Split Screens: Rabbi Franken’s Remarks on Recent Events in the Middle East
The first time I ever spoke up for Israel I was about the age of our Confirmation students. The Reagan Administration had proposed the sale of advanced aircraft called Airborne Warning and Control Systems, or AWACS, to the government of Saudi Arabia and Israeli and American Jews alike were up in arms. As the only Jew in my high school World History class (or any class for that matter), it was there that I first found my voice as the Zionist in the room. How could the United States sell advanced weapons to a dictatorship that didn’t recognize the Jewish state and that could use them to neutralize Israel’s critical edge in the air?
To my satisfaction and to his credit, my teacher, a rookie named Mr. Marak, welcomed my advocacy and encouraged the discussion. Moreover, having won over my classmates with my arguments, I felt empowered by the debate even though ultimately the United States Senate voted to uphold the arms sale.
In the years that followed, my Zionism intensified. I read the works of Nordau and Pinsker and Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, and the more I learned about Crusades, pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition and especially the Shoah, the more grateful I felt to have the Jewish state and the more I longed to go back to it. And when at 20 an El Al jet touched down at Lod, with Heivenu Shalom Aleichem playing over the loudspeakers, I wept tears of joy. I was home.
It would take only four years to return for the third time, five for the fourth, two for the fifth, and then, after living there twice for two and a half years and visiting as often as every season, I would lose count. But always Israel would be the repository of my heart. Her joy would be my joy and her sorrows, mine too. Israel was the great hope and being there, living the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, speaking the Hebrew language, sharing in the destiny of the Jewish people’s most precious possession (along with Torah) would make each day there a day of quiet thrills.
That was why I, like so many of you, take such pride in Israel’s achievements. In 70 years it vaulted from a mangy and dusty underdog whose very survival was improbable - to a little lion of a nation, a science and technology powerhouse, a creative center that just won the Eurovision song contest for the third time, a military juggernaut, the country that has risen to the 11th happiest on the planet (seven places above the U.S.), a society with strong social connections, excellent health care, and one of the longest life expectancies. What country other than Israel, threatened as it has been by its enemies, has ascended to such heights?
And this, too, is why the news of the past week - and years, frankly - is so heartbreaking. For as great as Israel has become economically, scientifically, militarily, and intellectually, the 70-year old conflict with the Palestinians remains intractable. And Israel will remain marginalized on the world stage, morally as well as politically, as long as the occupation continues, settlements are built, land is stolen from Palestinian owners, and the hopelessness and anger of the Palestinian people endures.
What upset me this week isn’t that Israel defended itself against throngs of protesters, some of them armed, trying to cross the border from Gaza. From past experience, it is easy to imagine the nightmare scenario that would have ensued had they been successful: the attacks on schools and homes, the kidnapping of any Jew they could find in order to hold them (or their body) for an extreme ransom. Four years ago, after the war with Hamas, I personally stood outside a tunnel that it or Islamic Jihad had dug out to the Israeli side for that very purpose. It terrified me.
So - to the point made by the United States Ambassador to the U.N. - no one can fairly question Israel’s right to self defense, to her defense of the border with Gaza. She has that right (and moral duty) to protect her citizens. But what I think we can and, indeed, ought to fairly question is the extent to which the IDF minimized casualties. Was live fire absolutely necessary in all cases? Was the situation handled in the least lethal, but effective, manner, consistent with Jewish values of self-defense, sanctity of life, and the IDF’s “purity of arms” doctrine?
And we might also ask: What was the United States contribution to this week’s violence? While I have always believed that Jerusalem ought to be recognized as Israel’s capital - it has been the spiritual capital of the Jewish people for three thousand years after all - the current administration’s decision to break with 70 years of policy and move the embassy there was to the Palestinians an insult and a provocation - especially the timing of it a day before their Nakba, or Catastrophe, Day and on the anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. The result might be right, but does it justify the means? And at what price to even the pretension of United States posing as a neutral interlocutor? As Yossi Alpher said: As with the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement, the American Administration is moving the entire Middle East closer to mayhem. Seeing the celebration on split screens with the Gaza border operations just 40 kilometers away was just painful and made it impossible to believe that the first had nothing to do with the second.
And what of Israel’s own contribution to the stalemate? To be sure, there’s plenty of blame to lay at the Palestinians’ feet. They have time and again attacked with any means necessary - bus bombings, hang gliders, boats, tunnels, missiles; even kites. Their society is rife with antisemitism, starting with their president, Mahmoud Abbas. And they have allowed extremists to govern Gaza. But Israel’s contribution - the impossible siege of nearly two million Gazans and the concomitant unemployment, shortages of food and medicine, and sheer hopelessness among them - cannot go unnoticed either. Think of the split screen again.
As Donniel Hartman points out, “While 60 human beings lost their lives, and Israeli soldiers were engaged in the horrific challenge of protecting our border, tens of thousands of Israelis convened on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to sing and rejoice with Netta Barzilai on her and our victory in the Eurovision contest.”
“When the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea,” though, Midrash recounts that the angels in heaven began to sing a song of praise to God. And God silenced them with the words, “My creation is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing a song of praise?”
One of the beautiful things about Judaism is that, at its best, it teaches us to practice compassion and empathy. That’s the point of the Midrash we just remembered. That’s part of what meditation and prayer practice are designed to do to.
For that reason, the plight of the Palestinian people is our concern too. Tragic though it is that Gaza is controlled by a murderous regime that is sworn to Israel’s destruction - and four years ago I experienced that first hand when a missile was fired at Ben Gurion Airport and I had to run from the check-in counter to a bomb shelter for cover - tragic though it is, Israelis bear some responsibility, and certainly the responsibility not to harden our hearts at the suffering of innocents; and not to intensify their suffering through home demolitions, land confiscations, and settlement expansions.
A few final words from Donniel Hartman may summarize what many a Jew, including this one, feels this week.
“Gaza paralyzes me, because human beings are dying at my hands, and I do not know how to prevent it. Gaza frightens me, because it is so easy to forget it and sing, regardless of what is happening there. Gaza challenges us, for it is in Gaza that our commitment to the value of human life is and will be tested.
“We may not be principally responsible for the reality which is Gaza, but like all moral human beings, we must constantly ask ourselves whether and how we can be part of the solution. As Jews, we are commanded to walk in the way of God, a God who declares, ‘My creation is drowning, and what are you doing about it?’”
Fundamentally, isn’t this after all why we as a people came, and each Shavuot return, to Sinai? To be a kingdom of priests and a holy people? To shine the light of Torah into the world through our words and our deeds?