Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Fast Day

Today is the 17th of Tammuz.  It's what is called a minor fast in our tradition.  Minor because like Ramadan it is a day fast and not a full 25 hour fast like Yom Kippur or Tisha B'av.  According to tradition, it was on the 17th of Tammuz that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army, leading to the destruction of the First Temple and first exile of the Jewish people.

This year, along with the 45 teens on our Eastern European Israel Pilgrimage, I saw the Ishtar Gate at the Pergomon Museum in Berlin. This is the gate the exiles were marched through so many years ago.  And now, I sit in Jerusalem, on the deck of my hotel, on a beautiful day, on a solidarity mission to Israel as it is under fire from its modern day enemy.

With regard to this fast I tend to follow the ruling of the Geonim, the middle age decisors of Halakhah, that when Israel is at peace, one may choose not to fast. For them "at peace" meant Israel reestablished and the coming of Mashiah. For me, it means Israel reestablished and not in a shooting war. So this year, as during the Second Lebanon War, I fast.

The day began with a little bit of hope. The Egyptians offered a cease fire. Israel accepted it. Hamas did not and continued to fire on Israel. The government waited six hours for quiet before returning fire around 3 pm. 

At 7pm I got my first experience of what a typical Israeli goes through in this war. On our bus to Tel Aviv the siren sounded. We found shelter under a bridge, bent over and covered the back of our heads with our hands and waited. The sound of the Iron Dome deploying (the same one we visited yesterday) was audible. Its interception of the rocket was a loud boom. Then we waited two full minutes to allow any debris to settle. And went on our way. It was a fast experience.

It was a surreal experience. My mind knew what it meant. My spirit is still trying to figure it out. Thank God for the Iron Dome. Had the missile been able to hit a target, many would have been killed or injured.  

Ten minutes after the sirens, at the beach
And then, as yesterday, Israelis went about their business. Back to the beach, back to work, back to the playground, back to the abnormal normalcy of Israel under fire.

Today our group met with a number of policy experts and politicians.

President-elect Ruby Rivlin thanked us for coming and shared with us a glimpse of his vision of the presidency as someone who enables the critical dialogue of Israeli and Jewish society to occur.

President Peres greeted us at the president's residence and was his typical optimistic self. I was moved by his reflections on why he remains an optimist.  He reminisced about the early days of the State when Israel had so little: no water, no weapons, no friends, no agriculture, less than 700,000 people. How Ben Gurion invited him to work with him in the Hagannah in 1947 and they had no desk for him. So he sat at the desk of the chief of staff and found a letter from someone who was invited to be the chief of staff but, understanding Israel's situation, declined. Why? Because at that time Israel had only six million cartridges of bullets. In war at that time one would use one million a day. This person didn't want to be the chief of staff of the Hagannah for only six days!  Of course, Peres was so modest and didn't mention that it was his job to procure weapons and weapon systems for the fledgling army and state.  (And he did that, founding Israel's military industries.)

Peres is an optimist because 66 years later Israel has eight million people, a strong economy, a strong military, friends like the U.S. and most importantly, a strong people. As he is fond of reminding us, it is the people who innovate and make the land, not the other way around.  It is always a privilege to be in his presence. More so today, as he is one week away from ending his term.

We also met with the chair of the Knesset's security committee, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Minister Naftali Bennet, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the IDF Spokepersons Bureau and former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (left) and  me with Lt. Col. Peter Lerner

From Lt. Col. Lerner we learned the extent to which the IDF goes to protect and reduce civilian casualties. It's a three-pronged approach.  

First the IDF calls the residents and drops leaflets for those who live in the vicinity of a target, telling them that they should leave.

Then they "knock on the building" by deploying a lightweight device on the roof.

Then they choose the type of ordnance needed to destroy their target, and only their target, and deploy it.  

As a result, the IDF knows that the enemy will likely also get the message and leave the vicinity, as well. They are prepared to take that risk and destroy his operational capacity by destroying the facility. They do this, because they value every human life.

Lerner shared with us video of how the chosen ordnance destroys its target and we were able to see what happens when there is a secondary explosion, much larger than Israel's action. The secondary explosion is caused by Hamas munitions in the target area. It's this explosion which causes more damage and is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.  

By storing munitions in homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals, and because they continue to attack Israel, Hamas is clearly responsible for Palestinian losses.

The challenge the IDF has in all of this is that the reporters only see the aftermath and destruction. And with news cycles being what they are today, the story is skewed. Though thus far, Lerner feels the press has been fairly balanced in its reporting. That could change, and probably will as the operation continues and enemy losses mount.

But with more than 1,000 rockets fired on Israel what alternatives does it have? And the numbers game is a perversion of morality. Read a piece on this concept by my colleague Rabbi Eric Yoffe, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Finally, Yaakov Amidror, who only 4 months ago was the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister, gave a sobering analysis of the choices Israel has. Basically there are only two.

It can have a limited engagement to destroy current stockpiles and create a period of calm that might last two, three, maybe even five years, knowing it will have to fight this fight again.

Or it can re-conquer Gaza and stop the rockets for good.

Both come at a price. The only relevant decision is which price is the wise one? Which price is Israel willing to pay for quiet?

I am reminded of the wisdom of Golda Meir who said: “There will be peace when the Palestinians learn to love their children more than they hate ours.” And “I can forgive the Palestinians for killing us. I can't forgive them for causing us to kill them.”

The view from my hotel balcony
And yet, life goes on. An abnormal normalcy. Right now it's quiet. I'm sitting on the balcony of my hotel overlooking the New Train Station in Jerusalem.  It's a beautiful day. The beginning of day three.

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