After Gaza: these wounds go very deep

‘Here you have sixty seconds to get to the shelter’, Rabbi Mauricio Balter explains to me. ‘Your body is on constant stand-by. You have to think through every moment. What do you do when taking a shower? What about elderly relatives who walk with a frame?’ We’re in the office of his beautiful synagogue in Beer Sheva with its kindergartens attached. He’s worried for the children, he continues sadly, ‘They’ll look at the world with eyes of suspicion instead of trust’. He describes his congregation’s shared activities with Bedouin and Arab communities, ‘I worry for the future of Judaism, the pluralist, open, debating Judaism we love’. ‘And the future of Israel’, a colleague adds.

I’ve come to Israel now because there’s so much anxiety and pain and I want to stand alongside some of those who bear it and strive despite everything to bring healing. Even if only briefly and symbolically, I want to be with those who, even in these cruel times, keep bridges open.

I’m in the homes of Israeli Arabs with Simon Lichman, whose Centre for Creativity in Education runs remarkable programmes which bring Israeli and Palestinian school-communities together. Here are mainly old friends; how is the war affecting them? They too are underneath the rockets, and afraid. ‘Force is a loser. The leaders have to talk,’ said a retired Imam. ‘If only they’d just let us get on with living together,’ two sisters told me. But just living isn’t easy: ‘There aren’t many Arab women in the Jerusalem light railway now; you might get spat at, shouted at, your head scarf pulled off. It’s frightening in the streets.’ There’s a tone of resigned determination; these people keep stubborn, even affectionate faith with the country despite the indignities they sometimes experience: ‘My father didn’t bring us up to say “That’s a Jew” or “That’s an Arab”, but “That’s a human being”.

I hear the same message from Jewish Israelis. ‘It won’t end until we talk’, is the slogan of the Parent’s Circle, the organisation of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who’ve lost children in the conflict. Since the start of the war they’ve held an open meeting every evening in a square in Tel Aviv. A man cycling past stops to argue: ‘There’s no one to talk to. You can’t talk to Hamas!’ He’s invited to stay and discuss. One of the long-standing members of the Circle, Jacob Gutterman, tells his story: ‘My father died in the first day’s fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto. Aged nine, I was an orphan. I came to Israel, married, had two sons. My wife died of cancer when I was thirty. I brought those boys up with love. Raz insisted on joining the Golani. He was killed at Beaufort in 1982. How many wars must there be? What do they achieve? We need to end the occupation, and talk.’ The questioner is not satisfied.

I visit the family of Hadar Goldin. On the way I pass the military cemetery; his grave is covered in wreaths, now starting to whither. They are from his unit, his friends, colleagues of his parents. Hadar had just become engaged; they’d planned to marry before Rosh Hashanah. He was the kind of leader people longed to follow, an excellent officer. ‘He would say: “One can think of oneself, or do better and think of others”’. He was an artist; in his Siddur are beautiful hand-written prayers: ‘Let our hearts see the virtues in our fellow beings, not the faults; let there be no hatred’. His kind and gentle family welcome me.

I visit wounded soldiers at the remarkable Seroka Hospital. ‘They’ve mainly gone home, thank God. Yesterday this place was packed with well-wishers, children, choirs, politicians.’ I’m moved by the cards, the gifts of food, the appreciative affection for those who’ve seen the terrible fighting. A family waits outside Intensive Care: ‘We talk to him, play music. His level of consciousness is low, but we have faith. He’ll come back to us!’ ‘He’s a true hero’: says our guide, indicating a soldier as we pass; I see stitches all down his leg. I’ve been spared serving in any army; I’ve no idea how terrifying it must have been in the dreadful tunnels of Gaza.

I visit the rehabilitation centre at Tel Hashomer. It’s easy to forget how young the soldiers are; at just twenty or twenty-one they are responsible for the borders, the kibbutzim, their comrades. They have wounds on their legs, arms, shrapnel injuries on back and shoulders. Several lost companions in battle. In their memories many must carrying haunting images of injury and death. Yet they smile and speak warmly about the future.

I’d asked if it was possible to visit wounded Palestinians. The ordinary people, especially the children, hadn’t chosen to be born in Gaza, trapped as human shields between the cunning cruelties of Hamas and Israeli’s response. Friends take me to Mokassed Hospital. I’m nervous but they tell me, ‘No, they appreciate Jewish visitors. It’s important.’

Children arrive here from Gaza every day. “It’ll make your heart weep,” our driver is telling my friends. A woman cradles a young boy; I ask if she’s his mother. ‘No; she’s a volunteer. Eighteen of his family were killed. There’s only his grandfather left. I turn to an elderly man: ‘It’s God’s will’, he says. It matters to him deeply that we visit, he adds.

In another ward is a girl with a sweet smile; her face is covered in burns. A relative wordlessly lifts the blankets; her arm, her legs are completely bandaged. She has shrapnel wounds too. Most of her family are wounded, I’m told. They’ve needed amputations. The question arises: what’ll happen when they get home? There is no home; their home has been destroyed.

They sit us down: ‘There are hundreds of such cases; the doctors have never seen anything like this. There are laws of war; there’s right and there’s wrong. If this is supposed to be Judaism, someone isn’t reading the Torah right. Are these children targets?’ (The previous night, former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior read me in pain the appalling pronouncements of certain rabbis claiming that everyone was a legitimate target in Gaza.)

One of them continues: ‘I’ve been pro-peace since before Oslo. But what’s this? Why don’t the Israeli leaders talk to their friends? Why has Abu Mazen been humiliated? Don’t imagine  Hamas is weaker now.’ ‘But Hamas’, I feel like arguing, then realise I’m not here to argue, not in the face of these appalling injuries. I’m here to listen and bear witness. He says: ‘Jews have been leaders in thinking. But about the future for Israeli Arabs, the future for Israel, they do not think. We need to hear the voice of Jewry.’

Afterwards my friends explain that people are slipping them envelopes with money for the hospital. It’s desperately needed for medication. ‘So that I can look myself in the mirror’, one eminent Israeli said as she gave several thousand shekels. A doctor from  Tel Hashomer tells me that they care for many Palestinians. He hopes the bridges will soon be rebuilt so that they can work together with Palestinian hospitals for the best future for the children.

Every country has the right and duty of self-defence. But where will force alone take us? The solution has to be political, diplomatic, moral, human. It has to contain dignity, justice and security. People have to be truly equal. Only there lies life: ‘It won’t end until we talk’.

In the car back from Beer Sheva, the driver, a deep patriot, said to me: We did need to defend ourselves. But maybe not everything was justified. His friend’s son is an officer, he adds. After two weeks in Gaza he was allowed to call home. He simply wept: ‘The devastation; the destruction!’ He didn’t want to cry in front of his men, he told his mother, but he could hear them weeping in the night.


Published in the JC on Friday 15th August 2014


Most years, after the bleak fast of Tishah b’Av is over and we arrive at Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, named after the beautiful words of Isaiah ‘“Comfort you, comfort you, my people”, says the Lord’, a change comes over me, like a cool wind blowing through the heart, like the song of a waterfall, still hidden below the trees but near, restorative and strong: ‘The glory of God is revealed, and all flesh shall see it together’. I wish it was possible to feel the same this year.
On Monday I was privileged to attend on behalf of the Jewish community the service in Glasgow Cathedral commemorating the centenary of the start of the First World War. It was an extremely humbling experience. At its heart was the movingly read extract from Helen Thomas’s memoirs of her husband Edward’s last leave; he had joined the Artists’ Rifles in 1915. As he walked out into the snow and mist, their final parting, he called out to her their familiar call ‘Coo-ee’ and she endeavoured to respond:

  • “Coo-ee!” So faint now that it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.

Somehow in those words the echo or vibration of an overwhelming heartache traversed the entire congregation, the aftershock of inexpressible sorrows still palpable after a hundred years.
As we walked out from the service, our subdued feelings warmed by the great kindness of everyone around, I glimpsed on the edge of my sight-lines the banners of a small demonstration, ‘No More War’.
Yesterday the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh was captured by Isis fighters; it had supposedly been a ‘safe haven’ for tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis. An appalling humanitarian disaster looms; America has dropped food and water, and has threatened air strikes.
In Gaza it is still not clear if Hamas will keep the uneasy truce. Few really believe it’s all over. As Asher Schechter wrote in yesterday’s Haaretz,

  • Iron Dome can’t intercept reality. Our rockets and aircrafts can’t solve the unsolvable any easier. They can’t even guarantee us a quiet winter, because this is not an ordinary military conflict. There is no winning this.

Winning will have to look like something different from war, and more war, which, if it simply continues without any political or human resolution, will only bring fear, pain and grief, and more fear, pain and grief, to everyone.
Where, then, lies the comfort of which Isaiah speaks with such grace?
Sometimes we have to derive it not from around us, but from within us. Can we ourselves be of comfort? Is there any way in which, in whatever capacity, we can be healers? There is the immediate need to move shrapnel from wounded flesh, a skill in which most of us are not qualified. There is the more widespread need to remove hatred from wounded hearts and minds, an even more challenging endeavour in which none of us is totally unskilled and to which, if humanity is to have a future at all, we must all most urgently be committed.
In harsh times it’s easy to spread hate; social media have made it even simpler. Instead, we need to try to understand each other’s needs, anxieties, hopes and frustrations. We need to listen from our hearts, say the words, create the paths and establish the opportunities for each other’s humanity to unfold. This begins at home, moves out into our own communities, and then maybe even crosses boundaries into those of other faiths and those whose minds have been bound on different trajectories from our own.
These thoughts may sound weak to the point of folly and irrelevance when violence and death are on the loose. I’m afraid of them and we have to defend ourselves. But I’m even more afraid of the hatreds not yet born, being bred in hearts even now, conceived amidst fury and destruction, awaiting their future.  We will only supplant them if we can give each other hope; if we can restore for one another the true human legacy of life, affections, plans, ideas, safety, wonder and joy.
Moses summed up God’s injunction in the simplest of all commands: ‘Uvacharta vachayyim; choose life!’ We must help one another to choose life and therein must lie our comfort.

Tishah B’Av – and a Vigil for Life

Tonight, at the beginning of the fast of Tishah b’Av, we read Eichah, the Scroll of Lamentations. I believe it is the only text we read specifically at night except for theHaggadah, which forms the substance of the Seder. As the latter celebrates our freedom, so, by contrast, Eichah laments its loss.
Four of the five chapters of this painful text are written in acrostic form, each verse or group of verses beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. One of the most compelling explanations for this which I have heard suggests that the author was so pained and horrified by the death and devastation which he saw before his eyes that he was rendered incapable of coherent speech. At the same time he felt impelled to give vent to his feelings in words. The only way he could do so was to cling to the structure of the alphabet, rather as a faint and frightened  person might hang on to the bannisters to prevent himself from falling down to the invisible bottom of a fathomless stairwell.
This author is traditionally understood to be the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the subjugation of Jerusalem, its sacking by Nebuchadnezzar twelve years later and the final demise of the remnant of the population who remained in the city. Of all the disasters he witnessed, nothing appalled him more than the deaths of children:

  • …They say to their mothers ‘Where’s corn and wine?’ as their life drains away and they turn into corpses in the streets of the city, as they breathe out their last breaths in the laps of their mothers.
  • …Rise up! Cry out in the night, at the start of the watch! Pour your heart out like water; stretch your hands out to God, for the lives of your young children, dying of starvation in the streets.

Once again today children are dying amidst violence and war. In Israel too, parents, people many among us know and care for, are weeping the terrible loss of their children; yesterday thousands attended the funeral of Hadar Goldin, bringing the number of young men killed just as their lives were truly commencing to 64. There would have been many, many more were it not for the Iron Dome. In Gaza, over 400 children, caught up in horrors which they had no part in creating, have been killed before their lives have even properly begun. Elsewhere too in the world children are dying in huge numbers. Tonight is also the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, with its millions of young dead.
Judaism teaches us that all life is sacred, that all the living are responsible for one another, and that, whoever is ultimately to blame, death by violence, especially the deaths of children, is a terrible desecration which shames us all. Judaism teaches us that, however great we consider the guilt of others, and in our world today it is constantly shocking, we must nevertheless examine ourselves to ask what we should have done and should now do.    
I admire deeply all those who strive to protect life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable, from hunger, illness, violence, homelessness and hopelessness. For myself, I hope this Tishah b’Av will strengthen my resolve to do more.  

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…

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.

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