Apropos to arguments re: Israel, Gaza, American Judaism, and liberal rabbis, I am re-posting these lamentations and thoughts for Tisha b’Av that I found on FB by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director in Israel of Rabbis for Human Rights. As an on-the-ground organization, Rabbis for Human Rights has been active for years advancing human rights and social justice in the Occupied Territories and in Israel. You can like RHR here at FB. Contact Arik, invite him to your synagogue or university, send money.
“From above God sent a fire
Down into my bones
God spread a net for my feet,
God hurled me backward
God has left me forlorn.
In constant misery” (Lamentations 1:13)
“My eyes are spent with tears,
My heart is in tumult
My being melts away
Over the ruin of my poor people (Daughter of my
As babes and sucklings languish
In the squares of the city
…As they languish like
In the squares of the town
As their life runs out
In their mothers’ bosoms” (Lamentations 2:11-12)
“Prostrate in the streets lie
Both young and old.
My maidens and youths
Are fallen by the sword” (Lamentations 2:21)
Tonight we read the Book of Lamentations and mournfully sing Tisha B’Av kinot (dirges), recalling the death, and destruction of our two Temples (586 BCE and 70 CE) and the end of Jewish sovereignty. Yet, we can close our eyes and imagine that these words are anguished cries being screamed in Gaza. Close your eyes again. But, save for the Iron Dome, we might be hearing them in Israel as well. For my neighbors whose son was killed in Gaza, or for the families of Dror Khenein or Ouda Lafi al-Waj living in an unprotected Bedouin village, it doesn’t really matter that there are over a thousand Gazans dead and “only” tens of Israelis.
The war is not in Gaza alone. In the first week of the war, RHR Executive Director Ayala Levy was running with her children into a bomb shelter in her community near Gaza. Simultaneously she was calling, to check that her other children were safe, including a daughter in the army. This is reflexive Israeli behavior. Knowing what she does, her good friends running into the shelter with her asked whether she was calling Hamas to give away information about where their rockets were falling. As some of us patrol the streets at night because of the hate filled thugs attacking Arabs and leftists, crashing the B’Tselem website and targeting whoever they disagree with, I recall the hair raising stories in the Talmud and by the historian Josephus. Even as the Romans besieged from without, needless hatred and violence destroyed ancient Jerusalem from within.
RHR has also been speaking out against rabbinic pronouncements permitting the erasing of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants in Gaza, or even its entire destruction. As part of the Tag Meir coalition, we are calling upon Israel’s chief rabbis to publicly condemn these pronouncements.
In our polarizing reality, it is increasingly hard to maintain a sane middle ground. I correspond with Palestinians and their supporters who, overwhelmed by the sheer horror of the carnage in Gaza and furious after years under the Israeli boot, simply are not willing to say that it is wrong to fire rockets on Israeli non-combatants, or use tunnels to attempt to murder and kidnap civilians.
After generations of oppression, thousands of rockets on our citizens, and awareness of the seething desire of some to destroy us, many Israelis divide the world abroad and at home between those who are “with us” and those who are “against us.” Supporting our right to defend ourselves but raising questions about how we do so seems to them an irreconcilable contradiction in terms. In separate Israeli radio and TV interviews, I have been told point blank that we and other Israeli human rights organizations are shooting our soldiers in the back because of our extremely moderate and cautious joint letter to the Israeli attorney general and military advocate general. Acknowledging that our information is incomplete at this time, we explained our growing suspicions based on reliable evidence that Israel has crossed the red lines our values demand that we honor, even when we are legitimately defending ourselves. We asked the army to conduct its own real time review of its rules of engagement during the remainder of the war, and agree to an independent and transparent Israeli investigation after the fighting.
We do not think that targeting civilians is legitimate resistance to the occupation or blockade. Hamas rockets and tunnels do not justify indiscriminate use of our overwhelming power.
Strangely, Tisha B’Av is a day that turns from mourning to hope. Some believe that the messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. As Tisha B’Av begins this year, we are filled with fresh sorrow over two terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, and hope over reports that a 72 hour cease fire is in the offing.
I responded in those hostile interviews by saying that I have faith in my fellow Israelis.
We may be blinded right now by the justice of defending ourselves. I nevertheless hear on our streets echoes of the midrashic teaching that, on the eve of his reunion with Esau, Jacob was not only afraid that he might be killed. He also feared that he might kill others. We have the ability both to be insistent on our security and to be Abrahams, demanding of ourselves what Abraham demands of God, that the innocent not be swept away with the guilty (Genesis 18:23). Others see it as well.
Recently, The Guardian cited RHR’s Jonathan Shefa and other Israelis and Palestinians as causes for hope.
We know that our work will be far from over when war ends, and that we will need to find a way to bring our collective better selves to the fore. After the war, we will push both for an Israeli independent investigation and for public debate, including the question whether there were steps we could have taken to not have arrived at the lose-lose point at which we had no choice but to defend ourselves. “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” (Pirke Avot 5:11)
We are already fighting to remove settler outposts set up in memory of the murdered yeshiva students, and protesting the fact that Bedouin villages in the Negev do not enjoy the same protection from Hamas rockets as other Israelis.
In addition to the war in Gaza, the war on our streets and the war for a sane center, RHR was at the vanguard of focusing public and media attention on the Alaluf Commission, charged with coming up with a strategy for the war against poverty in Israel. We embarrassed the Commission into coming up with much different recommendations than the neo-liberal ones the government apparently intended. Now, the Finance Ministry is already preparing us for deep budget cuts to pay for the Gaza war. We will need to fight to ensure that the poorest and weakest Israelis do not unfairly bear the brunt of the burden.
These days we deeply need Tisha B’Av’s reminder that darkness can turn to light. I admit that there have been moments when I, the inveterate believer in emulating Nahshon ben Aminadav jumping into the water when all seems lost, have been nearly paralyzed with the feeling that we can to nothing but wait out the wave of myopic polarity washing over us. But, we must be partners with God in giving birth to that light. Both the haftarah reading on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av and the reading on Tisha B’Av afternoon remind us that redemption will come through justice,
“Thus said Adonai: Observe what is right and do what is just;
For soon My Salvation shall come,
And My Deliverance be revealed.” (Isaiah 56:1)
Let us resolve to fight the darkness and despair, and renew our efforts for a better
Israel and a better world.
“Return us back to you Adonai, and we will
- Renew our days as of old. (Lamentations 5:21)
As I always whisper, “Renew our days as of old – and more.”
B’Vrakha (In Blessing),