December 1, 2023 – י״ח כִּסְלֵו תשפ”ד
“Thank you for being here,” they said. “Thank you for showing up and showing your support, it means so much to us.” These were the words we heard from every single person we met this week. As our Reform Movement leadership delegation from North and South America made its way through a traumatized yet resilient Israel, we heard stories of incredible resolve, of deep trauma, and of an automatic instinctive reflex to spring into action without respite to take care of one another – each one more inspiring than the next.
A colleague and friend from Haifa commented that today is October 56th, and that time has essentially stood still. Spending a week in Israel has been an emotional roller-coaster as each day brought with it the anxious anticipation of which hostages would be released and whether the temporary ceasefire would hold. While the country breathed a collective sigh of relief with each kidnapped soul reuniting with their families, the resolve to continue to fight, advocate, protest, and focus on the return of the rest of those held in captivity only got stronger. The overall purveying nature of Israeli society was that of חסד/Hesed. Of showing kindness to others in a time of need, of giving and doing whatever they can – always asking the question ‘what else can I do to help?’
This feeling of Hesed and of mobilization to help and support one another has been the essence of our Reform Movement in Israel. Our rabbis everywhere – both in the communities directly affected by the attacks and those further away – have been working around the clock so much so that one rabbi commented that she “woke up and her neshama (soul) battery was at 1%.” As going to funeral after funeral and conducting shiva and memorial services for 7 weeks takes a tremendous toll, not to mention the unimaginable need for pastoral care.
Our group of Reform Movement leaders from around the world who came because they just felt that it was the time to be there, and as one participant put it “when your family is suffering you show up to console them and to sit with them.”
The following is an account of Key messages that surfaced from our experience which I invite you to read and share out.
- The Social Contract.
I have written about this previously in the context of the judicial reforms and the struggle for democracy, but this week it was felt even more strongly. The overlying message from nearly everyone we met was that the civil society and the activist organizations were the ones who have stepped up and filled the void left by governmental incompetence; that this government was so obsessed with advancing its own dangerous and irresponsible agenda, that it abandoned (Hebrew speakers read: הפקירו) its responsibility and broke the social contract between the State and the citizens living in the border communities. As Haaretz journalist Amir Tibon put it, “It was our job to live in the border communities and be the first line of defense for the country, and it was the job of the government/army to protect us and keep us safe. On October 7th, this contract was broken.” There is no question that Israelis are shaken, shocked, depressed, feeling alone and betrayed. Their sense of betrayal is primarily by the government that disappeared on Oct. 7 and is still struggling to step into its proper role, but not only. Many Israelis echoed the sense of betrayal they felt from progressive and far leftwing organizations abroad. “There’s no question that the images coming out of Gaza are horrific and tragic. No one wants more non-Hamas Palestinians to be killed, and they need to understand the sheer magnitude of the evil in which Hamas acted.”
But overall, the feeling is that the social contract has been broken and that this government’s combination of incompetence, tone-deafness, radical agenda, partisanship and perceived lack of caring for its citizens will not be able to repair the breach, and simply needs to be replaced.
- The Hostages
Despite a bit of controversy over the ceasefire to return the hostages, without fail everyone we met expressed unequivocal resolve that absolutely everything possible needs to be done to bring back those taken from their homes, music festival, and the fields where they were working.
Lee and Shelley Siegel, a couple who made Aliyah in the 1970s from the U.S. and South Africa, live on Kibbutz Gezer and are members of the Reform Kehilah Birkat Shalom. Lee’s brother Keith and his wife Aviva live(d) on Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza border. They were abducted on October 7th. On November 28th Aviva was returned among the groups of hostages who came back as part of the temporary ceasefire agreements. As more and more hostages are thankfully returned, the world will begin to comprehend the horrors of Hamas’ terror industry. The stories that are beginning to trickle out. We know of the inhumane conditions in which they were held, the malnourishment (many of the children returned are reported to have lost 12-17% of their body weight), beating, and psychological warfare as they begin to re-enter life, their stories will be exposed to the world.
Kikar Hahatufim (“Hostage Square”) in the center of Tel Aviv across from the Kiryah Military headquarters has become somewhat of a Mecca for those wishing to express their support for their return. As a group, we came, stood, and sang. We sang Israeli songs of hope echoing the words of Naomi Shemer “לו יהי – May it be your will” and “השיבנו ואשובה אל הארץ הטובה” – (Roughly translated as) Return them and we will be returned to the good Land.” We also sang the words of Debbie Friedman’s prayer for healing Mi Shebeirach, to “…bless those in need of healing with refuah shleimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit…” and an amalgam of Israelis of all different stripes and head coverings joined us in calling out names of their loved ones who are so deeply in need of healing. While the focus is understandably on returning young children, the elderly and women, there are still over 170 others being held and we cannot sleep nor slumber until they are returned.
- The Ripple Effect
Imagine that on September 11, 2001, instead of 2700 people killed, 40,000 were killed and an additional 7500 families were pulled out of their homes to be held captive in unknown locations. That is roughly the proportions of what we are looking at in Israel as compared to the United States. Beyond that, the long-term effect of the Simchat Torah Massacre is difficult to assess as it has permeated every aspect of society. In what can only be compared to the deleterious effect that Covid-19 had on the economy, we are now seeing something similar here in Israel. Small businesses have closed, the winter break high season of tourism in Israel has been almost completely cancelled. The main commercial airliners (United, Delta, American, etc…) have suspended all flights and while El Al is ferrying full flights of travelers and solidarity missions, that is only a drop in the bucket of what was planned for the coming months. Ben Gurion Airport feels eerily like a ghost town.
We met Shachar, the owner of a small art gallery in Haifa, who shared with us that within a few days his revenue went from 100 to 0. Needless to say, he is worried about how to pay his employees and how to put food on the table for his family. That is just one example of thousands of small businesses and industries that have and will continue to suffer because of the war. Not only are people not buying art in Haifa, or felafel in Ashkelon, or harvesting fruit in the Northern Negev, or going to concerts, the theater, sporting events, the universities have yet to open this year. With 250,000-350,000 reservists having been called for active duty, what is going on with all of their places of work that have been on hold for two months? Many will give funds to support the displaced and to rebuild the Gaza area Kibbutzim, but will the government and international community support the rebuilding of Israel’s economy?
- What About Gaza?
MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the first Reform rabbi to sit in Israel’s Knesset, shared with us that while we are all watching closely with hopes of returned hostages, the extreme right-wing factions in the Knesset are completely undeterred by the current conflict and are persisting in the advancement of their political agenda. For example, this week they passed a state budget that has a record amount of ‘coalition funds’ (read: “pork”) with little sense that this moment might call for one to shelve their own sectoral interests in favor of national unity and coming to the aid and needs of the victims of terror.
The extremists do not understand that they are alienating and marginalizing Diaspora Jews (in addition to Israelis) who are the same Jews that support Israel and suffer from Israel-related antisemitism. Rabbi and MK Kariv was emphatic that there is a need for the Opposition to protect against extremist factions implementing an extreme agenda now – especially insisting that no Jewish settlements be established in Gaza – which is rhetoric heard in those circles and which should be taken very seriously. For MK Kariv, the war has only strengthened the need for a Two-State Solution in order to maintain a Jewish and democratic Israel. He believes that the Palestinian Authority should be the one to take control in post-war Gaza. However, MK Idan Roll of Yesh Atid (also in the Opposition) felt strongly that Israel will need to pay a high price to dismantle Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has no political prospects to be able to effectively govern Gaza. What is needed now is a serious effort to de-radicalize Gaza from the indoctrination by the radical Islam of Hamas.
- This is About All of Israeli Society, Not Just the Jews
Representatives of the Bedouin community of Southern Israel have an important message. First, they feel deeply part of Israeli society and want to be integrated even more than they are currently. Second, they feel like they’re dancing on the tip of a double-edged sword. They shared with us the dozens of heroic stories in which members of Bedouin communities saved dozens of Israelis from the murderous rampage of Hamas on October 7th. Stories of hiding a kibbutz member in the brush to keep her safe, scooping up festival-goers in their trucks and 4x4s as they fled, running through the fields on foot, and of the losses from their communities at the hands of Hamas. They also shared their deep concern over rising sentiments of racism by Israelis, of people being startled when hearing Arabic spoken on the street, and of the encouragement by members of the government who have drastically lowered the requirements to secure a gun permit resulting in more and more civilians carrying guns, which will lead to more and more gun violence in our cities and communities (“We don’t want to be like America,” they said).
The Bedouin we met had a different feeling about the government. Co-directors of the AJEEC-NISPED Kher Albaz and Dr. Ilan Amit shared with us their desire to work closely with the government. Their theory of change revolves around the concept that the NGOs could/should create frameworks and provide social services in order for the government to step in and take over, and they have been working closely with the government agencies to do that. This is needed now more than ever, as the already existing violence and crime in the Bedouin community will only increase. They pledged to carry on the legacy of their organization’s former director Vivian Silver z”l, who was a legendary peace activist and was found to be murdered by Hamas on Kibbutz Beeri.
- Israel and the Diaspora
There’s no question that the relationship between Israelis and Diaspora Jewry is also changing. Israelis are more aware of the challenges that Jews in the Diaspora are facing with antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and frankly, there is among many Diaspora Jews a lack of feelings of solidarity and identification with the Jewish State. This is causing a growing rift between the two largest Jewish communities on the planet. Being in Israel left me with the feeling that at times, we live on different planets. There is a renewed recognition that Israel needs the support of the Diaspora and the countries of the Diaspora, and most importantly in the United States. President Joe Biden is the most popular leader in Israel right now, and it will be critical to urge the U.S. Congress to support military aid for Israel and additional humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza. It is clear that support for Israel necessitates unified bipartisan Congressional action. As the conflict continues to unfold, House and Senate leaders can show their support by providing military aid to Israel. We are also aware of the tremendous toll the war is taking on innocent civilians in Gaza, and Congress must also fund humanitarian aid to Palestinians. It is important that this humanitarian aid safely makes its way to civilians, without Hamas interference.
At this moment we need to:
- Go to Israel. I feel strongly that everyone should, when they feel comfortable, go. We need to send our students on Heller High this semester and to Yallah Israel! this summer.
- Support our Reform rabbis and communities that are volunteering everywhere and working closely with the displaced communities.
- Urge Congress to Support Military Aid for Israel and Humanitarian Aid for Palestinians
Despite the tragedies and unbelievable loss that all of Israel feels, Israelis are resilient, and so much of the beauty of Israeli society has shined brightly during this difficult time. עם ישראל חי – the People, the State, and the Nation of Israel lives on!