Friday, March 14, 2008

Parashat Vayikra

In some ways, it was a brief conversation like any other at Hebrew University. Walking down the hall with my friend Zehava, a woman in a long skirt and head covering smiled and said hello. Zehava smiled and said hello right back. Nothing out of the ordinary, except that the long skirt and head covering were not the ultra-Orthodox but the Arab flavor. We kept walking and then I just had to stop and reflect. It was a beautiful moment, actually, one that is all too rare these days.

Last week, there were protests at The Hebrew University led by Israeli Arab students demonstrating against Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip. They were free to exercise what Americans call their “First Amendment Right to Free Speech.” While they were separated from Israeli Jewish students who were also protesting that which was being shot from Gaza, they were nonetheless able to protest freely and safely. They made the news, just as the protesting Arab Israeli citizens in Um-el-Fahem did. And while some Israeli Arab groups were making their voices heard collectively, other individual Israeli Arab citizen students freely walked through the hallowed halls of The Hebrew University happily going to classes, learning, growing.

This is Israeli Democracy at its very best. Students with completely different views in the same school, in the same classes, receive the same degrees, and express positions on each extreme freely and honestly. While I am not a citizen, I cannot help but be proud of the democratic country I am living in right now. For those screaming and yelling all over the world that Israel is not a democracy, let them come and stand in the hallways of Hebrew University, let them watch the ballot box on election day, let them come and see the composition of the Knesset.

After they are done with that tour, they should go to Bir Zeit or Al Quds University. There too, they will see protests and demonstrations. They will see Palestinian students standing and protesting Israeli actions in the Gaza strip. But they won’t see any other perspectives because they are not allowed – not from Israeli Jews nor from Palestinians with a different perspective. There are no Jewish Israeli students at Al Quds or Bir Zeit, at least not as far as I can tell and if there are Arab students expressing moderate or conciliatory opinions about Israel, they certainly don’t make their voices heard because such a choice leads to beatings, threats and murder…


The above four paragraphs were written a week ago Thursday night before I got an SMS to turn on the television, which is never a good sign in this country: A terrorist attack in Jerusalem on a yeshiva high school. The first major attack on Jerusalem in a long time, this one was perpetrated against children, adolescents. Not soldiers, not the police, not anyone armed (not to say that those would be any more acceptable) but kids studying Torah and getting ready for the month of Adar, a joyous time on our calendar, shot to death by a terrorist. I stopped writing. I just sat in front of the television, watched and wept.

The beautiful moment in the Hebrew University hallway was long forgotten. All that was left was sadness, anger and questions:

Sadness – Sadness over eight lives snuffed out too soon; sadness for the families, for the Yeshiva community, and for the entire Jewish People. How can you not be devastated whether or not you knew the students or their families?

Sadness – Sadness that the promise of Peace, the talk earlier in the year, delusional of course, that a final Peace agreement could be reached by the end of the year, is just that – delusional.

Anger – Boundless anger, rage, the kind of ferocity I am uncomfortable with. It is raw. It shows its ugly face in little ways, like the extra emphasis I find myself placing on phrases like “Blessed are You, Who destroys enemies…” in the silent Amidah, or other places where our liturgy speaks of Revenge and Divine Retribution.

Anger – Anger at the Terrorist and those who funded, supported, and encouraged him. Anger that he held an Israeli citizenship card, a real one not a forgery, and thus a person who enjoys the benefits of living in a democracy, not a perfect democracy, but a democracy nonetheless, where he can vote, make his voice heard, and get the benefits of being a citizen.

Anger – Anger at a world that screams in protest against Israeli “overreaction,” but sits silently when young Jewish Israeli kids are intentionally targeted and slaughtered by terrorists.


Are there limits to Democracy? If so, what are they and how can they be applied here of all places?

Does a dead terrorist deserve a funeral paid for by the State, a benefit afforded other citizens?

If terrorists now come from Jabel Mukhaber (Ja-bel Mu-kA-bear), a neighborhood in South Jerusalem, is it possible to still be a liberal and not consider the Israeli Arab minority a “Fifth Column”?

And what is worse, if they are, if the majority of the Israeli Arab population is part of a fifth column, what does Israel do about it? Which brings me back to the Democracy question…

In the midst of the never ending violence here, we are also on the cusp of never ending renewal, the ending of one book and the immediate beginning of the next book of Torah. Last week, we finished Exodus. This week, we start Leviticus. Last week, we read the last verse of the Exodus and proclaimed, “Hazak Hazak V’Nithazek” “Be Strong, Be Strong and We Will Be Strengthened.” The words meant something different to me last week. There were two different “strengths” in my head – the strength of liberal democracy and the strength of The Jewish People. At the end of the day, all of the awful things that I imagine needing to happen to bring this conflict to an end, at the angriest of moments, are always overtaken by the dual values of democracy and the ethics and laws of our Torah. Taken together, we are strengthened to overcome the anger, to avoid extremism, and to look forward…

This Shabbat, I hope and pray that until there is Peace here that the voices of democracy and Torah always triumph over the voices of extremism and fascism. The other option is too frightening to consider, even in the angriest, deepest recess of my heart.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Ashkelon - A Friend's Personal Story

The situation in the areas near, and now farther from, Gaza is worsening. The following is from a friend of ours, Maxine Dorot, mother of our friend and former Shaliah, Tal Dorot. It is a first person description of what it is like to live in Ashkelon right now, which is being heavily targeted by Hamas Grad Missiles from Gaza:

It's 11:54. Monday, the 3rd of march. At 8:44 exactly, without warning, a massive explosion shook the quiet morning. Seconds after, there was one more. Once again, my area did not hear the warning of "tseva adom". Probably just as well. with 15 seconds to find shelter, i probably wouldn't have made it...well, maybe just.

i was sitting at the computer writing to my sister. The windows, as is the norm now, are open. Doesn't matter if it's cold out or not, they're opened, except for a few that remain "protected" by the shutters. Those are the windows directly over the beds. Wouldn't want glass shattering on you, now would you? (Like the shutters are really going to help but maybe a little).

This the first time a missile fell while elementary and high schools were in session. My cleaning lady is here. She arrived late because her 8 year old son was afraid to walk to school alone. Since last week, he has been escorted by someone in the family; he always used to go alone.

When the first missile went off, Malka didn't know what to the school? Go there? I calmed her down and we waited. The 2nd one went off very soon after. She called the school but after a missile attack, cell phones don't work. "Network busy" reads the screen. She used the house phone to reach the school but of course, the lines were busy. So we waited and soon, her son called her. "Take me home," he asked. He wasn't crying but his voice was very small.

When he walked into the house, he seemed fine. I asked him to tell me what had happened. They didn't hear the alert but the principal, whose office is next door, ran in and told the kids to get under their desks, hands over their heads. The girl next to Gal was singing the whole time, I guess to keep herself calm. Since they've been practicing for this for weeks, they were all one in the 3rd grade class panicked until it was over. Then the girl who had been singing began to cry. Most of the kids wanted "Ema". Those who wanted to go home were dismissed when an adult came for them. Some of the kids wanted to stay.

It's hard to describe these "booms". Depending on how close you are to them, they have a reverberating deep sound. Then there's like an echo that reverberates for a few seconds. If you're close enough to a house or a building that 's been hit, you hear the sound of rubble falling. Then you listen for sirens to judge how close it is to you. Within a minute, your house phone starts ringing...people checking on you and yours and then speculating as to where the rockets fell. Somehow, Tal finds out pretty fast where it is. He took a bus to school today (yesterday, Sderot was hit by almost 50 rockets) because they learn in a protected room and then are going to a seminar in Tel Aviv. He won't take his car there anymore and doesn't plan to go back for a while after today. However, all the students are worrying about their studies. Yesterday, in "my" college here in Ashkelon, less than 1/3rd of the students showed. I bet there are even less today.

There was not one room booked in the hotel last night. We are usually 35-40% full during the winter weeks but I think we're going to be in for a rough time now. All the hotels here will be.

Living from missile to missile is nuts. I woke up at 6:30 this morning playing "tseva adom" in my head. Checked the news and then forced myself back to sleep til 8 but it's just nuts. Took a shower and washed my hair. While still in my pajamas I washed my hair over the sink, then ran into the shower and was out in less than 4 minutes, dried and dressed in another 3. A record for me!! Dried my hair in front of the open window so I would hear anything fall, just in case.

Shani woke up from the grads, checked that we were all okay and then muttered, "this is crazy" and went back to sleep. Today she works from 4 to 10 but she and another girl from Ashkelon decided to go in earlier. The office is in Kiryat Malachi, 20 minutes from here and way out of missile range.

I don't teach on Mondays and have to do some errands. Am not too crazy about going out but will not stop my life, at least not yet. If we get to the point that we have to live in our shelters, Shani and I and the dogs are out of here, but I hope we never get to that. Rafi has a business to run but we'll see.

Will take a deep breath and go outside. Knowing me, I'll take a detour to see where the grads fell today. Feel free to pass this on to anyone who might be interested.

Maxine, Ashkelon

While the IDF conducted a brief, two day mission to slow the launching of rockets toward Sderot and Ashkelon, and other places, Hamas "celebrated" their survival despite the fact that over 100 terrorists were killed over the two days. Sadly, civilians in Gaza were killed also, some by errant missiles launched by Hamas that fell short of their targets and others who were killed as bystanders during Israeli action. More to be said later. For now, let us hope that there will be a quiet night for everyone.