‘HERE, you have 60 seconds to get to the shelter”, Rabbi Mauricio Balter explains to me. “Your body is on constant stand-by. You have to think through every moment. What do you do when taking a shower? What about elderly relatives who walk with a frame?” We’re in the office of his beautiful synagogue in Beersheva with its kindergartens attached. He’s worried for the children, he continues sadly. “They’ll look at the world with eyes of suspicion instead of trust”. He describes his congregation’s shared activities with Bedouin and Arab communities. “I worry for the future of Judaism, the pluralist, open, debating Judaism we love”. “And the future of Israel”, a colleague adds.
I’ve come to Israel now because there’s so much anxiety and pain and I want to stand alongside some of those who bear it and strive, despite everything, to bring healing. Even if only briefly and symbolically, I want to be with those who, even in these cruel times, keep bridges open.
I’m in the homes of Israeli Arabs with Simon Lichman, whose Centre for Creativity in Education runs remarkable programmes that bring Israeli and Palestinian school communities together.
Here are mainly old friends; how is the war affecting them? They, too, are underneath the rockets, and afraid. “Force is a loser. The leaders have to talk,” said a retired imam. “If only they’d just let us get on with living together,” two sisters told me. But just living isn’t easy. “There aren’t many Arab women on the Jerusalem light railway now; you might get spat at, shouted at, your headscarf pulled off. It’s frightening in the streets.”
There’s a tone of resigned determination; these people keep stubborn, even affectionate faith with the country despite the indignities they sometimes experience: “My father didn’t bring us up to say ‘that’s a Jew’ or ‘that’s an Arab’, but ‘that’s a human being’”.
I hear the same message from Jewish Israelis. “It won’t end until we talk”, is the slogan of the Parents’ Circle, the organisation of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children in the conflict. Since the start of the war, they’ve held an open meeting every evening in a square in Tel Aviv. A man cycling past stops to argue: “There’s no one to talk to. You can’t talk to Hamas!”
He’s invited to stay and discuss. One of the longstanding members of the Circle, Jacob Gutterman, tells his story: “My father died in the first day’s fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto. Aged nine, I was an orphan. I came to Israel, married, had two sons. My wife died of cancer when I was 30. I brought those boys up with love. Raz insisted on joining the Golani. He was killed at Beaufort in 1982. How many wars must there be? What do they achieve? We need to end the occupation, and talk.” The questioner is not satisfied.
I visit the family of Hadar Goldin. On the way, I pass the military cemetery; his grave is covered in wreaths, now starting to whither. They are from his unit, his friends, colleagues of his parents. Hadar had just become engaged; they’d planned to marry before Rosh Hashanah. He was the kind of leader people longed to follow, an excellent officer. “He would say: ‘One can think of oneself, or do better and think of others’”. He was an artist; in his siddur are beautiful handwritten prayers: “Let our hearts see the virtues in our fellow beings, not the faults; let there be no hatred”. His kind and gentle family welcomes me.
I visit wounded soldiers at the remarkable Soroka Hospital. “They’ve mainly gone home, thank God. Yesterday, this place was packed with well-wishers, children, choirs, politicians.” I’m moved by the cards, the gifts of food, the appreciative affection for those who’ve seen the terrible fighting. A family waits outside Intensive Care: “We talk to him, play music. His level of consciousness is low, but we have faith. He’ll come back to us!” “He’s a true hero”, says our guide, indicating a soldier as we pass; I see stitches all down his leg. I’ve been spared serving in any army; I’ve no idea how terrifying it must have been in the dreadful tunnels of Gaza.
I visit the rehabilitation centre at Tel Hashomer. It’s easy to forget how young the soldiers are; at just 20 or 21 they are responsible for the borders, the kibbutzim, their comrades. They have wounds on their legs, arms, shrapnel injuries on back and shoulders. Several lost companions in battle. In their memories, many must carrying haunting images of injury and death. Yet they smile and speak warmly about the future.
IHAD asked if it was possible to visit wounded Palestinians. The ordinary people, especially the children, hadn’t chosen to be born in Gaza, trapped as human shields between the cunning cruelties of Hamas and Israel’s response. Friends take me to Al Mokassed Hospital in east Jerusalem. I’m nervous but they tell me: “No, they appreciate Jewish visitors. It’s important.” Children arrive here from Gaza every day. “It’ll make your heart weep,” our driver is telling my friends. A woman cradles a young boy; I ask if she’s his mother. ‘No, she’s a volunteer. Eighteen of his family were killed. There’s only his grandfather left. I turn to an elderly man: “It’s God’s will”, he says. It matters to him deeply that we visit, he adds.
In another ward is a girl with a sweet smile; her face is covered in burns. A relative wordlessly lifts the blankets; her arm, her legs are completely bandaged. She has shrapnel wounds too. Most of her family are wounded, I’m told. They’ve needed amputations. The question arises: what will happen when they get home? There is no home; their home has been destroyed.
They sit us down.“There are hundreds of such cases; the doctors have never seen anything like this. There are laws of war; there’s right and there’s wrong. If this is supposed to be Judaism, someone isn’t reading the Torah right. Are these children targets?” (The previous night, former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior read me, in pain, the appalling pronouncements of certain rabbis claiming that everyone was a legitimate target in Gaza.)
One of them continues: “I’ve been pro-peace since before Oslo. But what’s this? Why don’t the Israeli leaders talk to their friends? Why has [Palestinian president] Abu Mazen been humiliated? Don’t imagine Hamas is weaker now.” “But Hamas…” I feel like arguing, then realise I’m not here to argue, not in the face of these appalling injuries. I’m here to listen and bear witness. He says: “Jews have been leaders in thinking. But about the future for Israeli Arabs, the future for Israel, they do not think. We need to hear the voice of Jewry.”
AFTERWARDS, my friends explain that people are slipping them envelopes with money for the hospital. It’s desperately needed for medication. “So that I can look myself in the mirror”, one eminent Israeli said as she gave several thousand shekels. A doctor from Tel Hashomer tells me that they care for many Palestinians. He hopes the bridges will soon be rebuilt so that they can work together with Palestinian hospitals for the best future for the children.
Every country has the right and duty of self-defence. But where will force alone take us? The solution has to be political, diplomatic, moral, human. It has to contain dignity, justice and security. People have to be truly equal. Only there lies life: “It won’t end until we talk”.
In the car back from Beersheva, the driver, a deep patriot, told me: “We did need to defend ourselves. But maybe not everything was justified”. His friend’s son is an officer, he adds. After two weeks in Gaza, he was allowed to call home. He simply wept: “The devastation; the destruction!” He didn’t want to cry in front of his men, he told his mother, but he could hear them weeping in the night.
Rabbi Wittenberg is senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK
Rabbi Wittenberg, right, visits a wounded soldier in Soroka Hospital