situation is too desperate to be left to the despairing, for accepting despair amounts to an admission that we’ve been defeated. Defeated not on the battlefield, but as human beings. Something deep and vital to us as humans was taken away, was stolen from us, the moment we agreed to let despair to have a dominion…We… insist upon hope. A hope that is not wide-eyed, a hope that won’t give up. A hope that gives us – Israelis and Palestinians both – our only chance to resist the gravitational pull of despair. (On Hope and Despair in the Middle East, July 8, 2014)

Pondering his words, perhaps there is something more one can say, something about an inner, human struggle. For, alongside the physical battles, a moral battle is taking place, not just within Israel, but within the hearts of Jews everywhere, somewhere within the hearts of all people. The nature of that battle is incisively described in a Hasidic teaching concerning the fight against Amalek, the biblical nation who attacked the Children of Israel cruelly from behind on their way out of Egypt. Amalek’s aim, taught Rebbe Shalom of Belz, is to become an inseparable part of us, to make us too into Amalek, so that we become like them. The real agents of hate want to make us too into their messengers, to turn us into their colours. There is always the danger that they may succeed.

It would be impossible not to feel anguish, anger, grief and frustration, especially for those in the midst of danger. But there is no future if we become deeply poisoned by enduring hatred, blind racism or a bitter desire for vengeance. We must not allow the core values of our Judaism, the very values for which Israel was created and for which the country has struggled so hard and so deeply, the values of dignity, justice, compassion and equality, to be corrupted or undermined by those whose strategy might be to try to destroy us not just from without, but from within.

It is easy to write these words in faraway England. But there are many close to the centre of the conflict who are working courageously and indefatigably to keep them true. I conclude with just one example:

[We visited] various hospitals with students of all religions taking part. We went to Al-Mutla Hospital where we were taken to the department of children with cancer. We went to each of the rooms and handed flowers to the patients… Later we went to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, where we also went to the childrens’ department and distributed flowers to the patients. Many people who were there joined us to visit the sick and it was really moving. Yehudah Stolov, Interfaith Encounter Association, Jerusalem

That was in March. They are still endeavouring to continue similar works, even as the wounded from this war, and from the conflicts of the whole region, are cared for in hospitals in Israel whose vision of healing extends beyond the borders of countries and faiths.

May God, who makes peace in the high places, make peace for us, for all Israel and the Middle East, and for all the world.

I Shall Not Hate

I feel deeply sad. Before me I have the remarkable book by Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, I Shall Not Hate. Three of his daughters, Bessan. Mayar and Aya, died when an Israeli shell struck their home in Gaza. The valiant, and successful, efforts to save his other children, which involved both Palestinians and Israelis, were reported live on Israeli television when in desperation Dr Abuelaish phoned his close friend, the Channel 10 talk-show host Shlomi Eldar.
In those moments the sheer tragedy of the event sank deep into people’s hearts. There are those who consider that it was this which helped to bring Operation Cast Lead to its end.
Now more children have died in Gaza; four yesterday while playing on the beach: ‘My father has a fishing boat there. We were playing hide and seek when we were hit.’ Hamad Bakr was waiting for surgery at the Shifa hospital. Only timely sirens, the provision of shelters and the remarkable success of the Iron Dome have prevented such horrors inside Israel.
The courageous and determined title of Dr Abuelaish’s book says it all: I Shall Not Hate. I’m tempted to say that the reason he’s right is because hatred has no future. But that isn’t true. I fear hatred has an excellent future; its capacity to engender grief, helplessness, anger and frustration, in short more hatred, currently seems unlimited. The problem is that hatred does have a future, and, not just in the Middle East, that future is growing in the hearts of children even now. The most dangerous human beings, no doubt wounded themselves, are cynically investing in that future. Others are drawn, maybe unwillingly or unwittingly, into helping them.
Faced with Hamas, Israel is in an extraordinarily difficult position. The realities the country faces are brutal. Rabbis are not trained to devise military strategies, though they do have a responsibility at least to formulate the question, which I have heard Israeli friends put now, and in the Lebanon War during the bombing of Beirut: ‘Is there really no other way?’ Ultimately, there have to be legal and political solutions, so that no people is left to live either under existential threat or beneath oppression.
But rabbis are guided by the legal and ethical insights of Judaism to worry about the moral and spiritual legacy of events. These frighten me. In my worst waking nightmares I see hatred (not just in the Middle East) like the entrance to hell in some lurid mediaeval painting, like a great stomach, devouring humanity.
Who will unwind from around the heart the strangling coils of grief and anger caused by all our fighting? Who will remove the bitter seeds of future wars from the wounded souls of children? Humanity’s most urgent task, alongside not destroying the environment of this our only planet, is to find ways of extracting hatred from our hearts.
My prayers therefore are firstly that a different way should urgently be found, if not today then tomorrow, and if not tomorrow then as soon as ever possible. I wish there were someone who could exert the power to insist.
My special prayers are with all the healers, whoever they are and however they heal, whether they are doctors or teachers or family members, or people themselves smitten by grief, who nevertheless find the inner strength to say: ‘Let our wounds not turn septic with hatred. Let us seek not enmity, but shared humanity, through our sorrow.’
Those latter prayers are definitely not in vain because we ourselves can act on them. I wish there were a group of people of all faiths who for the next hundred days would devote a portion of their income to those who heal, and take it in person to the hospitals, and schools, the gatherings and homes…