AfterGaza:the­se­wounds­gov­ery­deep

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Jonathan Wit­ten­berg

‘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

PHOTO:NACHSHON KA­PLAN

Rabbi Wit­ten­berg, right, vis­its a wounded sol­dier in Soroka Hos­pi­tal

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