The air raid sirens in Israel are haunting. Normally, they reverberate across the country two times in April every year, once to remember the victims of the Holocaust and then to memorialize those Israelis who died to create and defend a nation state for the Jewish people. Everything stops. Cars pull to the side of the road. People stand at attention for two full minutes until the siren ends. Then life resumes.
Israelis live with an awareness of how our Jewish people have moved from powerlessness to relative power in a short time. The past still affects the present. How could it not? Before the Holocaust, there were 17 million Jews in the world. In 2014, there are still only 13.5 million. Almost half live in Israel, our ancestral home never left by a remnant of Jews in more than 3,000 years, now surrounded by a chaotic Middle East.
I have stood for this siren memorial many times in Israel over the years.
Last week, I heard the siren twice while studying in Jerusalem. My first instinct was to stand. Then slowly, absorbing what was happening, I moved toward shelter. You have seconds before the missiles will come, I had been told. The first time, I was near a bomb shelter. The second time, I was in the Old City in Jerusalem and went under a stone archway with other passersby. Moments later I could see one of the five missiles intercepted by Iron Dome and heard the explosions of the others. Then life resumed.
I am grateful that Israel invested in new technologies to create Iron Dome — generously funded by the United States — to protect its citizens and visitors.
I am grateful but heartbroken over the situation.
Hamas is a terrorist organization. Israel protects its citizens with weapons; Hamas protects its weapons with its citizens. The result has been tragic in Gaza. Children and other civilians have died. I mourn every child, every Palestinian who has been killed.
Israel does everything possible, with remarkable techniques, to minimize civilian deaths, as compared with any other country in history. I have met Israeli soldiers who speak of seeing the image of God in every human being. They are not perfect; they are held accountable in courts of law; none of us has enough information to condone or condemn.
It is so important not to view this complex situation in black-and-white terms. Israel is not fighting Palestinians as a whole, nor, thankfully, are all Palestinians fighting Israel.
Nevertheless, there was a sense of inevitability with this current round of violence. Rockets from Gaza targeting civilians in Israel have never ceased in the past decade. During peace negotiations, more than 100 rockets were launched earlier this year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative for two states ended in failure in April without a Plan B. Israeli settlement building — though mostly in areas that Palestinian negotiators agree will be part of Israel in any two-state solution — complicated negotiations.
Then the extremists made it personal. Three Israeli Jewish teens were kidnapped and murdered, an act grotesquely cheered by Hamas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, however, rightly condemned the act. To Israel’s horror, Israeli extremists — in revenge — gruesomely murdered an Israeli Arab teenager. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly condemned the act. The day after her own son’s funeral, Rachel Frankel said: “The shedding of innocent blood [is] in defiance of all morality, of the Torah … of all of us in this country.” Last Tuesday, I joined 350 Israelis to offer condolences to Mohammed Abu Khader’s family at their home in East Jerusalem. Our presence, we hoped, would express a measure of humanity, especially now.
This humanity is needed by all. Last year, Minnesotan Muslims, Christians and Jews hosted a Palestinian and an Israeli who had both lost loved ones in the conflict. Wajih Tmaiza and Roi Golan, from “The Parents Circle,” told their stories in a forum titled “Reconciliation not Revenge.” Their message: Coexistence is possible. We need to find a way to live, not die together.
“There is no mercy in the Middle East,” noted Israeli journalist Ari Shavit said in March before 600 people at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul in conjunction with the Jewish Community Relations Council. “Israel must be tough to survive. But the source of our strength is belonging to the West, its values and our Jewish values.” May those values bring calm and coexistence soon.
Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker has been rabbi at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul since 1997. He returned from Israel last Friday from a congregational trip and personal study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.