Alexandra Lazar, a recent university graduate, contributed this comment on my earlier blog entry, “Pulling the Wolf’s Tail.” I found it a particularly wise and moving expression of the doubts raised by many about Israel’s action in Gaza, and I have tried to answer it below.
“First, Mel, thank you for your beautifully written piece, and for opening a forum for the thoughtful and lively discussion that has followed. I’ve struggled quite a bit over the past few days with how to think about the events in Gaza, trying to reconcile a sense of human rights granted to me almost exclusively by my Jewish faith with what looks, at times, like unjustifiable brutality in the name of protecting Israel. While you are absolutely right, Israel is not at fault for the deaths of the five Balousha daughters, the pointing of fingers, though perhaps unavoidable, doesn’t at all address the fact that they are gone, that their parents are mourning and that their siblings, those who are left, will live the remainder of their lives missing half a family. No, Israel is not to blame, but someone has to speak for these five girls. If not find one, then the world must at least look for an answer for their deaths, and for the thousands of other innocents on both sides of the Gaza fence who have lost their safety or their lives.
“It is here that I feel particularly paralyzed, particularly without solutions, and particularly unsatisfied by the placing of blame on one party or another. My Jewish heritage taught me that we are our brother’s keepers, that each of us has a responsibility to be a bearer of light in whatever small way we can. While I know Israel can’t lie down and ignore attack, I find it difficult to reconcile this most important part of my Judaism with the five coffins, girls younger than me, that the Balousha family will now be putting in the ground. That Hamas picked a fight with the big-kid on the school yard, that they pulled the tail of a wolf they couldn’t kill, is no doubt true, but it should not satisfy us, as Jews or as human beings, as an answer to the deaths of five innocent people in a cycle of brutality where blame is so much easier found than hope.
“Again, I have the deepest respect, Mel, for what you wrote in your blog-post, and for the many responses that mourned the loss of the Balousha family while still encouraging Israel to move forward in its offensive. You may very well be right, but the question that troubles me more than blame is what can be done now, what actions must I take as a young person and as a Jew to prevent the ending of lives and the filling of coffins in the months and years ahead.”
Posted Saturday, January 10, 2009, 11:11 AM
Of the many comments expressing grief or outrage over the civilian losses in Gaza, yours has haunted me most. Aside from its being very well written and free of anger, you appeal to Jewish tradition and you focus on the future.
As you say, someone must speak for the five Balousha girls, “the world must at least look for an answer for their deaths, and for the thousands of other innocents on both sides of the Gaza fence who have lost their safety or their lives.” As others accuse, you wisely write, “the question that troubles me more than blame is what can be done now, what actions I must take as a young person and as a Jew to prevent the ending of lives and the filling of coffins in the months and years ahead.”
Although I am not young, I feel that obligation too, along with one to you and others in your generation who care about Jewish tradition and destiny, but also care deeply about others. Although some might object that you and I wrote on Saturdays, I find it fitting to have this important colloquy on the day set aside for reflection as well as rest.
I will try to answer within the Jewish tradition that you, as a daughter of Israel, appeal to. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to the slain daughters of the Balousha family, the Abu al-Aish family, and many others than for us to try and light the way forward.
When you say your Jewish heritage taught you “that we are our brother’s keepers,” that each should be “a bearer of light,” you are profoundly right. We are taught tikkun olam—repairing, perfecting, completing the world. God, in this tradition, deliberately left the world unfinished so we could contribute to creation.
Your idea that we are our brothers’ keepers harks back to the denial of it by the man who committed the first murder. His question reveals his emptiness; to extend your metaphor, he is a black hole sucking light out of the world.
During the war I had the privilege of talking for an hour with the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. He had recently addressed the European Parliament, where he drew on the same story:
“Literally,” Rabbi Sacks pointed out, “the Hebrew says as follows: 'And Cain said to Abel, and it came to pass when they were out in the field that Cain rose up against Abel and killed him.'” He explained, “It cannot be translated because it says ‘and Cain said’, but it does not say what he said…The syntax is fractured.” Why? Because the conversation broke down. And Cain said to Abel…nothing! And then he killed him.
Rabbi Sacks was asked to speak to the assembled nations of Europe because he has spent his life advocating “the dignity of difference”—the need for all of us to recognize and respect each other’s paths to meaning and to God. This has been the bright light that he has brought to the world.
You ask with an open heart what actions you must take to prevent the filling of coffins in the months and years ahead. I believe the answer is, resume the dialog. I don’t mean just a dialog among important people with high official positions, although that will be a good thing. I mean dialog at all levels between every kind of Palestinian and every kind of Israeli, every Muslim and every Jew.
And I don’t mean just words. Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, has a plan to revitalize the economy of the West Bank in cooperation with Jordan and the Palestinians, using scores of millions of dollars contributed by Germany, Japan, and other nations. This is the dialog of livelihood and sustenance that lead to a better life, and it must be pursued with all possible speed.
As for Gaza, humanitarian aid must pour in to heal the pain and give people reason to believe in a future free of terror and reprisals for terror. This is the dialog of hope and dreams, and it must replace the mirroring soliloquys of despair that descend into the nightmare of unending reciprocal violence.
I have often said that Israel must be bold in war, but also bold in peace. I have to tell you that our tradition includes both. Psalm 83 cries out, “O God, be not still. See how your enemies are astir…With cunning they conspire against your people…’Come,’ they say, ‘let us destroy them as a nation, that the name of Israel be remembered no more.’" The psalm begs God to “pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm…may they perish in disgrace.” With songs like this, ancient Israel went to war.
But Isaiah later tells us, "If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
As I write, at dusk, the light is going out of the world, but only for a while. Some “simpler” peoples believe they must take action to bring back the light of day or spring. I believe we do have to act to bring it back after the darkness of war.
I don’t know you well, Alexandra, but I know you will be “a bearer of light” long after I am gone. For the sake of those Palestinian girls who did not live to be your age, and also, for the Israeli girls who have lived in fear of rockets for years, I beg you not to lose hope, and to keep your light burning.