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…

Sacred space

Yesterday, amidst all the terrible events happening across Israel and Gaza, a small group of us, Muslims and Jews, met to share prayers and an Iftar meal for the close of a day of Ramadan. We were pleased to be together and share the worry of these harsh days. We were well aware that our gathering made no difference to where the rockets and bombs were falling, or to the anguish of those beneath them. Nevertheless, we formed a small island of human solidarity, one of many across the world, including in Israel itself, even at this very time. Who knows: maybe one day the contacts created between us may somehow change hearts, even save lives.
We were going round introducing ourselves and the turn came to Fiyaz, a long-standing friend and leader in the Muslim community. ‘I have something to offer you’, he said, and produced a small yellow scroll. ‘I was given it many years ago and it’s lain in a drawer since then, but today I remembered it and felt it was time that it returned to its true home in the Jewish community. I was told that it comes from North Africa, is three hundred years old and is written on parchment made from deerskin’. What Fiyaz then handed me proved to be single column from the Torah. How, when and why it came to be thus, a small isolated section of the sacred Scroll, will never be known. It was a portion from the Book of Exodus, a chapter from near the close, describing the making of the Mishkan, the sacred space for God to dwell among the people: ‘These are the instructions for God’s dwelling place, the Tabernacle of testimony, which God instructed by the mouth of Moses’.
For a few moments I was able to say nothing. The gift itself had just transformed the place where we were sitting into somewhere sacred. I believe we all experienced it, the presence of something greater, silencing our words and filling hearts. And it struck me that this is our challenge, to create sacred space, space where God’s voice, that sound of fine silence so frequently unheard, sounds within us more strongly than our fears, angers, prejudice, righteousness and our desire to pay back hurt for hurt.   
I realise that I’m writing in a privileged green corner, far from the bombs and explosions. Others more courageous have created such spaces and moments even within the circumference of where they might fall.
But I’m writing because I’m convinced that these moments when our hearts are touched by our common humanity and humbled by a presence deeper than ourselves have the power to change our lives whoever we are, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, or people of no religious engagement. They take us, for a while at least, to a place beyond hatred, to God’s sacred space.

A Prayer for Israel – and also for Gaza

We pray for the safety of ordinary people who want to live their lives in peace, in Israel, in Gaza, wherever they are.
We pray for an end to the rockets and the attacks, for a truce, which will lead to a cease-fire, which may in the end turn one day into peace.
We pray for the opening of a road towards a safe, enduring and just resolution of the conflict.
We pray that hopelessness does not lead us to forget that peace, however far off it may seem, has always been our ideal.
May our prayers accompany the prayers of all who are anxious about the safety of those they love.
May our prayers accompany the prayers of everyone who wants to get on with daily life, free from hatred and violence.
May our prayers enter the hearts of those who are filled with anger and the desire for revenge and begin to change them.

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


In 2009 the European Parliament determined that July 11th each year should be a day of Remembering Srebrenica, the site in 1995 of the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust.

The terrible war in the Balkans began in 1991. In 1993 the United Nations established ‘safe havens’ for the protection of some of the tens of thousands of civilians left at the mercy of the savage fighting. The most important of these was at Srebrenica, where Serb forces threatened to overrun 60,000 Bosnian Muslims. In July this ‘protection’ was provided by Dutch troupes, inadequately armed to carry out their mission. How the United Nations failed those who entrusted them with their lives constitutes a profoundly distressing account of lack of planning, conviction, responsibility and moral imagination. It implicates the humanity of us all.

On July 11 the ‘haven’ fell. That night General Mladic walked through the enclave assuring that everyone would receive transport, ‘women and children first’. Men, from the age of 12 upwards, were separated from their families and beaten to death or shot against walls, in warehouses and in the hills. Women were raped, systematically. Thousands who set out in a vast column towards the Muslim town of Tuzla sixty-three miles distant were ambushed and murdered en route:

  • My husband kissed the children. He took the oldest in his arms, crying, and said, “My son, you might not see your father ever again.” The whole war, everything, was not as dreadful as that goodbye. He stood at the fence, crying. He left. (Testimony of Nermina Smajlovic)

What happened to him then? To this day many women do not know the precise fate of their fathers, husbands and sons. Bodies were often buried in parts in different locations. In a vast refrigerated hall outside Tuzla, run by the International Commission of Missing Persons, thousands of bags await identification. As well as bodies, pictures and items of clothing have been unearthed:

  • Kadefa recognised a photograph of a man’s belt and a pair of torn trousers, stitched in the way she had once repaired Mirsad’s trousers. But she refused to accept his death until six years later when a DNA match identified his bones. (Missing Lives)

One of the most searing pictures in the haunting booklet published this year by Remembering Srebrenica is that of two hands; the hand of a living person, protected by a plastic glove, holding the earth-covered fingers of the dead.
Tens of thousands live with the gaps, the silence, the empty spaces of those who will never come home. In his Pale Diary, Mladen Vuksanovic recorded with dread what happened before the men were taken away. Pale is a small village overlooking Sarajevo. Muslims and Christians lived there together for generations, until Serb forces occupied it in order to shell the city below:

  • A convoy of buses stands for hours on the main road. More people come to ask: ‘Are there any Muslim houses round here?’ My wife says to one fellow, raising her voice: ‘No, there aren’t! Neither Muslim nor Croat ones! There were only humanhouses here!’

Can we build, in spite of all that’s happened and still happens, ‘human houses here’?

May grief become hope!
May revenge become righteousness!
May the tears of the mothers become prayers
That Srebrenica never happens again.  (Imam Cekic, Memorial for Srebrenica, 2005)