Fallujah and Forgetting

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The front page picture in today’s New York Times is heart wrenching.  It depicts two dead Gazan children, killed by Israeli rockets.  What kind of person could fail to be moved by this horrific sight?

Do you remember Fallujah?  Probably not.  It took place ten years ago, during the Iraq War.  American forces bombed the city of Fallujah from the skies for weeks, and then sent in ground troops.  It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war.  However, what we did there, particularly during the weeks of heavy bombing, will never be fully known.  During the Iraq War, the  Administration heavily censored and worked to control the news, and a compliant media was all too happy to play along, in the name of keeping their “access”.  Want good guests on the Sunday shows?  Don’t ask too many questions.  Want to get the invite to the White House Press Party so you can disco dance with Karl Rove?  Don’t ask too many questions.    As the late Rabbi David Forman, a combat veteran of the 1982 Lebanon War told us in 2004 in a speech at Temple Emanu-El-”You have been deliberately sheltered by your government from the actions that you took in Iraq.  Those of us who live in the Middle East know exactly what you did”.

Which brings me back to the picture on the front page of the Times.  Hamas gives reporters full access to the carnage on the ground, because they want to emphasize the casualties caused by the Israelis.  The fact that Israel pleaded with Hamas not to escalate the conflict, that Netanyahu had to fight right wing ministers in his own government to behave in a restrained manner, that Hamas intentionally places its citizens in jeopardy, that Hamas has fired over a thousand rockets into Israel deliberately targeting civilians, all this pales in comparison to the accepted narrative that Israel is responding brutally in Gaza.

In this particular instance, I have given up caring what ‘the world” thinks.  I have been under Hamas rocket fire, and its not fun.  All I ask is that Americans who point fingers should always remember that when you point your finger at another person, four fingers are pointing at yourself. 

Boxing in a Bomb Shelter

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For the first time, I was able to make my way to my home away from home, the Jerusalem Boxing Gym. To my pleasant surprise, I was recognized and greeted warmly. (although one young man said to me, “Hey I remember you from when I was a little kid”).
The coach began the session today by assembling us together, and announcing that the gym would now be open 24 hours a day. It is an old bomb shelter, you see, and the municipality of Jerusalem has requested that it be opened up to all residents as a shelter once again, given that missiles are falling over the country. The coach continued by saying that in the event that the shelter would be used for refuge, he expected that each fighter would volunteer to take a shift supervising those who take shelter. By the way, for those who went to Jewish summer camp, the coach used the same word that we use to describe being a counselor-on duty, shemira, to describe the taking of a shift in the shelter. The first fighter to volunteer was a young man named Artur, who happens to also be the Israeli National champion in his weight class. (There were three national champions training alongside me today).
The gym remains a wonderful mix of Jerusalem kids- Russians, native born sabras, Ethiopians, and one young Brit covered in Star of David tatoos who looked like someone had broken his nose very recently. The only language spoken is Hebrew, with some Russian mixed in, and Yiddish when the coach gets angry. However, noticeably missing today were any Palestinian fighters-things are tense these days in the Holy City.
As it happens, while we were training, rockets were fired by Hamas at Jerusalem. Apparently two were intercepted, two fell in fields. All the while, we were boxing in the bomb shelter.

Will the Center Hold?

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Life in Israel today is evocative of Yeats’ great poem “The Second Coming”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

While we are still reeling from the shock of the discovery of the bodies of the three yeshiva students, six Jews confess to the slaughter of a young Muslim youth in retaliation,
burning him alive-yes while still alive; and rioting and violence are continuing in East Jerusalem. Rockets are falling on parts of Israel, and the Israeli army is responding with military action in Gaza. The ceremony of innocence has long drowned, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and for sure, the worst are full of passionate intensity.
The call today in Israel is for the sane amongst us, Jew and Arab together, to unite against “the worst” amongst us-and if there is any hope it is in that call being heeded. Even some ultra-orthodox rabbis have condemned the murder of Muhammed Abu-Khadeir, the young boy slaughtered by Jewish zealots and the better of our political leaders are trying to press for calm and not confrontation. There are still too many voices, both here and sadly in America, who care not that their careless and cruel words will loose anarchy upon the innocent, but to be a Jew is to hope, and on this day, we cling to hope that things yet will not “fall apart”.

No Zealots

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This morning, I discovered this graffiti scrawled fifty yards from the school in which I study. For those who don’t read Hebrew, it says “Jews! Vengeance!” It is a call by Jewish extremists to attack Arabs in the wake of the murder of the three yeshiva students. As is well known by now, one Arab youth was burned to death, allegedly by such extremists.

There is no place in Judaism for such sick and profane individuals who call for death and retribution against Arabs. To the credit of Prime Minister Netanyahu he has acted swiftly to condemn such behavior and vows to punish Jewish criminals who injure Arabs. Incredibly, I have read comments by some who say, “Well, it’s not like we are ISIS in Iraq-how come the media always picks on us”? Is that now our standard for moral behavior-that at least we are not as bad as those depraved murderers?
The Torah portion for this Shabbat tells the story of Pinchas, a zealot who murders in the name of religion. Our rabbis made it clear that Pinchas is no role model for us. However, it is clear that some misguided Jews did not get the rabbinic message.

Where the edges meet

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When I studied geology in college, I learned that earthquakes are caused by two tectonic plates that rub together, causing unbearable friction.
In Israel, the fluid border between east and west Jerusalem is like those tectonic plates, rubbing against each other and occasionally rumbling into violence. There have been clashes in east Jerusalem in recent days, as Palestinians protest not only the murder of an Arab youth by (perhaps) Jewish extremists, but two weeks of increased pressure during the search for the murdered three Israeli boys.
Ramadan adds to the friction as heightened religious sensitivity coupled with all day fasting in the hot sun brings tempers to a boil.
Today is also Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and to his credit President Netanyahu is working hard to maintain calm.
He has taken the unprecedented step of saying publicly to Hamas that if they remain quiet (despite the dozens of rockets they have fired into Israel) the Israeli army will take no escalating action.
But the friction remains. I visited part of east Jerusalem, primarily to pray at the Western Wall (which can be accessed through the Muslim Quarter) but also to personally see what was up.
The border police had closed the popular Jaffa Gate and maintained a small entrance that allowed only a single person to enter at a time. Young Arab men were questioned and often turned away as prayer time approached. Older Arab men were welcomed through the barrier. In fairness, all of us were scrutinized as we entered, but it was clear that the younger Arab men were given more of a once over. The hope is that by barring younger men, rioting might be prevented on the Temple Mount. I had heard on the news that only older Arab men and women were to be permitted access to the Temple Mount area. To their credit, the young female border guards were polite and helpful, their male commanding officer was clearly anxious and was shouting constantly.
The Arab shouk was very quiet and many shops were shuttered. The Western Wall itself was not very crowded and while I was there soldiers were deploying to prepare security for the hour of Muslim prayer.
All in all, there was an odd feeling of emptiness and mild tension in the air.
However, Jerusalem is a city of wild contrasts. As I was leaving the Arab shouk on the way home, near the Jaffa gate, I passed a large group of Christian American tourists posing with two photogenic young Israeli female border police officers. These two young blonde Israeli women, except for their uniforms and assault rifles, would have been at home at some sorority gathering in Dallas or Atlanta, and they clearly were charming the American group. As I walked by, I glanced back, and a nice American grandmother was encouraging her clearly embarrassed teenage grandson to snuggle closer to the two young women in order to take a picture. The heavily armed girls giggled, the tourists laughed, and life goes on in Israel.

Update-Unfortunately, it appears that rioting has in fact broken out in heavily Arab areas of East Jerusalem. The Boxing Rabbi prays for the peace of Jerusalem, for all its inhabitants- and wishes to assure everyone that in fact, despite the incidents of conflict, things remain quite safe.

A people that dwells alone

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Many of my friends and colleagues are condemning, in strong and harsh terms, the decision of the Presbyterian Church to dis-invest from some companies doing business in Israel, effectively joining and giving legitimacy to the BDS movement.

By doing so, they sincerely believe that they are both pressuring Israel to relinquish its occupation of Palestinian areas, and also, lets be honest, demonstrating a claim of the moral high ground over the Israelis and her Jewish supporters (like me).

Let it be so.  Personally, I bear the Presbyterians no animosity at all. As the Book of Numbers makes clear, we are “a people that dwells alone” and no matter of financial and social success in the US of A will change that four thousand year old reality.   Besides, the teacher who was the greatest influence in my life, Norman Schneider, is not only to this day a devout Presbyterian elder and teacher, but the son of a Presbyterian minister, and I will always revere him and his faith.  Sorry guys, I can’t join you in bashing the Presbyterians today, even though I agree with you in your criticisms.

I can however, assert that while our opponents in the American Christian community argue that they are responding to Israeli policies, what they are really doing is responding viscerally to a series of vignettes.  You see the hideous wall that cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and damn, it is ugly.  But that is a vignette.  What you don’t see are the bombs going off daily in the streets of Israel in 2002, blowing children to bits.  What you don’t see are the concrete columns erected so that people like myself strolling in Jerusalem in 2002 would not get shot by snipers in Bethlehem leaning out of mosques and private homes.  Oh, and you don’t see Jews in Bethlehem in 2014.   Not allowed, you know.

You see a Palestinian farmer whose olive groves are taken over by insane Jewish settlers.  That’s a vignette and a real one.  You see settlers building illegal settlements on Palestinian lands.   But you don’t see friends of mine, Jewish-Israeli  peace activists, risking their lives to help harvest the olive crops.  You don’t see Jewish soldiers arresting these settlers, and pulling them off Palestinian lands.

When I go to Israel, here are the vignettes I see.  I see victims of the savagery in Syria waking up in Israeli hospitals, being treated for their wounds by Israeli doctors.  I see elected Arab Members of the Knesset excoriating their fellow Israelis in a free and democratic system.   I see pictures of Palestinians joyfully handing out sweets to celebrate the kidnapping of three kids.  I see the Israelis pull out of Gaza only to be met with rocket fire and war. 

The policy of the State of Israel is to work towards two states, living side by side in peace.  That is the policy of the current government.  I am assuming that you would agree with this policy.  What you have responded to are vignettes, and vignettes, neither yours nor mine, ever tell the full story. 

what more do we need to say?

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The wife of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas continues to be treated for a serious illness in an Israeli hospital, by Israeli doctors, at the exact time Palestinians hold three Israeli kids hostage and ordinary Palestinian locals hand out sweets to celebrate the “great victory” of the kidnapping of these young people.

The Palestinians people deserve their own state, and deserve to live in a state where they determine their own destiny, but my God, my God.