Tuesday, January 13, 2009
DAY TWO: Lessons from a day in the South
Today was a day of relative calm in southern Israel. During a very full day we heard no sirens. When we visited Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, the emergency room was quiet, the reporters by the main entrance were drinking coffee. All the drama was in our encounters with Israelis. We spoke with people of all ages, secular and religious, rabbis and doctors, soldiers and students, parents and teens. There were some commonalities: everyone we met supports the war and understands the reason why the IDF entered Gaza, and no one we spoke with could name a politician in whom they have faith or whose vision of Israel’s future compels them to have hope. But we are ahead of our story.
Our day began with an unusual coffee break at a rest stop 40 kms from Gaza, the maximum distance for missiles fired so far into Israel. We stopped for a rest and for a briefing on what to do in case of a siren or radio report of incoming missiles (we were to lay down in the aisle of the bus). Inside Israel there is a new boundary line. We recited the traveler’s prayer and we were on our way. As we drove we learned some random facts:
During the 1950s Arabs from Gaza were able to cross illegally through Israel to the West Bank without passing any checkpoints or inhabited areas.
The lack of rain in Israel and the ongoing draught means that water can no longer be taken from the Sea of Galilee and pools will be closed this summer.
10% of the industrial export of Israel comes from the Intel complex in and around Kiryat Gat.
40% of the casualties in the war to date are from friendly fire, a high percentage that reflects how few casualties have come from contact with Hamas.
We arrived at Soroka hospital and visited families and friends of injured soldiers. Over 200 delegations have visited the soldiers these past weeks and the soldiers no longer routinely receive such visits so they can rest and recover. We offered prayers with the families and gave hats that double as neck warmers to the soldiers we met. One father turned to the men in our group and spoke to us assuming we were veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf wars. None of us were. A father told us that the IDF needs better helmets and that he just told that to Foreign Minister Livni when she visited.
The NICU has been moved to the shelter in the bottom floor of the hospital. 50% of the children there are from Bedouin families. We walked through the unit and found mothers and fathers holding children: Muslim and Jewish, Bedouin and Hassidim, secular Israelis and haredim. All being treated under the supervision of one staff.
The hospital is set up to withstand chemical and biological attack.
In Beersheva we met with members of Conservative/Masorti congregation Eshel Avraham and with members of the Mayor’s staff. Beersheva has a new mayor, 37 years old, one of the civilian heros of the war to date. This is the first time since 1948 that Beersheva has been under sustained attack. The synagogue’s pre-school is closed, Shabbat services are held in a pre-school classroom near the “safe room.” We began to realize what it means for the city to sound the alarm 3-5 times a day. People who live in older buildings and apartments have no safe rooms to run to, they have 45 seconds, tops, to get to a neighbor or a community shelter. Parents need to take children, special needs children need to be carried, parents of young twins need two adults always on call. Taking a shower is nerve-racking. For kids, so is sleeping. 50% of the children in Sderot have serious sleep disorders. Sderot has been under rocket attack for eight years. People who want to leave town need to do so carefully, always making sure they are near a shelter as they get to the bus or train station. We are told that the rockets come most often at 7:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., rush hour, when people are In motion. I watch my clock for the rest of the day, waiting for 4:30. Nothing happens.
The rabbi we meet is a wonderful teacher who plays a musical version of Psalm 20, the Psalm recited on behalf of soldiers as they prepare to enter Gaza. “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will make mention of the name of the LORD.” We have a moment of silent meditation on our individual hopes and prayers. I realize I am in the presence of a thoughtful and spiritual young rabbi and I am not surprised to learn that she has studied with Rabbi David Lazar and is a Rikma fellow. I take her aside to ask about how she is dealing with the politics of the moment. The war, she tells me, is not a matter of choice, and now, In the midst of the battle, is not the time for asking the hard questions. It is a time to support families, those with kids in the war, those without easy access to shelter, those who are mentally ill and physically weak. The congregation has around 50 children/soldiers in Gaza.
Nearby there is an army base where reservists are preparing for the call to “stage three” in the war, should that war come. In addition to the sirens and the missiles there are the sounds of explosions coming from the base as soldiers practice the arts of battle.
We go to a student apartment in Beersheva and meet two young women whose college is closed and who are leaders in the Masorti college program. They have returned to Beersheva from their homes in Central Israel to help out, to visit soldiers returning from the front for respite. They self-identify as people of the left, one of the girls talks of the rights of Palestinians to their own lives, free of interference, they are living, she says, in horrible conditions. But she adds that everyone knows people in the war, that Israelis are fighting for their lives, and that she is putting aside her leftist politics for the moment. She asks: Who can allow a situation where Sderot was under attack for eight years, even President-elet Obama has said as much. Neither girl can name a politician they support in the upcoming election.
One other note: the girls go to the hill where foreign journalists film their reports overlooking Gaza in the background. They described how the reporters look frightened and wear vest s and helmets while the cameras roll and then take them off. They are not really worried.
We leave for a shiva call. Today was the last day of shiva for Alex, an immigrant from Russia who fought and died in a special engineering unit. We read his commander’s letter, saw albums and a power point presentation his friends made in his memory and offered words of comfort to the family. He was a beautiful young man.
In Omer, towards nightfall, we visited another Masorti congregation. I asked the rabbi what he has been talking about on Shabbat. He has spoken about the moral dilemma of fighting house to house when you know civilians will die. He read from a poem written during the 1948 War of Independence, “bless the weapons that they don’t miss.” The line has two meanings: may they hit their targets and may they not hit civilians. The situation is complex and there are no easy answers.
Finally, I met a 16 year old named Shai, a youth leader who works with second and third graders. He told me about a conversation he had with his friends. They do not have school, so there is plenty of time to talk. The Israeli army texted a leading terrorist in Gaza and told him to leave his home before it was bombed. He did not leave and they texted him again. Israel bombed his home and members of his family died with the Hamas leader. Shai said that he and his friends debated who was responsible for the civilian deaths, Israel or the Hamas terrorist. He concluded that responsibility for the deaths rests with Israel.
The situation is complex, there are no easy answers. The young people I met today are amazing.