The last time I wrote anything about the situation in Israel was four months ago. I’ve been away from Israel
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Gaza War of 2023/2024 Day 249: Together We Will Prevail? and more...

Gaza War of 2023/2024 Day 249: Together We Will Prevail?

The last time I wrote anything about the situation in Israel was four months ago. I’ve been away from Israel for three months, and somehow when I’m away I don’t feel as connected to what’s happening here, don’t feel as inspired to write something, even though I clearly still have friends and family here and have access to the internet which is how I get most of my news anyway. But it’s just not the same as being here.

Some pictures I took on my run this morning show why.

I passed a flower bed that spelled out in Hebrew “bayachad n’natzeach,” a phrase you see all over Israel that can be translated in a few different ways. “Bayachad” could be either “together” or “united.” “n’natzeach” could be “we will win,” “we will triumph,” “we will prevail.” However you translate it, the meaning is that we are unified, and that unity will contribute to our victory over Hamas.

The only problem is we are not very unified, and have not been since the early days of the war. I wrote about it in my last blog post from 120 days ago, and the disunity has not gotten better.

A Pew Research Center survey taken in March and April found that 39% of Israelis think Israel’s military response is about right, 34% say it has not gone far enough, and 19% think it has gone to far. It’s worth noting there is a big divide between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis on this question – only 4% of Israeli Jews say Israel’s military response has gone too far, while 74% of Israeli Arabs think it has gone too far. And, of course, one of Israel’s challenges is that most of the rest of the world agrees with the Israeli Arabs, not the Israeli Jews, on whether Israel has gone too far.

The way I see the different groups is as follows:

  1. A shrinking group that thinks Netanyahu is doing a good job. Only 41% had a favorable view of him in the poll, the lowest it’s been.
  2. A group that supports the message of the families of hostages, who are arguing the most important thing is to get the hostages back, even if it means not meeting our war goal of getting rid of Hamas.
  3. A group that dislikes Netanyahu, but thinks the way we are conducting the war is OK. His unpopularity stems from a sense that he is putting his political survival above the needs of the nation.
  4. A group (including me) that believes our biggest problem right now is the lack of a credible plan for the “day after.” We believe reoccupying Gaza would be a historic mistake.
  5. A group that thinks we need to hit Hamas even harder, and not care about how many dead Palestinians there are, or what the world thinks, led by Ben Gvir and Smotrich.
  6. A small number that are horrified by the Palestinian death toll and think that’s why the way needs to stop.

So “together we will prevail” is a lovely slogan, but we don’t seem very together right now.

Next thing I ran past was a monument to the soldiers who died defending my neighborhood in 1967. The front lines in the war were only about half a mile from my place in Jerusalem. War is not “ancient history” here. The last war on American soil was over 150 years ago. And spending the day on October 7 running to the bomb shelter was another reminder that war is not ancient history for Israelis – and that inevitably colors how we feel about things, and it’s why being physically here puts me in a different mind set than when I’m sitting 7,000 miles away.

In the above picture you can see the hills Jordan in the distance. If I were in the north of Israel I could have taken pictures of Syria or Lebanon. Israel is surrounded by people who would prefer we weren’t here.

The concrete wall in this picture is the “separation barrier” between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Hamas, the organization that killed 1200 Israelis, kidnapped hundreds, used sexual violence against Israeli captives, has jumped in popularity with the people who live on the other side of that wall. They overwhelmingly deny Hamas committed atrocities, which means they are either ignorant or brainwashed, because even the Israel-hating UN found that Hamas committed atrocities on October 7. This helps make Israelis skeptical about the wisdom of a Palestinian state. Only 26% of Israelis polled thought a way could be found for a Palestinian state to live peacefully alongside Israel. 40% think Israel needs to remain in charge in Gaza. This is home. We’re not going anywhere. And neither are the Palestinians. We have no alternative but to figure out how to live together.

I love seeing the Temple Mount on my runs around Jerusalem. It’s worth mentioning, as I’ve said in the past, the conflict here is not fundamentally about religion, despite what extremists on both sides would like you to think. Jews and Muslims get along fine in other places. Judaism and Islam are more alike than Judaism and Christianity. We’re in a tribal conflict about land, power, and control.

I also ran past a monument for the 650,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab lands and Iran, who were welcomed and resettled in Israel. When someone tells the Jews to go back where you came from, these Jews, and their descendants (including my son-in-law) can respond “I don’t think we’re welcome in Iran/Iraq/Morocco.”

So what next? Benny Gantz resigned from the War Cabinet. His faction will no longer help prop up the Netanyahu government, but his departure alone will not be enough to cause the government to collapse. A majority of Israelis are hoping for new elections, but Netanyahu, the ultra-Orthodox, and the extreme right are not at all eager to give up the levers of power, and they know they are the likely losers in new elections.

I happened to be in the car and listening to the radio when Gantz gave his speech, so I heard in real time. He said a lot of the right things – that he was leaving the government because of the lack of a future plan, because Netanyahu puts off making important decisions for political reasons. When he said, “the responsibility for the failures is partly mine,” I said, “words you will never hear from Bibi.”

I try to be optimistic, but it’s easy to get depressed about the future. Some people in Israel were happy about the electoral success of the far right in the recent EU elections. They support Israel! But support from fascists is not what we need. It could be that the European countries recognizing Palestine are doing us a favor, forcing Israel into accepting the only solution that can leave Israel a welcome country on the international scene, a Jewish and democratic state living up to the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition.

   
 



Gaza War of 2023/2024 Day 129

I was here in Israel for about a month after October 7, and returned at the beginning of February.

I find Israel is very different than when I left three months ago.

In the weeks immediately after October 7, normal life in Israel had come to a complete halt. The shock, and spirit of unity, in the country was very powerful. “Everyone” agreed Hamas could not be allowed to retain the ability to hurt us in this way. The outpouring of volunteers to help IDF soldiers and evacuees from both the south and north was unreal. Everyone I know was volunteering in one way or another.

Three months later, life in Israel is somewhat back to normal. Classes have resumed at universities. People are back to their usual daily activities. There’s still volunteer stuff going on, but now it’s more people volunteering to help farms that need workers to harvest crops since the foreign workers left.

The big difference is the spirit of unity is gone. Criticism of the government’s handling of the war in Gaza is becoming increasingly vocal, in many cases being led by families of people being held hostage in Gaza. Many Israelis believe the human suffering in Gaza is excessive, and the IDF is not doing enough to alleviate it, and is not doing enough to protect civilians. The fact that three Israeli hostages, with their shirts off, waving a white flag, and calling out for help in Hebrew were shot and killed by IDF troops is pointed to as evidence violations of the rules of engagement. Other Israelis believe Israel is not hitting Hamas hard enough.

There are signs all over Israel that say (in Hebrew, of course), “Return them home, now!” There are demonstrations and protests regarding the hostages, but I have not gone to any of them. I don’t know what I would be protesting. Everyone agrees we want the hostages home, and quickly, but there is no agreement on how to accomplish that. For some people, “bring them home now” basically means “surrender to Hamas.” Have a complete ceasefire, and release however many thousands of terrorists we have to release to get the hostages back. For others, “bring them home now” means do not allow any humanitarian aid into Gaza at all. Starve not only Hamas but 2 million presumably innocent people until they give up.

I do not endorse either of those two extreme solutions.

The war dragging on is taking a toll on people. At Shabbat dinner I was talking with a soldier who leads a unit of tank mechanics in Gaza. He’s been in Gaza for three months. He finally got a five day pass to come home, only his wife and baby are out of the country visiting her parents in Europe. It’s very tough. The government is extending the tours of duty for draftees and are raising the age at which people are still required to serve in the reserves from 40 to 45. This is also causing friction and resentment, as the secular population is being asked to make more sacrifices to serve the country, while the ultra-Orthodox continue to be exempt from serving in the IDF.

Antisemitism in some other countries is getting so bad that some Diaspora Jews are considering moving to Israel. At the same time, I know Israelis who have had enough of the stress of living in this place and who are leaving the country for greener pastures.

I’m not a fan of Richard Nixon, but he wrote an excellent book titled “Leaders.” He said real leaders don’t worry about the opinion polls: they figure out what’s the right thing to do, and then they convince people that they are right. Netanyahu, on the other hand, seems to consult opinion polls of his base before opening his mouth, so that he can tell them exactly what they want to hear.

When the war broke out, he tried to dodge blame, and blamed the IDF for the failures that left us vulnerable to the Hamas attack. When that proved to be overly unpopular, even among those on the right, he tacked, and now he promises the war will continue until Israel achieves “complete victory,” even though everyone, including his generals, knows that complete victory is an illusion. There is no way the IDF will be able to destroy all the tunnels and kill or capture every Hamas fighter. The war will end with a negotiated agreement, not with the complete annihilation of Hamas.

We will get past these horrible times. There will be peace. We will eventually have a new government, and God willing the Palestinians will as well, and we’ll both get leaders who can negotiate a true peace, a lasting peace.

   
 



Review of “Doubt: a history” by Jennifer Michael Hecht

A book on religious doubt might seem an odd reading choice for a rabbi, a person almost by definition who is interested in faith.

But if your faith can’t stand up to intellectual challenges, it’s a pretty shallow faith. In the days of the rabbis 2,000 years ago, philosophy – and not just philosophy, but all “external writings” – was considered dangerous, and people were told it was forbidden to study them. There was good reason for their fear. We have the story of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, a.k.a. “Acher,” or “Other,” who started studying Greek philosophy and became a heretic, the only rabbi of the Sanhedrin, the “Jewish Supreme Court” of the day, known to do so. He famously said, “there is no justice and there is no judge.” In some ultra-Orthodox circles, studying such things is still considered forbidden, along with accessing the internet and exposing one’s self to anything that could challenge the beliefs of the community.

“Doubt: a history” is a brilliant introduction to the great doubters of history and includes figures both famous and obscure. The book opens with a “scale of doubt” questionnaire that invites readers to answer a series of questions to ascertain whether they are a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic. It was an interesting exercise to answer, although I do not think it is actually very useful or accurate. I consider myself a believer, although based on the “test results” I’m an agnostic. The theology Hecht uses to define believer is not the theology that I use to define believer.

But that small quibble aside, the book opens with the earliest Greek philosophers. Xenophanes of Colophon (570-475 BCE) is cited as the first known doubter, although there were no doubt many before. He doubted the Greek gods, feeling that the whole idea was “silly,” as not only did they act childishly, but they were very Greek. Xenophanes was known for “famously claiming that if oxen and horses and lions could paint, they would depict the gods in their own image.”

Xenophanes recognized that people create god in their own image. People believe the faith of the family and the community into which they are born. One of the Greeks pointed out that if he’d been born in India, he’d believe what the other Hindus believe. Does that make it right? Thinking you had the good luck to be born into the one true religion does not really make much sense.

A story from Diagoras brings another of my favorite challenges to faith:

…a friend pointed to an expensive display of votive gifts and said, “You think the gods have no care for man? Why, you can see from all these votive pictures here how many people have escaped the fury of storms at sea by praying to the gods who have brought them safe to harbor.” To which Diagoras replied, “Yes, indeed, but where are the pictures of all those who suffered shipwrecks and perished in the sea?”

Diagoras was pushing against what has been called the “God as Santa Claus model.” Just because you pray for something doesn’t mean God will give it to you.

Hecht walks us through the major approaches of the Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, etc.

The book is organized roughly chronologically and by major region/faith. From the Greeks to the Jews. She sees Ecclesiastes and Job as the premier works of Jewish doubt. In the case of Job, God tells Job I’m beyond your comprehension, so shut up. In Ecclesiastes the author also says “we can’t know all these things,” it’s all vapor, so you might as well enjoy a good meal with a woman you love. Very Epicurean of the author.

The exhaustive book goes through Buddhist doubt, Roman doubt, Christian doubt, medieval doubt, the Inquisition, doubt in the White House, modern doubt. It really is quite an education. The author is both a respected historian and an award-winning poet, and it shows. The book has the depth you’d expect from a historian, with the attention to words and graceful writing you would expect of a poet.

Ecclesiastes and Epicurus are held as models of what she calls “graceful life philosophies.” Enjoying life does not mean neglecting family or community. You can be an atheist and still be a moral person.

In her concluding chapter she quotes Hume on the age-old question of theodicy:

Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is He impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then is He malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

People of faith – which I think of as people belonging to a faith community, not necessarily people who blindly believe something – are able to adapt their beliefs as wisdom grows.

In his day, Spinoza was excommunicated as a heretic. Today there is a whole branch of Judaism, Reconstructionism, whose theology is very compatible with Spinoza’s ideas. Yesterday’s heretical idea is a foundation for today’s faith.

For doubters, Hecht’s book offers the consolation that “you are not alone.” You may not be part of a faith community, but you are part of a long tradition of doubters. She says, “to be a doubter is a great old allegiance, deserving quiet respect and open pride.”

The book also has value for “believers.” I suspect virtually every person of faith has had, at some point, a crisis of faith. Many religions, Judaism among them, celebrate doubt and encourage questioning. There’s a reason both Job and Ecclesiastes are in the canon. This book provides believers with many good questions to ponder.

   
 



Gaza War of 2023 Day 69 – Despair

Despair. That’s what I’m feeling right now, and I hate it. I’m normally an optimistic person.

There has been so much death, destruction, pain, suffering. We still have hostages in Gaza. The death toll and human suffering in Gaza is horrific. And we seem no closer to long term security.

In the immediate aftermath of October 7 practically every Israeli felt “Hamas must be destroyed.” Now that a few months have passed, it seems pretty obvious that is an unattainable goal. Hamas’s ability to harm us in the way it did on October 7 can be reduced, but there is no way we will destroy the organization. As abhorrent an idea as it is to Israelis, Hamas’s popularity in the wake of October 7 has only increased, at least in the West Bank. The people there are overjoyed that some of their prisoners have been released, and that someone has stuck it in the eye of the occupier. Never mind that it predictably unleashed a hell storm of destruction on the poor people of Gaza.

I have said in previous rounds of fighting with Gaza that you can’t use F-16s to bomb terrorism out of existence. You’ll just breed more terrorists. The only thing that will lead to real security for both Israelis and Palestinians is peace, a negotiated, agreed upon peace, whether that’s two states, one state, or a confederation, but it needs to be something that both sides agree on. And sadly I see the vision of peace receding ever further away.

A senior Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, has vowed that Hamas will launch “a second, a third, a fourth attack, until the country is annihilated.” He said, “Israel has no place on our land. We must remove the country because it constitutes a security, military and political catastrophe.”

He’s delusional. Hamas killed 1200 Israelis, and another 100+ Israeli soldiers have died in the war since October 7. But something approaching 20,000 Palestinians (according to Haaretz, estimated 60% women, children, or elderly) have been killed since the war started, approaching 1% of the population of Gaza. Who’s the one likely to be annihilated if Hamas launches more attacks?

And the Israeli political leadership is also delusional. They continue to be obsessed with destroying Hamas, with little regard to the civilian death toll in Gaza or the humanitarian crisis there, and with no regard to what happens on the day after the war.

American support for Israel’s actions in Gaza is waning. Netanyahu has recently vowed to keep fighting even without international support (a popular message for his right-wing supporters) but without American support Israel will eventually run out of ammunition, and it needs to keep a good stockpile on hand lest the northern front with Hezbollah flares up.

Too many Palestinians celebrate the barbaric attack on October 7. I heard interviews NPR did with people in Ramallah, and they do not believe the reports on what Hamas did. One person actually said, “Hamas would not kill women and children, it’s forbidden by Islam.” Never mind that Hamas themselves posted videos of them killing women and children.

Too many Israelis don’t care about the death toll in Gaza. “Hamas uses human shields, what do you expect,” they say, with a shrug.

Hamas is growing in popularity in the West Bank, and meanwhile Jewish extremist settler violence, a disgusting phenomenon, is on the rise, with Ben Gvir the enabler turning a blind eye, if not actually providing encouragement. And even leftist Israelis are saying things like, “Jabotinksy was right. They will always hate us. We have no choice but to build an iron wall and live by the sword.”

Where things are heading seems like more misery for everyone. There is no international force that is going to magically appear and rule and rebuild Gaza. Netanyahu has always wanted to keep the PA weak (that’s why he allowed Qatar to fund Hamas), so he’s not going to empower the PA to really create an effective government in Gaza. Netanyahu, no doubt, hopes to keep this war going as long as possible as he is very likely going to be out on his ass the day after the war is over.

My prediction is eventually Israel will cave to international pressure, there will be a ceasefire, and Israel will keep troops in Gaza for security purposes, to continue to prevent Hamas from building a military capability. They will have no interest in rebuilding Gaza, so two million people will live in miserable conditions for years. And Gazan civilians and Israeli soldiers will continue to die, just in smaller numbers.

The only hope would be fresh, visionary leadership on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, leadership committed to finding a solution that gives the Palestinians dignity and the Israelis security. That leadership is not coming from Abbas and Netanyahu.

I really hope and pray that I’m wrong. I really hope and pray that the trauma both peoples have experienced in the last two months will stimulate change for the better. But I’m not holding my breath.

Tonight starts the last day of Chanukah. We need light now more than ever.

   
 



Gaza War of 2023, Day 30

It’s 3:45am and I’m at Ben Gurion airport with plenty of time to write something because I have lots of extra time. The airport is weirdly empty. Not surprising. All the tourists are gone, not many people are going on vacation. I’m flying to Athens on El Al and then switching to United for the rest of the journey back to the US.

I’m normally a cheerful, optimistic person. I find myself feeling sad a much higher percentage of the time than I am used to. It’s like being in mourning, even though I didn’t personally lose anyone. It is being in mourning. Mourning not only for the over 1,400 of our people who were murdered and butchered. Mourning too for children in Gaza who are dying because of Hamas’s callousness, mourning for our lost sense of security, mourning for fear we do not have a long term answer. We cannot simply bomb our way to peace. Yes, we can stop Hamas’s ability to harm us. For now. Which we need to do. But without some political solution to the conflict, we’ll have quiet for maybe a decade and then we’ll be fighting Hamas 2. Desperation and extremism don’t get extinguished by bombs. The opposite.

Something I read reinforces that. There is (or was – I can’t find it now) a Facebook page called “Across the Wall” that brought stories of people living in Gaza to Israelis (translated into Hebrew). It was a joint initiative between an Israeli journalist and a Palestinian journalist in Gaza. For most Israelis Gaza is as unknown as the bottom of the ocean. Someone asked the Palestinian co-founder of the site, Ahmed Alnaouq, why he doesn’t condemn Hamas. His reply:

When I refuse to say a word about Hamas, it’s because I refuse to be dehumanized and to be considered collateral damage, like all the others who didn’t deserve to be killed but were killed.

Think about it. Calling people “collateral damage” does dehumanize them. Makes them sound disposable somehow. I can understand why someone would not to be considered that way. There’s greater dignity in being a martyr, in dying for a cause, than there is simply being caught in a crossfire. 23 members of that journalists family were killed in an Israeli air strike.

Several things and stories that have disturbed me in the last few days.

I’ve been reading about witch hunts against Israeli Arabs. Some people have been interrogated, detained, suspended from their jobs or even fired for posting relatively mild things to social media that express concern for people in Gaza. Nothing supporting Hamas explicitly, God forbid, just stuff about how terrible the suffering of the children in Gaza is. I could have posted some of those kind of comments. It’s crazy. We don’t need to make all of the Israeli Arabs into our enemies. But there is tension; I felt a little nervous getting into a cab with an Arab driver this morning, and I never felt that way before.

There is so much pain and trauma right now. One of my daughters has a friend whose job has been collecting bodies and body parts from people murdered by Hamas so the remains can be identified. A 22-year-old girl seeing things no one should ever have to see. A friend of my son-in-law was in Gaza when an officer standing next to him was shot in the head and killed by a sniper. How do you get over things like that?

By the end of today I’ll be back in America, and can’t help but think how weird that’s going to be for me, with my head and heart still here in Israel, while for everyone else around me it’s just life as usual, there’s another war on the other side of the planet, but for the average non-Jewish American I’m sure it doesn’t impact their life much.

   
 



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