Israel 2002: An Eyewitness Report

Sermon given March 15, 2002, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


They call it hamatsav, “the situation.” The term rings painfully bland. Enemies of Israel send suicide bombers to slaughter Jewish children. Make no mistake: the terrorists’ ultimate goal is the destruction of the Jewish State. Even Israelis who lived through 1967 say that this time is the very worst in the history of the State. Last week, in Jerusalem, I heard many Israelis say that it’s no longer a matsav; it’s milchamah, a war. The Mayor of Jerusalem made the point, standing outside the Moment Café, an hour after last Saturday night’s grisly suicide bombing: the front lines are the streets of Jerusalem, the beaches of Tel Aviv, the lobby of a modest hotel in Netanya.

For five days last week, 250 Reform Rabbis chose to stand on those front lines, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel. Our Central Conference of American Rabbis assembles in Jerusalem every seven years. One might even say that our meeting was routine; the seventh year had come. And yet, this convention had special significance, as we gathered in Jerusalem at a time of existential crisis for the State of Israel. Believe it or not, we came in greater numbers than in the past.

We joined sixty-two first year students of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, our future colleagues. When I was a first year student in Jerusalem, in 1985-6, Israel was at peace. This year’s class has been living on the Jerusalem battlefield, trying to learn and grow as future Rabbis, Cantors and Jewish Educators, between the bombs that explode in the very places they would relax for a drink or a meal.

We were not alone. The Israeli Minister of Tourism told us that Catholic tourism in Israel is down eighty-five per cent and Protestant tourism is down fifty per cent, but the number of Jewish visitors to Israel has actually increased by three per cent during the current crisis, primarily as a result of solidarity missions. You will remember that Rabbi Stahl and Lynn joined such a mission from our own city last summer, together with Rabbi Scheinberg and Cantor Silverstein. These visits are important to Israel’s economy, which is struggling during the current crisis. The presence of Jewish people from abroad, though, is even more significant on a higher level: One after the other, Israelis told us how grateful they were for our presence. Being in Israel, our actions spoke louder than words. To our Israeli brothers and sisters, we said: “You are not alone.”

For Toni, Robert and me, the message was personal. In 1990, at about the same time Toni moved to San Antonio, her brother Todd moved to Israel with his wife and their three daughters. They live on Moshav Shorashim, a remote spot in the northern part of the country. Toni and Robert went only to Shorashim, and I joined them there last Shabbat. Toni and I decided that we should not bring Robert to Jerusalem at this time. As it was, some of Robert’s grandparents were less than thrilled. My father did not like the idea of my going to Israel at this time. Robert’s Grampy was appalled that we would take our child into a war zone. Truthfully, Toni and I were convinced that we were keeping Robert out of harm’s way, by keeping him far from the major cities. After we returned, Palestinian snipers murdered several Jews, near a Kibbutz in the same region as Shorashim. The front lines are everywhere.

And yet, life at Shorashim is strangely normal. The biggest event of our visit was an art opening at the local high school, featuring the work of our niece Ruth and her high school senior classmates. Our niece Sarah, a high school junior who specializes in Arabic, speaks eagerly of a future in Israeli military intelligence. Hannah, age fourteen, pleads with her parents to let her spend the night at the home of a friend. She is unsuccessful. The scene could be played out in any number of American homes, until the conversation turns to the latest terrorist attack, or worse, to concern about the next one.

My own visit to Jerusalem did not feel at all normal. I was faithful to the commitments I made to Toni. I did not go to Ben Yehuda Street, to crowded cafes, or to any of my favorite shops. I kept my distance from any place that seemed like a potential target for terrorists. I was in the hotel at the time of the Moment Café bombing on Saturday night. The truth, though, is that the incident was only a five minute walk from the hotel. I could easily have passed by that place last Saturday night, on the very street where I lived sixteen years ago, a spot that I walked by at least twice every single day for eleven months in the mid-1980s. Even closer to our hotel, on a street that had been explicitly deemed “safe,” several of my colleagues were in a café where a suicide bomber was thwarted, just in time, last Thursday.

On Sunday morning, after the Moment Café bombing, I awoke to a memorandum, instructing convention participants not to leave the hotel, until time to go to the airport that night. I obeyed the directive. I asked Toni not to go with Robert into the town of Acco, where she had hoped to do some shopping. She called back to ask if it would be O.K. for them to go to the high school for Ruth’s art show. I said “yes” to that one, but what am I, an Israel security expert?

To be perfectly honest, I was ready to leave Israel last Sunday night. Hard as it was to leave her family, Toni, too, was glad to come home. Robert wanted to stay; he had a blast with his cousins, and especially with their cats.

On the day of our departure, the Hebrew Union College announced that formal classes for North American first year students in Jerusalem would end this week, two months ahead of schedule. Sixty-two students have been there since June. Some will stay through May, even with permission now to leave. With all the bombings, with all the shootings, their sleep disturbed by bombers and attack helicopters flying low over their apartments, not a single one of my future colleagues has abandoned Israel in these nine months. The President of the College, my teacher, Rabbi David Ellenson, extolled their selfless solidarity with the Jewish State, their living Zionism, their heroism. Rabbis embraced future Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators, many of them in tears, as they struggle to decide whether or not to leave Israel now, to heed the call of their families and friends, or to respond instead to their Zionist commitment.

Yes, I was ready to leave, but even more, I knew that going to Israel had been the right decision. 2002 is a difficult time to go to Israel. 2002 is an important time to go to Israel. I make no negative judgment of those who choose not to go at this time, for I well understand the anxiety involved. I lived it. And yet, I ask you to join me in making no negative judgment of those who do travel to Israel at this time, to walk in solidarity with the Jewish people in the Jewish State. They need us, now more than ever.

As many of you know, I recently signed a letter – together with Rabbis Stahl and Bergman Vann – calling on our United States government to work tirelessly for peace in the Middle East. The document endorses the idea of a Palestinian State, and insists on the right of the Jewish State to exist within secure and peaceful borders. That letter was drafted and signed by Muslims, Christians and Jews; its framers included Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan and Barbie Gorelick. It was published in the San Antonio Express-News a week before I left for Israel. Your Rabbis have received some criticism for signing that letter, much of it from people we love and respect, who share our commitments to Israel and to peace. Perhaps some of you are wondering whether I regret having signed that letter, particularly in light of my recent journey. I do not.

Some have said that the letter exhibited naivete. Indeed, there is a tendency for both sides to oversimplify in the debate over the peace process. In Jerusalem, I was privileged to hear Tommy Lapid, head of the Shinui Party, who labeled as “infantile” Prime Minister Sharon’s notion that the Palestinians can be broken with physical might. At the same time, though, Lapid insisted that we remember that the current situation is not all Israel’s fault. Those who claim that the Occupation is the only source of the violence are ignoring a harsh reality, that the Palestinians and Arab nations have rejected multiple opportunities for peace. In the words of Tommy Lapid: “Thinking people know that there are no easy solutions.”

Perhaps the most insightful speaker we heard in Jerusalem was David Horovitz, Editor of the Jerusalem Report. Horovitz insisted that “Israelis are desperate for peace.” He reminded us of the 1999 election, when Ehud Barak became Prime Minister in a landslide victory. Israelis were fully prepared to recognize a Palestinian State, and the Israeli public wanted a leader who would talk to Arafat and make it happen. Only in despair did Israelis later elect Ariel Sharon. Why the despair? The answer is not just in the violence. One after the other, the Israelis who addressed us, from the right and from the left, spoke of Camp David in 2000. Arafat rejected Barak’s peace plan, even though Barak made him the best offer Israel has ever, or could ever, propose. Barak agreed to a Palestinian State, with almost all the land taken by Israel in 1967. Barak promised the Palestinians a part of Jerusalem, with both nations’ capitals in that city. And yet, Arafat demanded that four million Arabs have the right to move into the State of Israel, potentially creating two states with Arab majorities, one called Israel and the other called Palestine, side by side. Arafat claims to recognize Israel, but Israelis have reason believe that he will never negotiate peace with a real Jewish State.

Hope is hard to hold in Israel in 2002. Blessedly, the very last speaker I heard in Jerusalem was Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister, co-architect of the Oslo peace process, and co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Peres reminded us that one can not stop a war simply by “handling the shooter;” he said that Israel must provide some kind of political horizon, a possible future, to the Palestinians. Ultimately, for the good of Israel, for the integrity of Judaism, the Occupation must end. In the words of Shimon Peres: “If Judaism doesn’t have a moral basis, not just a territorial one, it can not exist.”

Peres acknowledges that “today, everybody is so angry that we can’t listen to each other. At a time like this,” he said, “you have to show character and hope.” Shimon Peres arrived late for his talk with us, because he had just come from the funeral of a young woman, killed at the Moment Café. He knew the woman personally, for she worked at the Foreign Ministry. She pursued her career there, because she was an idealist; she wanted to build peace. To be honest, Peres looked terrible – drawn, exhausted, depressed. He did not give a speech, but simply took our questions. He told us that we have to have hope, because neither side has an alternative. His last words to us were: “We shall overcome.”

Tonight, my friends, you and I gather as religious Jews, witnesses to the most horrific time our Jewish people has experienced in a generation. Our words of hope are expressed in prayer:

O Lord our God, at this hour of Shabbat rest and worship, hear our plea for the State of Israel and its citizens. Let our people in Israel know that we are with them; they are not alone. As they struggle to go about their daily lives, may they live with hope for the future of the Jewish State; may they walk with courage; may they lie down each night with prayers for peace. Heal the wounded and comfort the bereaved in Zion and Jerusalem. O God, shower Your presence too upon every Palestinian man, woman and child who prays for the peace of both Palestinians and Israelis. Be with those non-combatants of their people who have also suffered loss. Sustain them to live with hope for a better tomorrow for their people, side by side with a secure and Jewish State of Israel. Dear God, You are Mekor shalom, the ultimate Source of peace. May we do Your will, praying for peace and pursuing it, with hope and with faith.

And let us all say: Amen.