Editor’s Note: On July 30, Sinai Temple, a Los Angeles conservative congregation led by Rabbi David Wolpe, left on a four-day emergency mission to Israel. This is one congregant’s diary of the trip.
Sunday – En Route
Back in April, Rabbi Wolpe gave a sermon whose title took one aback: “Can Israel Survive?”
One would not have thought such a question – 58 years after Israel’s restoration – would still be a question. The theme of the sermon was that nothing physical endures. Even empires do not last; entire civilizations come and go. Would it be presumptuous, therefore, to assume that the modern state of Israel is immune from the vicissitudes of human history?
The trick of life, Rabbi Wolpe argued, is to value something while you have it the way you will value it when it is gone. We frequently appreciate things only when we no longer have them – valuing them retroactively because we took them for granted while they were here.
So, the sermon concluded, we need to think about Israel, and what it means, and what we would do to have it if we did not already have it.
And then we need to do that, in order to keep it.
Israel is in a new, unsought war, against fanatical proxies of Iran and Syria operating from areas Israel gave up for “peace,” backed by a soon-to-be nuclear state with a messianic commitment to genocide, using barbaric tactics – indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations while hiding behind civilians as human shields – as an amoral world debates whether Israel’s defense is “proportional,” or whether it is taking too long.
Two weeks ago, Rabbi Wolpe gave another sermon, raising $1 million from the congregation to take to Israel. Then he sent the congregation an e-mail titled “On Not Just Sitting There”:
“Are your brothers to go to war while you sit here?”
And so here we are, going to Israel, to do what we can to keep it.
Monday – Jerusalem
We arrived this afternoon after a 15-hour El-Al flight, traveled from Ben-Gurion Airport through the hills of Samaria in the disputed territories, along the security barrier, approaching Jerusalem from the north to view its panoramic outline.
Then we walked to the Western Wall to thank God for reaching this day, placed our heads against the Wall in prayer, and returned to the beautifully modern David Citadel Hotel, where Condoleezza Rice stayed this weekend seeking to create a “lasting peace” that, as the Wall itself reminds us, has eluded every generation before.
We have dinner with General (Res.) Itzhak Eitan, international chairman of the Friends of the IDF, and the family of Sgt. Gadi Musayev, 20, who was killed on July 12, the first day of the war. From the podium, Rabbi Wolpe speaks directly to the family, in Hebrew. He does not translate for us; the words are meant for them, not us. Our role – the purpose of our trip – is simply to be here, to stand with them, so they know they are not alone.
Jerusalem-based rabbi and author Daniel Gordis ends with a sobering speech: This war is an existential one, waged against Israel from places where there is no more land left from which to withdraw. He notes the surreality of having a nice dinner in a nice hotel while, a couple hours’ drive to the north, a war is going on, with everyone in shelters.
When we go home, he predicts, the main question we will get is whether we felt safe. “And you will tell them you felt safe, because you will.” But our response, he says, should be that the question is not right: the real question is did we stand with the Jewish people – not whether it was safe to do so.
Tuesday – Haifa
Our wake-up call is at 5:45; breakfast is at 6:15; we are on our bus at 6:45; and at 7 the bus rolls out. We are heading north.
We ride up the coast to Hadassah Neurim, a Youth Aliyah village north of Netanya. The village provides a bridge for new immigrants to Israel, and is currently helping some of the most vulnerable elements of Israeli society cope with the twin challenges of acclimation to a new country and surviving a war.
The kids in the village have been sent there by their parents from the bombed absorption centers in northern Israel. They are children newly arrived from Ethiopia, now away from their parents, barely speaking Hebrew, living in a new country, in a war.
Craig Taubman, an extraordinary musician who is part of our group, teaches the kids his songs and, responding to their enthusiasm, teaches them the Limbo as well. We join in too – 45 adults from Los Angeles, singing with an equal number of Ethiopian kids – together in Israel.
We board our bus and travel farther north to see the staging area for the Israeli Blackhawk rescue helicopters supporting the IDF in Lebanon. The commander of the base gives us a tour, and we hand out care packages we have brought for every soldier.
At Haifa City Hall we meet for half an hour with Haifa’s engaging mayor, Yona Yahav, who told us about his “Rudy Giuliani moment” on July 12. As we drive around Haifa we see bombed-out apartments and buildings – monuments to the systematic targeting of civilians without warning or military purpose, by a group that calls itself the “Party of God.”
Across and down the street, we see hundreds of holes pockmarking the walls of the buildings, produced by the ball bearings packed into the rockets that struck the nearby apartments, each ball bearing intended to further kill and maim civilians.
In mid-afternoon, we go to the Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center to meet with injured IDF soldiers. We move from room to room, seeing young men (many of them seemed more like kids) dealing with the consequences of evil. We thank them for protecting all of us, trying to convey by our presence that their sacrifice has been appreciated 10,000 miles away.
I return early to Jerusalem with the indefatigable blogger Atlas Shrugs, who has been traveling with our group and covering the trip on her essential blog. We are meeting at the King David Hotel with former UN Ambassador Dore Gold for an 8 p.m. conference call with bloggers in the United States.
Ambassador Gold recounts the extraordinary efforts Israel has made to avoid civilian casualties: Israel’s intelligence community obtained the phone numbers of residents in Lebanon where Hizbullah is operating, and has had Arabic-speaking intelligence officers call the homes individually to warn the residents to leave.
The moral difference could not be clearer: one side intentionally targets civilians, without warning, as its central goal. The other sends leaflets and makes phone calls to give civilians a chance to survive.
Ambassador Gold views the war as part of a wider regional war in which Iran seeks control of Iraq, hegemony over the Middle East oil-producing areas with heavy Shiite populations (Kuwait, Bahrain and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia), and an encirclement of Israel – to hold it hostage if the West tries to take measures against Iran’s nuclear program.
In his view, defeating Iran and Syria’s proxy war against Israel is thus not only in Israel’s interest, but in the collective interest of the entire civilized world. This is not a message that has appeared in the mainstream media.
Wednesday – Sderot
Early this morning, we boarded our bus and traveled south two hours to Sderot.
Sderot is one kilometer from the Gaza strip, built from scratch by immigrants from Morocco, in a dusty, uninhabited portion of pre-1967 Israel. Today it is a beautiful community, filled with simple but nice homes, extensive roads, schools and other institutions. It is a nice place to live.
Except for the rockets. More than 3,500 have fallen on Sderot since the Palestinians responded to the offer of a state in 2000 with a barbaric war against Israeli civilians. More than 1,000 rockets have fallen since August 2005, after Israel vacated every square inch of Gaza.
The pace of the rockets actually accelerated with the withdrawal from Gaza (accompanied by Israel̓s self-destruction of all 21 Jewish communities there), as Palestinians – having obtained all of Gaza through terror – next vowed to make Sdeot a “ghost town” by using the same methods.
We met with Eli Moyal, the quietly charismatic mayor of the city. As he walked in, all of us rose to applaud, but he immediately waved us back into our seats, saying “Oh please, come on.” He sat down at the head of the long conference table and proceeded to give a remarkable talk.
His theme was that, in a terror war against civilians, the proper response of civilians is to stay put – that to see Israelis leave their homes and cities is exactly what the terrorists want, and it energizes them. He was proud that the population of Sderot is the same as when the Palestinian terror campaign began in 2001: 24,000 people then, 24,000 people now.
Outside his office, the mayor keeps a large display of the citizens of Sderot (including children) who have been killed by Palestinian rockets, a constant reminder of the threat against the city, the fundamental fact of life there. But no one is leaving.
In his most famous Cold War speech, John F. Kennedy addressed the citizens of besieged Berlin:
I am proud to come to this city as the guest of your distinguished mayor, who has symbolized throughout the world the fighting spirit of West Berlin . . . . There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. . . .
I want to say, on behalf of my countrymen, who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. . . .
All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
There are those who say that “making the desert bloom” was an Israeli exaggeration, or that peace is simply a matter of withdrawal from disputed land, or that a people choosing life will eventually run from the threat of death. Let them come to Sderot.
We are all citizens of Sederot. We are far distant from them, but share a story that extends back many years. Wherever we live, we take pride in the words “Am Yisrael Chai” – and in the Jewish state, if we can keep it.
In the three weeks since Sinai Temple returned to Los Angeles: (1) its Israel Fund increased to nearly $1.4 million (and continues to grow); (2) it announced a second mission to Israel, leaving August 27; (3) the blogosphere continued to provide an additional forum for Israeli public figures, with conference calls with Natan Sharansky and Benjamin Netanyahu (among others); and (4) UN Resolution 1701 resulted in a cessation of hostilities of uncertain duration. Contributions and solidarity trips remain critical.
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Rick Richman edits “Jewish Current Issues” at http://jpundit.typepad.com. His article on Sinai Temple’s 2005 trip to Israel (“Land of the Second Chance”) appeared in The Jewish Press in June 2005.