Processing the pain of Gaza redux


From where I was seated on the bimah in the sanctuary of a Rhode Island synagogue a few months ago, there appeared to be at least 200 individuals sitting in the pews.  We had gathered together for “A Community Service for Israel Solidarity,” organized on short notice in response to the crisis in Gaza.

What struck me throughout the hour-long program of prayer, brief speeches, selected readings and song was the tone – a tone of quiet reflection, of resolute serenity; I sensed an unspoken but almost palpable effort to hold our surging feelings in check in the face of the immense human tragedy unfolding 6,000 miles away.

There was not a hint of war-mongering triumphalism, no hint of “My Israel, Right or Wrong.”  While there seemed to be an overwhelming consensus that the State of Israel had the right – indeed, the obligation – to defend its citizens, there was also a palpable need to acknowledge the suffering of innocent civilians in Gaza.

Our collective prayers were motivated both by our profound sadness at the loss of so much life, and by our equally profound hope for a ceasefire that would one day result in a just and lasting peace.

As the service for Israel solidarity was proceeding inside, approximately 35 individuals were outside in the cold demonstrating for peace and against war.  Upon leaving the building at the conclusion of the program, I heard them singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

Several policemen stood between “us” and “them,” but, in all honestly, the demonstrators did not appear to be looking for a confrontation.  As a matter of fact, had they joined us in the sanctuary and witnessed what was being said and – perhaps even more importantly – what was not being said, they could well have made common cause with our longing to end the strife in Gaza.

Unfortunately, there are those in our Rhode Island community, and, even more unfortunately, many millions throughout the world who are using the crisis in Gaza as one more opportunity to delegitimize Israel, one more excuse to call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Individuals and groups have begun accusing Israel of “Genocide in Gaza,” even going so far as to compare Israel’s actions in Gaza to the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust, to what amounts to “ethnic cleansing.”

The lessons arising out of the war in Gaza will not come easily, if at all.  My own sad assessment of this painful situation is that at best the Israeli incursion into Gaza may buy some time. Perhaps, as some have soberly suggested, war is diplomacy “by other means.”

Nevertheless, I find it impossible to believe that there can ever be a military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ultimately, only diplomacy can bring peace.  In the words of the concluding song at our community service for Israel solidarity:  Shalom! Salaam!

Now, brace yourself: Everything that you have read in this column up to this point has been excerpted, paraphrased and shortened by about 300 words from a column I wrote 15 years ago for the Jan. 23, 2009, issue of what was then the Jewish Voice & Herald; the column was titled “Processing the Pain of Gaza.”

“A Community Service for Israel Solidarity,” to which I referred, took place at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence, on Jan. 4, 2009, and was sponsored by what was then the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island.  The small protest demonstration about which I wrote took place on Morris Avenue, across Sessions Street from the synagogue.

A French adage from the 18th or 19th century translates to, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Fifteen years ago, the situation in Gaza was alarming; today it is catastrophic.  As of this writing, it is too early to know the relationship between Israel’s war against Hamas and Iran’s April 14 drone and missile attack on Israel, and Israel’s retaliatory response on April 19.  Certainly, the risk of a widespread regional war has risen ominously. We are all downing in a sea of uncertainty.

This past March 3, David Grossman, one of Israel’s most talented and significant writers, published an op-ed piece in the Sunday issue of The New York Times titled “Israel Is More Fortress Than Home Right Now.”

Grossman is far too thoughtful, far too sensitive to the subtleties of human emotions to pretend that the war in Gaza can be reduced to a battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness: “The trauma of becoming refugees is fundamental and primal to both Israelis and Palestinians, and yet neither side is capable of viewing the other’s tragedy with a shred of understanding – not to mention compassion.”

The final sentence of Grossman’s admittedly provocative essay is an invocation of hope; hope clouded by ambivalence and ambiguity, but nevertheless hope:

“It seems we had to go through hell itself in order to get to the place from which one can see, on an exceptionally bright day, the distant edge of heaven.”

As we approach Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, which Jews throughout the world will celebrate on May 14, let us work to transform our hope for peace into the reality of peace.

It is no accident that the word “Hatikvah,” the title of Israel’s national anthem, is Hebrew for hope.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at