Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beauty From Within Darkness

This past Friday night the civilized world was shocked and horrified by the despicable and cowardly terrorist murder of the Fogel family while they were sleeping in their home in the Jewish settlement of Itamar. Along with thousands of other bloggers, I wrote my two cents’ worth in what I called Moment of Truth. I felt (and still feel) that across the board, everybody with a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – from the Palestinians, to the international media, the UN, the governments around the world, the Israeli Left and the Right – all must face their particular role within the conflict, and all must take certain steps to help prevent the situation to further spirally out of control.

While I still hold by that view, I have also come to realize a very serious mistake which I made in that last blog.

When there are attacks such as the one last Friday night, it is virtually impossible for any decent human being to not see the depths of depravity to which people are capable of sinking. When I wrote what I believe should be the responses by groups of people on all sides of the spectrum, I was thinking of them as exactly that - groups of people. I neglected to think in terms of individuals.

But today, I saw something on Facebook (which is one of the most reliable sources of Israeli news) that enabled me to see how mistaken I was in forgetting the individual Israelis.

I have mentioned in other blogs the process that Israelis tend to experience whenever there is a terror attack. When the smoke has cleared, (both literally and figuratively), Israelis collectively feel the loss of every terror victim. We feel the pain, the shock, and the sorrow. If even for just a few days, we all are one with the families who have lost loved ones to the senseless hatred. Those who can do something for the families, do it – from providing food for them while in mourning, to visiting and sitting with them to comfort them, and so on.

This week, one particular individual has displayed one of the most beautiful acts of loving kindness, of giving and of selflessness that I have ever seen.

Rami Levy established a chain of supermarkets in Israel, which now has branches in 13 cities in Israel. Apparently, Mr. Levi has been coming every day to the home where the family is observing the traditional 7-day mourning period, and has personally been bringing food for the family and the visitors there to offer their comfort. When a family member expressed thanks, Mr. Levy said that they will be seeing much more of him – he plans to stock their home with food every week until the youngest of the surviving children (who is 2 years old) has turned 18.

In my previous blog about the attack, I wrote that while many people said that they had no words to express what they felt, I had plenty of words. This time, the words elude me. What words could fully describe the beauty and the power of a very successful entrepreneur like Rami Levy extending a hand in love and support for the Fogel family?

In a blog that I posted last November, I referred to the book “Faith after the Holocaust” by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz, z”l (published, 1973). In the book, Rabbi Berkovitz responds to the idea that the Holocaust is the ultimate proof that God does not exist. He writes that for all of the documented stories of man’s un-natural and inexplicable inhumanity to his fellow man, there are also many documented stories (from the Holocaust) of an equally un-natural and inexplicable love for his fellow man, and despite all that was happening, the steadfast refusal of many people to abandon their belief in God.

Rabbi Berkovitz brings examples of people in the death camps who would give what little bit of food they had to somebody else that seemed even more starving than themselves. People who offered hope and encouragement – and love – to others when all around them was hopelessness and death. He argued that there were so many acts of loving-kindness, and of faith, that in the death camps were every bit as unnatural and abnormal as were the acts of depravity and wonton hatred and cruelty.

If the un-natural inhumanity can prove the absence of God, why can't the equally un-natural humanity prove His existence?

Perhaps this is the reminder that we are being given now. Terrorists entered the home of a family, murdered the parents of 6 children, then 3 of the children – an 11 year-old boy, a 4 year-old boy and a 3-month old girl. That there are people who do not see this as a monstrous act of butchery, and that there are people who justify and even celebrate the murder of this family could be construed as a lack of any all powerful supreme being of love.

But then there are people who have committed to being by this family’s side, people like Rami Levy who had never met the Fogel family. This can just as easily be the proof that there is a Supreme Being watching over us, giving us the strength, the love and the resources to continue living our lives on our land.

We essentially have two choices right now: We can focus on the depths to which monster terrorists can sink, or we can focus on the heights to which others are capable of rising.

I know which I choose.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Moment of Truth

Shabbat, the Sabbath – the day of rest. According to biblical tradition, God created the world in six days and on the seventh day, Shabbat, He rested. From just before sundown on Friday until just after sundown on Saturday, religiously observant Jews take a break from using our phones, computers, televisions and radios. We use the day to focus on family, friends, and community. Besides festive prayer services in the evening and morning, the day is spent eating, sleeping, then eating a some more.

For one family in the settlement of Itamar in Samaria, this Shabbat was horribly different. Five members of the Fogel family were murdered in cold blood by a Palestinian terrorist (or terrorists) as they slept. The victims were the parents and three of their six children, 11 and 4 year-old boys and a 3 month old baby girl.

Obviously, the response in Israel has been one of shock, horror, fury, and most of all, sadness. Many Israelis have posted links to articles, op-eds, and pictures and even more people have mentioned the tragedy in their Facebook status updates. One of the most common comments that I have seen written about the murder is people saying that they are “speechless”, “at a loss for words”.

Not me. I am far from speechless. If anything, I’m going to have a struggle in keeping this blog from going on too long for all that I have to say about this.

The world has reached a proverbial Moment of Truth. All of us. And so far, we have failed miserably.

The Palestinian “leadership”
These are the people responsible for the atmosphere of hate emanating from their people. As usual, they have issued a very bland cover-all “we categorically oppose violence and terror, regardless of victims', perpetrators' identity" – as if the suffering and the level of violence have been equal from both sides.

WHOA!!! Reality check.

The instances of an Israeli randomly killing Palestinians civilians are few and far between. More significantly, when they do happen, the full weight of Israeli law comes down on the perpetrators. Compare that to the response of Palestinian lawmakers, and the general Palestinian public: If the murderer (or murderers) of the Fogel family make it safely to Palestinian Authority territory; they will be regarded as “heroes”. If they are caught by Israeli security forces, they will be “martyrs” who will appear on any and every list of prisoners whose release the Palestinian leadership will demand in the future.

In the rare instances that and Israeli has murdered Palestinian civilians, they were roundly condemned by Israeli society as a whole (with the exception of the very extreme right). Compare that to Gaza today, where candies were handed out to children celebrating the killing in Itamar. (By the way, for anybody trying to justify this based on the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis, please note that this was also the response in the streets of Gaza on 9/11.

It really should come as no surprise how little value these so-called “leaders” have placed on the lives of Israelis. They have shown so little regard for the lives of their own people that how could we possibly expect them to regard lives of people not their own any better? How else can one understand the manner in which martyrdom is encouraged, and even embraced. While many Israelis are willing to fight and to die for that in which we believe, I have never heard an Israeli leader, whether political or religious, encourage anyone to actively martyr themselves. It is simply unheard of. Human life is far too precious for that.

The majority of Palestinian civilians who have been killed by Israeli military operations were killed because the terrorist leaders established their bases in the center of civilian enclaves. They have essentially used their own people as human shields knowing that Israel had to choose between not responding to attacks on her citizens and attacking the terror leaders at the risk of civilians being caught in the crossfire. When Israel has no real choice but to retaliate the Palestinians have all of the PR material they could possibly hope for – the world is outraged at the powerful IDF attacking a building where innocent families live. Never mind that the same building also houses the masterminds behind ruthless attacks on Israelis. Only Israel is to be held accountable.

Now is the time for somebody - anybody within the Palestinian corridors of leadership to stand up and decide that human life is a higher value than any land, more precious than any historical “rights” (which may or may not be based on reality or accuracy).

Israeli leaders have already taken this step. They have pulled the IDF out of 97% of the land in the “West Bank” where Palestinians live, and have risked Israeli civil war by completely pulling out of Gaza in the hope of some kind of peaceful reality. Moreover, whenever Israel has been forced to launch counter-attacks against Palestinian terrorist leaders, they have made every effort to minimize civilian casualties – sometimes with more success, other times with less. But the efforts have been made. The statement of the value being placed upon human life is clear.

The World Media, the UN, and world governments
One of Israel’s responses to the terror attack was to approve building more housing in the area commonly known as The West Bank. I could probably write an entire blog (or three) on the pros and cons of this move, and I have a lot of mixed feelings about the decision – but as a response to a cowardly terror attack, there certainly is a logic to it.

This evning, I looked at three international news web pages – CNN, Fox News, and the BBC. Every one of them had a headline about the”approval of new settler homes”. Only by reading the articles themselves can you learn that the decision was made as a response to Friday’s terror attack. Of course, God Forbid that the terror attack itself would warrant a front-page headline (but let one Palestinian youth be killed by Israeli security forces, and that will be on the front pages for a week!)

Even worse - the CNN article referred to the incident as a “terror attack” – with the quotation marks. It’s as though it’s not a real terror attack, except in the eyes of us paranoid Israelis.

The UN has typically declared that Israel’s new building proposal "is not conducive to efforts to renew negotiations and achieve a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace."

Really??? Building houses is what stands in the way of peace negotiations? In my na├»ve ignorance, I would have thought that the wanton and intentional murder of civilians and the celebration over the killing of children in cold blood was more of a roadblock to successful negotiations and peaceful coexistence. Apparently I was mistaken – that’s only the “natural” reaction of people who haven’t gotten everything they want.

Now is the time for the world media, the governments and the UN to acknowledge that no matter what the political and historical ramifications of the land dispute in the Middle East, absolutely nothing can ever justify the murder of civilians, particularly of children, and even less can ever justify the celebration over such murders.

The Israeli Left
So far there have been several left-wing organizations, bodies and individuals who have condemned the attack, but there are far too many who have remained silent.

The left wing in the country is in a very precarious position. They are Zionists (contrary to what many on the right would have us believe) and they do believe in the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish State. They have a different idea of how that State should look and what should be the place and the relationship of Palestinians visa-vis the State, but whether I agree with them or not, I do not call into question their love of Israel or their hopes for a State based upon Jewish ideals.

The left has been known for vigils, protests, meetings – you name it, to protest the deaths of Palestinians and the continued building of homes in the settlements. Would it really be too much to expect a similar reaction to the murder of the Fogel children? Can the left possibly see this as any less horrendous as they see anything done by Israel against the Palestinians?

This is the chance for the left to show the rest of Israeli society that their beliefs, their hearts and their values do lie in the same place as the Right. Their vision of the relationship between the peoples may be different, and their ideas as to how to achieve the final status may be as well, but as Israelis who do care about the land and it’s people - ALL of its people, this is the time for them to stand up.

The Israeli Right
In many ways the Right has the biggest challenge of all. They have to hold on to their humanity in the face of the inhumanity which has been perpetrated against us.

It is very easy, perhaps even natural to respond to cowardly terror attacks such as this as representative of all Palestinians. To many folks this is typical of how all Palestinians see us, and our response needs to be against all Palestinians. There have been reports of Jews attacking Arab villages today (nothing like the scale of the murder of the Fogels, but randomly attacking, all the same), and I have seen and heard many Israelis express satisfaction and justification for those attacks.

This bothers me. More than that, it scares the hell out of me. I have often written within my blog that I believe we must distinguish between the Palestinian so-called “leadership” and the Palestinian people themselves. Yes, I know that the people themselves are the ones we see celebrating the murder of Jews, and yes, I also know that the people themselves have shown an overwhelming support in surveys justifying violence against Israelis. But I firmly believe that they – and their racist, hateful views – are a product of the atmosphere which their leaders have created. These people have been kept down by the very leaders supposedly responsible for their well-being and they have been blinded and brain-washed into seeing Israel as the source of their wretchedness.

Any of these individuals who actively try to kill Israelis deserve to be fought and killed to prevent them from succeeding, but attacking people for their beliefs when they have not acted upon them, smacks of a modern-day McCarthyism. And collective punishment against an entire nation for the actions of individuals hits much too close to what has been done to Jews for centuries.

The Right needs to hold on to their humanity, to their value of human life. The Torah teaches us that if a person rises up to kill us, we are completely justified, even obligated to kill him first. It is absolutely crucial that keep sight of the boundary between self-defense and wide scale demonization. Our immediate enemies are those actively rising up to kill us. Our long-term enemies are the “leaders” who enable the immediate enemies to commit their heinous crimes. Our responsibility – for ourselves, for our children and for our people is recognize those enemies for who they are, and to focus on erasing their threat to our existence.

In doing so, we would be doing our best to make sure that something positive can come out of the pain and the sorrow of this past Shabbat.

May the memories of the Fogels – Udi (age 36), Ruth (35), Yoav (11), Elad (4) and 3-month-old Hadas – always be a blessing. And may God, and all of Israel, watch over the 3 orphaned children who were spared one tragedy but now face a lifetime of another one.

And may we somehow, someday merit seeing a true peace in our land.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Irishman In Me

This song is one of the most beautiful, one of the most powerful that I know. And having chosen to make my life and build my family half a world away from my own family, I completely relate to the song on many levels.

The song was based on actual letters written by a father to his son who emigrated from Ireland to America in the mid 1800’s. Throughout the five verses I am particularly struck by several subtle (and perhaps not-so-subtle) points.

While the father obviously misses and loves his son, at no time does he berate him for leaving to find his fortunes across the sea. The same is true regarding the possibility of the son visiting home. According to the first verse, dated 1860, the son travelled to America with the intention of working for a while before returning home. The parents express typical parental concern of what type of work should be avoided.

By the second verse, dated 1870, the young man was married and had four children, so it was clear that he would be staying in America. In the following verses, the father mentioned how wonderful it would be if the son could visit – they would all love to see him and meet his family. No guilt, no rebuke – just love of a father who misses his son.

It is clear throughout the song that the son never did visit in his father’s lifetime, and the final verse, written by the man’s brother sharing that their father had passed away, also does not complain about the man living in America – rather the final line written by the brother is “Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit, we'd all love to see you again”.

Obviously there are several differences between the family featured in this very moving song and myself. For one thing, even before internet, Instant Messenger, emails, video calls and low-cost inter-continental phone calls, the communication available to me and my family have always been light years ahead of what was available in the second half of the 19th century.

Yet for all the differences and for however much easier it has been for me than for the son of the letters, this song still touches me to my core.

Sharon and I have been very lucky in so many ways. Like the father in the song “Kilkelly”, our parents have always been very supportive of our decision to live in Israel. Unlike many of our friends, we have never had to answer the “how could you abandon us” questions, or "when are you coming home" queries.

Also unlike the son in the song, we have also had plenty of opportunities to visit our families, and for our parents and siblings to know our kids – more important, for our kids to know the family in America. It has been made even easier by the fact that one of Sharon’s sisters lives in Israel, so besides the long-distance relationships with most of their cousins, our girls have been able to establish a very close and very loving relationship with the four first-cousins living here.

Yet even with the wonders of modern communications, living 6,000 miles from my family is not an easy thing.

Seeing our parents once or twice a year is a treat, but of course we would love for it to be more often. And Sharon and I see our siblings (except for the one in Israel) much less often - and that's hard for us.

The kids knowing all of their aunts, uncles and cousins from afar works as well as can be expected, but as we’ve seen with the family that we do have in Israel, it’s far from ideal.

And even with the ability to communicate, and see one another on webcams, the distance will be a real problem if there is ever an emergency. This lesson was driven home for me years ago, before telecommunications had become what it is today.

In the summer of 1991, while I was serving in the IDF, my mother underwent surgery for breast cancer. The surgery was successful, and after long treatments afterwards, she has been cancer-free for very many years, but at the time, I felt that my hands were completely tied while she was undergoing surgery.

I know – there is nothing that I could have done had I been there. But I would have been there – with her, with my family, just as I would hope my kids would be there for me if I ever go through something similar.

Instead, I was stuck on a base in the middle of the Judean desert, waiting to get a collect call through to America (pre-cell phone era) and finally reaching my father a day and a half later – and only being able to talk to Mom several days after the surgery once she was back at home.

So the song still resonates.

2010 is nothing like 1860, and moving from America to Israel is different in almost every way imaginable than moving from Ireland to America. I came to Israel for ideological reasons, tinged with cultural and religious overtones, whereas those who moved from Ireland to America moved for financial reasons – period.

Yet the longing and the love written from a father to his son in 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1890 still strike a chord with the guy who misses and loves his family in North Carolina.

Moving to Israel from America without family presents so many difficulties - financial, cultural, political, just to name a few. But the real price we pay is the distance from our family, our most natural support system. That is what we sacrifice in order to build the life in which we believe.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Our Wonderful Melting Pot

This morning I had the privilege of going with my 9-year old daughter Revital to a gathering and performance of school choirs from all around our city. The aspects of it which involved adults – the speeches, the “organization” of the morning (a term which I use very loosely here), and so on, was pure torture. The mayor came in (made a real entrance in the middle of one of the songs being performed), then gave a 10 minute speech which was much more geared towards the 50 or so adults in the room than the 300 or so kids who were in theory the focus of the morning). There were a couple of other speeches, one of which went on for more than 15 minutes and essentially repeated everything that the mayor had already said. The emcee of the morning had a few times when a choir started coming to the stage for their turn, then she apologized for forgetting to tell them to wait before coming up because there was something else on the program (a lecture, or sing-along, or whatever) before they were supposed to come up. All in all, it was an organizational mess.

On the other hand, the aspects of the morning involving the kids were an absolute delight. We got to see about 6 or 7 school choirs, with kids between 2nd and 6th grades, each perform two songs and it was simply wonderful. Besides the fantastic songs, the performances drove home for me the beauty of living in Israel.

Here were kids, the very overwhelming majority of whom were born in Israel, many of whose parents were also born here and many others whose parents, like myself, came to Israel as adults. Besides the kids, like mine, whose parents (i.e. me) are native English speakers, I saw children whose families are originally from Ethiopia, from Russia, from France, from Spanish speaking countries, and more. Yet these kids, having been born in Israel, are sabras - every bit as Israeli as those whose grandparents were born here. The sabra, for those who don’t know, is both a cactus plant fruit and the word used to describe a native born Israeli. The stereotypical Israel is very much like the cactus fruit, in that he is “tough and prickly” on the outside, but very sweet on the inside.

The theme of the songs sung by the various choirs was older Israeli music (with a couple of very nicely done exceptions), and the songs being sung really emphasized for me the common denominator shared by all children growing up in Israel. It’s something that those of us who moved here as adults will never really, no matter how “Israeli” we consider ourselves, but the children do share it – whether their parents are from America, Europe, the former Soviet bloc or Africa.

During the performance I was sitting next to a friend of mine from our synagogue whose son was performing with his school. When I mentioned my observation about the kids there whose families were from all around the world, he commented that it was exactly the same for him growing up. He is a sabra whose parents immigrated to Israel from Morocco.

As one who moved to Israel as an adult, I am fully aware, and I accept that there are certain areas in which I will always be at a disadvantage.

For example, my kids are learning songs in school and in gan (kindergarten) that Israeli children have been taught since before Moses went up Mount Sinai, but since my childhood was spent first in Maryland then in North Carolina, I was never taught these songs. Whereas children of sabras can have these songs reinforced by their parents who know them as well, my kids have to teach their parents who have an enormous gap in their childhood education.

This carries over into other areas as well – even in subjects things that I did learn just as kids learn today. While my Hebrew is very fluent conversationally, and even for studying in Hebrew at university, there are terms that I’ve never needed to know in Hebrew, which is particularly evident when I am trying to help Revital with her math homework. Of course I understand the concepts involved, but she and I have different vocabularies when it comes to discussing those concepts.

I also know and accept that no matter how fluent my Hebrew is, I will always have something of an accent – and my kids will very likely always have a good laugh at how I pronounce certain words. No way around that, so I’ll roll with it and even join them in laughing at me.

The biggest disadvantage is that no matter how many years I live here (so far it’s been 23) serving in the army, paying the outrageously high taxes, I will always be regarded by native Israelis as an “American” rather than an Israeli. This is especially ironic because growing up in America, people were more likely to refer to me as a Jew rather than an American. It would seem that to be seen as an "American" I had to move to the Jewish homeland. Go figure!

What it all boils down to is that being born and raised elsewhere, on some level I will always an “outsider”.

But I take comfort in knowing that by deciding to build a life and raise a family in Israel, my children will be “insiders”. They are currently receiving all of the childhood references that their children will eventually have – they’ll know the songs, the poems, the traditional ways of celebrating holidays in school, and they’ll know exactly how to say “add, subtract, multiply, divide and fractions” with the same terminology their kids learn.

And some day, when my grandchildren are participating in some kind of performance, some future immigrant will look at their parents, i.e. my kids as the native Israelis with all of the advantages and acceptance that they – these future immigrants – will be building for their children.