17 April 2013

Jerusalem Day Three

I start at the end of the day.  During the Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration last night at the Barkan Winery on Kibbutz Hulda, just down the road from one of the first JNF forests planted in the Land of Israel--a forest named for Zionism's founder Theodor Herzl--we heard a stirring and inspiring testimony from Noam Gershony, the gold medal paralympian, who spoke quietly, humbly and with incredible strength about his return from a fatal helicopter crash to reclaim his life on new terms.
This young man's determination to live, to not succumb to despair, was one of the greatest stories I had ever heard.  Looking out into the dark and distant night, to the forest of Herzl's trees in the distance, I thought of Herzl's compatriot Max Nordau's concern for the development of new Jews--of muskeljuden, whose bodies and new found strength would represent a physical triumph over diaspora weakness--and added Gershony's narrative to the complexity of a day that had us examining varieties of forms of strength and resilience.

Moments after Gershony's emotional talk, while leaning on the crutches he uses to walk, the conductor of a singing troupe of Holocaust survivors surrounded him with a bear hug and kissed him on the cheek.  The chorus of Holocaust survivors sang Yiddish songs and turned some impressive dance moves, a joyous expression of resilience.  The conductor's hug was a mildly stunning off-stage disturbance that was as rich as it was complicated.  One survivor embracing another survivor.  A man in his eighties having made it through unspeakable historical horrors and genocide grabbing hold of another man, a survivor in his early thirties, the generation of the realization of Jewish strength in his homeland, who leans on crutches because of a helicopter crash on the way to provide air support during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.  Hezbollah was launching hundreds of rockets on Israel that summer and its terror vanguard in Lebanon, fueled by Iran's insidious rhetoric and support for extermination of Jewish life in the Land of Israel, here was a young man not rounded up and threatened but manning a fighting machine that hit the ground, took his friend's life and brought his to the age.

The survivor embracing the survivor on crutches for having survived a crash on the way to fighting for survival.

My mind drifted back to earlier the day.  We had gone to visit Moshav Netiv Ha'Asarah, on the Gaza border, to learn about how this community copes with the traumas related to terrorism and rocket fire from Gaza and the work of the Israel Trauma Center, which has trained dozens of local residents in the delivery of trauma services to their fellow community members.  We met Tali Levanon, a social worker whose own family descended from Italian and Polish diaspora communities who is married to a man whose family descends from the Jews of Beirut, and, as we spoke, was a student of my father-in-law's mentor from Hebrew University, Dr. Avraham Doron, recipient of the Israel Prize and Holocaust survivor.
Communities members in Netiv Ha'Asarah are in the first inner circle next to Gaza and so when a terror attack begins, there are less than 15 seconds to make it safely to shelter.  The trauma of this experience and what it does to anyone--from the smallest to the youngest--takes deep root and requires enormous work to undo, to heal, in order that a person is not held captive by fear.  Off in the distance, through the bright sun, one could see Gaza City and Jabaliya.  In the foreground, a young Palestinian on the other side of the smart security fence, armed by remote electronics and maintained virtually by female soldiers at an alternative location, was collecting scrap metal and hauling it away on his donkey.  He'll sell the scrap metal, I thought.  And maybe it will become one of those primitive rockets; or maybe not.  But what a life on both sides of the fence.  Since it's certain that the young man on the Palestinian side has surely suffered his own traumas, inflicted upon him by Israeli rockets and guns, brought about in response to terror, the result of a fatally stupid and intransigent strategy of the terror leadership in Gaza.
The land in Gaza is the same land as that in Netiv Ha'Asarah.  It can yield the same flora; draw the same birds and animals; produce the same fruits and vegetables.  This was equally evident when we drove in to Sderot.  Just beyond border fences the land was a mirror image of what we were seeing in Israel.  Marginal communities living in direct proximity to one another.

In Sderot we went to the police station to see the macabre display of Qassam rockets and other primitive tools of terror that have wreaked havoc on Israelis and drawn devastating fire not only upon the Palestinians who fired them but the many thousands who live among them.  The absurd disparity of looking at the simple, man-made tools, welded in garages and underground tunnels, sourced by Iran via Lebanon, being countered by complex military technology deployed by Israel with the support of the United States, left me depressed.

It had me thinking in biblical terms--of Cain and Abel; of Isaac and Ishmael; of Jacob and Esau--and of the seemingly endless ways in which the inflictions of traumas sometimes come not from far away but from close at hand, from the family.  And how generation after generation we suffer from the tragedy of leaders and interpreters of narrative traditions who get it wrong.

I found myself furious at Palestinian leaders for perpetrating lies about Jews (denial of Jewish connections to this land; Hitler-like fantasies about the Jewish thirst for blood and mendacity) while simultaneously troubled by our own Jewish internal denials.  Driving back from the Gaza border we took a short cut through the West Bank, blithely gliding past lush Jewish settlements, secure, well-watered and generously supported by infrastructure, across the road from Palestinian towns wrapped inside a wall that certainly keeps Israelis safe but equally if not more important, keeps Palestinians "in."

It's the hardening that troubles me.  I fully understand and support Israel's own efforts to protect itself and its people.  As a tourist here each year, I surely benefit from such safety and don't begrudge it one bit.  But it is critically important to do so with eyes wide open, with an insistent sensitivity to the effects of such traumas on one's ability to see and understand the plight of the other.  Especially in our deeply cynical world, when there is an obviously devastating lack of brave spiritual or political leadership on the Arab side, we Jews, despite the temptation to look the other way, must demonstrate a sensitivity and understanding that is has always been a pillar of our uniqueness as a people.

These are impressions.  These are incomplete thoughts.  They are culled from a day in which I couldn't help but conclude that one of the challenging lessons of seemingly miraculous survival is that it's not miraculous at all to survive--rather, those who do often do so because of interminably complex weaving of lives, resiliencies, hopes and deep wells of generosity.  

Yesterday during our morning prayers, we recited the "al ha'nisim" prayer, words dedicated to thanking God for the miracles of surviving those who sought our destruction--Hanukah, Purim, and Yom Ha'Atzmaut.  Yesterday I refused to say them.  My mind was still darkened from thinking of soldiers who died in Israel's wars; and as immediate, my heart torn from the images of obliterated bodies and dead innocents in Boston; and more, from the continuing smoke and ashes that rise from God's absence when six million Jews and countless millions others died during the Holocaust and the Second World War.

How can I thank God for the miracle of Israel's founding after bearing witness to God's manifest physical powerlessness during the Shoah?  My faith wouldn't tolerate it.

But yesterday, in the resilience, I saw light.  A tennis champion in a wheelchair; a chorus of survivors; a team of trauma specialists; and maybe, just maybe, a young man searching for scrap metal, to beat it into a plowshare.

This is Isaiah's image, forged nearly three thousand years ago and "miraculously" remains relevant today.


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