Monday, July 14, 2014

I witnessed an attempted murder last night

I was driving at dusk last night when I saw a small, white-yellow light in the sky in front of me, off in the distance among the strips of darkened orange clouds that formed an otherwise lovely, innocuous sunset. I squinted, wondering if maybe it was just a glare in my windshield, my eyes playing tricks on me. But in the space of one or two seconds, I saw another light - this one traveling at high speed at a diagonal upward, toward the light in the cloud. That was followed half a second later by another fast-moving light traveling in the same direction. The first one then kissed the light I'd seen in the cloud, and in a flash, both were gone. A split second later, the second one also flashed and faded.

As soon as I saw the first light fire upward, it was entirely clear to me what I was looking at: Israel's "Iron Dome" defense system, knocking out a missile lobbed into Israel by Hamas.

It was an amazing sight - like something out of a dream. It was quiet, no sound (at least none that was audible from inside my car). I simply saw what has been in the news unfold in front of my own eyes. I saw actual war for the very first time. This wasn't on television - it was live, occurring close enough to me (and/or high enough) that I could see it through the windshield of my car.

This week and last, on several occasions, we heard the ominous wail of the air raid siren. I ushered my family into our "safe room," where we'd sit for ten minutes, chat, and come out wondering what (if anything) happened. But to actually see a live projectile of war, and to watch it explode in the distance - that was something new for me.

And what was chilling was that what I had seen in the sky was not merely some impersonal instrument of war. No, it dawned on me that in fact it was very personal indeed - this missile was actually intended to murder me.

I say "me" because if the missile had struck my car and killed me, Hamas would have taken that as a "successful hit." So in a sense, I was the target of that missile. And I say "murder" because I am a civilian, a noncombatant. To go out of one's way to specifically target a random civilian for death is to attempt to commit murder, and to do so as part of one's political strategy is terrorism.

(As I write these words, the "Red Alert" app on my phone just sounded, as sirens are going off in the Eshkol region, which is in the north-western Negev, adjacent to Gaza. So another attempted murder is taking place now, literally as I speak.)

Without getting into a whole political diatribe, I do want to say two things I've been thinking about in relation to recent events here in Israel.

1) Despite explicit evidence of Israel doing everything it reasonably can to avoid the deaths of Palestinian civilians (e.g. by issuing warnings to evacuate, by abandoning missions when it sees that civilians are nearby, etc.), Israel has nonetheless been accused of "targeting civilians" in Gaza. Not that it is accused of sometimes making the terrible mistake of targeting the wrong location (which it has). Not that it is accused of killing civilians who are either caught in - or deliberately placed in - the crossfire (which it has). No - it is accused of specifically targeting civilians. I for one do not believe that for a second.

One can debate whether Israel's response has been heavy-handed, not careful enough about preventing innocent civilian deaths. The question of how vigorously to go after Hamas operatives, militants and weapons caches if you know you're bound to kill innocent people is a very difficult moral and strategic question, one which Israel clearly struggles with. Has Israel taken the right steps in this regard? Can it still claim the moral high ground? I don't have an answer to that. This is very murky territory here.

But if there's one thing that is perfectly clear, without any room for doubt whatsoever, it is that Hamas absolutely does intentionally target civilians. It explicitly, proudly deems the deaths of Israeli civilians to be a great success, a cause for celebration. In fact, the deliberate killing of Israeli civilians (i.e. murder and terror) is its whole modus operandi. The only reason it hasn't been better at this is due to its inferior firepower, lack of expertise, and of course Israel's defenses (including Iron Dome), intelligence work, and efforts to strike at Hamas' military infrastructure. But if Hamas had the technological capacity to kill mass numbers of Israelis, do you think it would hesitate for a single moment in doing so? Of course not - we are talking about people who are ready and willing to martyr themselves in order to kill Jews/Israelis, for goodness sake!

Another thing is clear: Israel would not be bombing Gaza right now if Hamas did not rain missiles on Israeli towns for weeks on end, and if it were not continuing to do so right now. This is not a "cycle of violence." It is a cycle of attempted murder and the attempt to stop the would-be murderers. It's a cycle of terror and the attempt to stop terror.

One person's terrorist is not another person's "freedom fighter". One who fights for freedom by targeting random innocent civilians is a terrorist, period.

And this brings me to my second point.

2) Over the past week or so, I've heard friends and neighbors of mine, religious Jews, otherwise decent people, propose that what Israel really needs to do is to "flatten" Gaza, "carpet bomb" it, "raze it to the ground."

I challenged one such person, saying that what they're suggesting sounds a lot to me like terrorism and murder, if not outright genocide (not to be confused with hyperbolic accusations of "genocide" being leveled at Israel now by some deeply confused people, including Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas). This person went on to justify his suggestion on the basis that this is precisely what Hashem told Bnei Yisrael to do to Midian - to kill every man, woman and child (excluding female virgins). I responded that we don't live in such a world anymore, and that now a moral person needs to look out for innocent life. To my consternation, we actually had to agree to disagree on this point.

Following this conversation, I had it in mind to write a post linking fundamentalist belief with calls for genocide. But then over Shabbat I heard another friend quote a secular Russian-Israeli he knew, who likewise proposed that we should "flatten" Gaza. And I realized that this isn't just a "God" issue. Both religious and secular people talk this way - just that the former "dress it up" with God-talk and verses from Tanach. What is the issue then?

I think it's simply what many people do when faced with what appears to be an impossible problem - they want to make it "go away" - eradicate it. And in the case of Gaza, the way to do that is to look at the place as one big den of terror, a simmering "chullent" of hate and would-be killers. That way, the countless innocent civilians - families, old people, children, people just living their lives - are batel (nullified, cancelled out) in the chullent. Their "taste" is no longer discernible in the pot. Meaning, when the sensitivity to individual human life is blunted, rationalized away, willfully overlooked, it doesn't affect a person's conscience... Another chilling realization.

Yes, I agree that we're talking about a very real problem with no great solutions in sight. I also understand that "war is hell," and that during times of war, a certain level of harm to innocent civilians is tragically going to be incurred. But no serious person (even among right-wingers) in the Israeli government, no leader in the IDF, would ever propose as a realistic option that we should "raze" Gaza - i.e. kill 1.6 million human beings! Because that is completely psychotic.

Yet you hear otherwise "normal" people say it without batting an eyelash. Talk about not being able to "claim the moral high ground" - we're talking here about something so incalculably, stupefyingly, spectacularly immoral that it nearly defies comprehension. All I can say is thank God these people are not in leadership positions. Or... Maybe they are. Maybe our leaders do "think" these things. Maybe they even "wish" for these things. But they wouldn't dare "propose" such an idea publicly.

So perhaps that's what it is - a whim of fantasy. It's human nature to want to "zap" your enemies away, like saying: "Imagine a world with no Iran, no North Korea, no Islamic fundamentalism..."

But when you start to get into statements like, "Here's what I think we should do..." Is that really a "fantasy" we ought to indulge? Is switching off human compassion something we should ever possibly tolerate, much less in "polite conversation" amongst friends, much less in a supposedly "religious" Jewish community? Of course we need to protect ourselves first and foremost. But we cannot, must never, cease caring about innocent human lives. If we lose that, we truly lose ourselves. We lose everything the Jewish nation stands for - or at least what it "ought" to stand for.

So I go back to what I said earlier about it being an act of "murder" to specifically target civilian noncombatants. Not only do I believe we need to be abundantly clear about this point, shout it out from the hilltops, but to me this may actually be our one hope for peace, the one common ground Israelis and Palestinians (at least the sane ones) can stand together on.

This has to be our mutual commitment, to say that:
  • The lives and welfare of innocent civilians deserve our highest concern, our most vigorous efforts to protect. 
  • Civilians do not cease to be "innocent" merely because they reside on the "wrong side." 
  • We must go after "murderers" and "terrorists" (i.e. those who target civilians) and stop them before they have the chance to inflict harm. 
  • It shouldn't matter whose "side" a murderer is on. A murderer must always be considered as being on the "other side." 
  • Those engaged in efforts to protect innocent civilians - no matter what their culture, religion or nationality - need to be considered on "our side."

As obvious as such principles ought to be, I realize that such a "mutual commitment" is arguably a long way off. But if we want to give our children, or at least our children's children, the slightest chance at a bright and peaceful future here in Israel, these are principles we had better start rallying around - and soon.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Thoughts after going to the Fraenkel Shiva

My wife and I went to the Fraenkel shiva tonight. I'll offer a series of semi-random thoughts - some just to give a sense of the scene, others to say what went through my mind.

The scene...
  • As we approached, some kids were directing traffic and told us where to park - on a different street and a bit of a walk away from the Fraenkels. I thought that was considerate - i.e. not to inundate the Fraenkels and their immediate neighbors with traffic.
  • On the way to the Fraenkels, a family was outside offering water to passersby (it's been hot here) - also very considerate and kind.
  • We got to the house itself, which was abuzz with activity, inside and out. There was a small tented area on the sidewalk with maybe a dozen people doing some "night seder" learning. Avi and Rachel (Naftali's father and mother) sat on the back patio, with around forty people gathered around each of them. People were milling around in every other corner. The crowd was mostly dati leumi (national religious), with a smattering of charedi and secular.
  • I walked with heaviness and trepidation through the house on the way to the patio. What flashed though my mind was what a kodesh (sacred) space every home is, how much time together - love, laughs, meals, games, conversations, fights, all the "stuff" that makes up family life - goes into that space. And here I am just strolling through, oblivious to all that has transpired in this space. And this particular space is the one that Naftali used to inhabit. But no more. His voice, his laugh, will no more echo in these walls. Though at the same time, his presence - in the form of all those memories - will always be felt there.
  • Naftali's younger brother, must have been 8 or so, flitted around from one area to another, excited by the crowd, playing a little riff on his harmonica. I was thinking about how grounding it is to have younger children around during times of grieving. Even though they may not "get it" like adults do, that itself is a gift - it's a reminder that life goes on.
The parents...
  • When I first saw Avi Fraenkel, clearly looking tired (from both the pain and the shiva no doubt), my thought was: This is the person who's been in the news across the world, but he's simply a father bereft of his sweet, beloved son. And in that way he's no different from anyone who's had to endure the pain of losing a child. 
  • Rachel's eyes were trained intensely on each of the people in front of her, greeting them, listening to them, and offering words of comfort to them. Which got me thinking that as much as shiva is designed to offer comfort to the mourners, often times it is also a comfort (i.e. a vehicle for grieving and processing) for those outside the immediate family who also feel the loss. For complete strangers like us who went to the Fraenkel, Yifrah or Shaer shivas, there's a mix of wanting to offer them "chizuk" (strength) and comfort, and also dealing with the sense of grief that gripped so much of the nation. 
  • (The question of why there was such a sense of grief over this particular loss and act of terror, as opposed to others, is an interesting one, but not something I feel like exploring right now.)
  • I was thinking that after all the activity of the night is over, Avi and Rachel will go to bed - all will be quiet, and they'll stare out into the darkness of their bedroom, exhausted and grateful for the outpouring of love and support, and at the same time all too conscious of the reason for all that support, of the new reality that is not going away. Their son is gone forever.
Could have been us...
  • Nof Ayalon, where the Fraenkels live, near Modi'in, seems like a place we could live - religiously "chilled out", nice homes and apartments, friendly, clean neighborhood (or at least so it seemed at night).
  • We have a son the same age as Naftali, who took the same national bagrut (matriculation) exam a few Thursdays ago, at a different high school. Just that our son made it home. Naftali (and his friends Eyal and Gilad) never did.
  • When tragedy strikes someone closer to you (culturally, demographically or geographically), you can't help but identify with it more.
  • I've been only sporadically looking at the news this past week, because I don't want to hear political analysis right now. I just don't feel like going there yet, at least not during the shiva week. I'd rather let this week be what it is. There will be plenty of time for analysis later.
  • In fact I saw a friend at the shiva who remarked on what he perceived as the difference between Jewish and Arab cultures - one "grieving" and the other "rioting." And what immediately came to mind for me was the brutal murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, which was officially revealed to be an act of revenge-terror carried out by Jewish extremists. But being right there at the shiva, I just couldn't bring myself to have that conversation. And I don't want to go there in this post either, except to say what should go without saying: Deliberately targeting innocent people, noncombatants, in acts of violence, is wrong (possibly the very definition of "evil") - no matter who does it, and no matter what religion or nationality the victims are.
  • In fact I was thinking that a part of me would like to go to the Abu Khdeir family's "shiva" and offer condolences. (Just that the part of me that wants to live advised me otherwise.)
Fleeting "Atheo-related" thought...
  • There were lots of teens at the Fraenkel home. Many of them, as is common in dati leumi circles, are not what you'd call "religiously strict" looking. Just thinking of one guy - tallish, long mess of blonde, wavy hair, jeans, t-shirt and sandals, and a silver-dollar-sized kippah. I was looking at him and thinking - does this guy (or half the people here, for that matter) think or care one iota about things like "proofs" for Torah miSinai? It just struck me that it's probably the last thing on his mind. His parents are probably religious. He's probably "religious lite" - i.e. comfortable with religious culture, proudly and deeply identified as Jewish, but basically just does his thing - hangs out with his friends, listens to music, maybe has a girlfriend, is thinking about school, army, etc. I have to think that he'd say about "proofs" - either asserting them or trying to disprove them: Whatever! Who cares? It's all a bunch of pseudo-intellectual blabber, irrelevant to real life... 
  • It seems to me that all the focus on questions about the "truth" of Judaism is a sort of "fetish" that only a specific segment of the Jewish world even cares about. And I plead guilty. But the reality is that it's entirely possible to live your life - even a very Jewishly-identified life - and never give a thought to these kinds of questions. So even though some of us might think that Jews and Judaism either stand or fall based on the "truth" - the truth is that's not what's happening out there.
On the way home, my wife and I reflected on the sadness of the loss, and consequently on needing to be good to each other, to love and appreciate each of our kids, and to grab hold of each precious day together. And that alone was worth the trip.