Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Israel Trip, Day Three

Shalom from Jerusalem.

The day started on a bit of an odd note as we compared notes on the Red Alert earlier that morning. It might help to know that at least in our hotel, all of the stairwells are considered shelters so our group was not all together for the duration of the alert. My stairwell had a bunch of American kids visiting Israeli relatives, a Haredi physician from Lakewood, NJ, and Deb Finklestein, the executive director of Kol Shalom Congregation in Rockville.

I want to make clear that this note and the two from earlier this week are in no way meant to be a full report -- they are just quick highlights and impressions. It takes me a while to “process” things and if you want to know more details, come to shul this coming Shabbat.

Prof. Yehuda Bauer spoke to us over breakfast on the rise of antisemism in the world. Prof. Bauer is one of the world’s leading experts on the Shoah and antisemitism, a winner of the Israel Prize -- and 89 years old but as spry and lively as ever (I have met him a few times over the years.) His talk was sobering but also gave a note of perspective -- he said that antisemitism is not all of one piece and there is a big difference between Islamist antisemitism in Europe which is essentially anti-Western and liberal antisemitism or conversely, right-wing antisemitism. Indeed some neo-fascists in Europe are actually pro-Israel and pro-Jewish.

We went to the Supreme Court and met with Justice Hanan Meltzer -- we were supposed to meet Justice Elyakim Rubenstein but he had a family emergency and got Justice Meltzer to meet us instead. Justice Meltzer captivated us with his warmth and humor and his openness -- he shared his own feelings at the recent serious injury to his son while serving in Gaza with the IDF. He gave us a fascinating overview of the history and role of the Israeli Supreme Court and how it functions -- it’s quite different than the US Supreme Court with which we are familiar. There are fifteen justices and cases are heard by panels of anywhere from three to 11 depending on the importance of the case. Justice Meltzer is on a panel which is about to hear a case on the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions. Because of this, he could not address the subject directly but did point out that as a lawyer in private practice, he himself had represented the Conservative and Reform movements in a similar case thirty years ago.

After this we travelled to the Conservative movement center on Agron St. to hear from Natan Sharansky and Asa Kasher. Sharansky is one of the great heroes of our time, As Anatoly Scharansky, he spent almost a decade in the Gulag as punishment for seeking to leave the USSR and move to Israel. He was released in 1989, the only political prisoner ever freed early by Gorbachev, and immediately immigrated to Israel. He has served as a Member of Knesset and Cabinet Minister and today is the head of the Jewish Agency. I had never met him before and I was really impressed by his warmth, his unassuming manner and his intellect. It was truly a feeling of being in the presence of greatness.

After Sharansky we heard from Prof. Asa Kasher, one of Israel’s leading ethicists and the author of the Israel Defense Forces Code of Ethics. He explained that the Code is guided by two principles, the right and duty of self-defense and the preservation of human dignity and human life. Unfortunately our group was running somewhat behind and Prof. Kasher never really got to explain, as he said he would, how this code is applied in the case of targeted killings (like yesterday’s attempt to kill Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif, which killed his wife and toddler but may not have killed Deif himself.)

We then had lunch “on your own” on the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall which had less than half as many people as one would expect this time of year. I enjoyed the best shwarma since Pita Hut in Rockville closed and did a little souvenir shopping. Then back on the bus to travel to Kehilat Ya’ar Ramot in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

We were greeted by the members of the congregation who again greeted us with warmth, gratitude, and the typical Israeli spread of three times as much food and drink as the group could reasonably consume. We heard from Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, an Israeli Arab who is a professor at both Ben Gurion University in Beersheba and Sapir College which is right on the border of Gaza. He is a co-director of the Abraham Fund, an NGO founded by an American Conservative rabbi which works to enhance cooperation between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Dr. Abu Rass presented his vision of a State of Israel which is both Jewish and democratic, with equal rights and participation by it’s Arab citizens, living in peace with a Palestinian state that accepts the legitimacy and Jewish identity of Israel.

We then heard from the Leader of the Opposition, Yaacov Herzog, who is head of the Labor Party. MK Herzog spent some of his youth in New York when his father, the late Chaim Herzog (who later became President of Israel), was the Israeli ambassador to the UN. He’s very familiar and comfortable with Conservative Judaism and as Minister of Housing in Ehud Olmert’s government found money in his budget to construct two Conservative synagogues -- the only Cabinet Minister ever to have done so. Herzog was supportive of Israel’s necessity to defend itself against Hamas and its tunnels and rockets but very critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failure to do more to promote Abu Mazen as an alternative.

We were supposed to meet this afternoon with Avichai Mandelblit, the Cabinet Secretary (roughly equivalent to White House Chief of Staff) but there was an emergency Cabinet meeting this afternoon. Instead, briefings were quickly arranged for us at the Foreign Ministry. We were specifically requested not to write about these meeting and I am respecting that request but I may speak about them in general terms this coming Shabbat. I will see that I was impressed by the professionalism and skill of the high level diplomats we met as well as another generous spread of food and drink -- a rare incidence of Israeli government funding for Conservative Judaism.

Tomorrow morning we will rise early to go to the Kotel Masorti, the newly-established area for egalitarian services at the Western Wall, where we will present a Torah scroll for the use of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and other services. Later we will travel to Tel Aviv for meetings and then to the airport and back to the States. We’ve become used to last-minute radical changes to our itinerary so I won’t even bother telling you what is supposed to happen tomorrow, since what we actually do will probably be different.

It should be noted that everything we did today took place while Hamas was shooting approximately 130 rockets into Israel -- mostly in the areas nearest Gaza, a few into the Tel Aviv area and none near Jerusalem where we are. Hamas has, however, warned foreign airlines not to fly into Ben Gurion Airport after 6 o’clock Thursday morning (11 pm. Wednesday east coast time) and my decision to fly El Al is looking more and more wise. I’m scheduled to leave Israel at 1:30 a.m. Israel time on Friday which is 6:30 pm Thursday on the East Coast, and land at Newark Airport at around 6:00 a.m. Friday morning. So this is my last missive from Jerusalem and I look forward to seeing you on Shabbat.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Israel Trip, Day Two

It’s a little after midnight Wednesday morning in Israel. About twenty five minutes ago I was awakened by a loud announcement over our hotel’s PA instructing everyone to go immediately to the shelter on your corridor and wait there until further notice. We stayed about ten or fifteen minutes and then were allowed back to our rooms. Meanwhile the app on my cell phone which goes off every time there is a missile warning has been going off pretty steadily.

When the day started it did not seem likely that it would end in this way. Israel and Hamas had agreed to extend their five day ceasefire for another 24 hours while negotiations continued and an agreement seemed in sight. We started the morning by traveling to Ashdod to see the Iron Dome battery there. We were met by General (Res.) Israel Shafir who explained to us how the Iron Dome works and how it fits in with Israel’s overall defense system. We learned, among other things, that the Iron Dome system allows rockets that it knows will land harmlessly in vacant areas to do so, since each missile the system shoots costs $50,000. Gen. Shafir, a former fighter pilot (he was one of the pilots who took place in Israel’s raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor back in the 1980s) also explained how a fighter pilot decides whether or not to take out a target. He told us that the IDF attacks military targets exclusively and will call off an attack if the likelihood of many civilian casualties is present. He impressed me with his statement that preservation of human life, Israeli or Palestinian, is a key Jewish value and that failure to attempt to do so undermines the basic reason for Israel to exist -- which is to preserve not only Jewish lives but Jewish culture and values.

From Ashdod we traveled to the field encampment of the 55th Artillery Brigade, where we met with it’s commander, Lt. Col Gadi Dror. Col, Dror is the son of Rabbi Gilah Dror, the first Israeli woman rabbi to head her own congregation. He walked us through how he determines whether or not to target a certain objective, and again how he tries very hard to minimize civilian losses and will call off an attack when necessary.

We traveled to Masorti (Conservative) congregations in Ashkelon, Beersheva and Omer and learned of how the war has affected them. We learned, for example, that 80 percent of the Masorti Movement’s activities consist in community service and not what we might consider specifically “religious” activities. All the summer camps and classes were cancelled because it is not permitted to hold any activity that will attract more people than can fit in the nearest shelter. I was impressed by the dignified way our hosts are attempting to live as normal a life as possible and how grateful they were that we were there. When we got to Omer, a suburb of Beersheva, we learned that while we were in the Beersheva Conservative synagogue three rockets had fallen nearby without hurting anyone. Shortly thereafter we heard the engines of the fighter jets headed towards Gaza.

We left the South and headed to Modiin, a new city halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We went to the Masorti synagogue there to be addressed by Rachel Frankel, whose son Naftali was one of the three teens kidnapped and subsequently killed, which set in motion the series of actions which led to this war. Rabbanit Frankel is a leading Orthodox feminist and teaches advanced Talmud in Orthodox women’s yeshivot. She set an Israeli precedent when she rose with her husband and oldest son to say Kaddish at Naftali’s funeral.

I cannot begin to put into words how meaningful this meeting was. Mrs. Frankel, despite her suffering, is a person of joy and deep spirituality. She and her family reached out to the family of the Palestinian teenager who was tortured and murdered by Jews in a “revenge attack” after the bodies of the three boys were found. It was really an honor to meet with her.

Tomorrow -- or I guess actually later today -- we will meet some top Israeli political figures, conditions permitting. We’ll also hear from Prof. Asa Kasher who wrote the Israeli Defense Forces’ Code of Ethics.

If you are my Facebook friend, our bus is equipped with WiFi and I am posting pictures and brief updates throughout the day -- feel free to check it out.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Israel Trip, Day One

Shalom from Jerusalem. It’s just after 10 pm here as I write this and I have been up for 34 hours straight so I will keep this short. I hope to write something longer tomorrow night.

The most recent ceasefire between Israel ahd Hamas expires in less than two hours and no one knows for sure what will happen. Israel’s Channel 2 news is reporting that the Palestinian  media are reporting that an agreement has been reached but there is no official word from anyone. Prime Minister Netanyahu says that Israel will not be the one to open fire but that if the Palestinians launch rockets again, Israel will respond strongly.

A few quick thoughts from Jerusalem. It’s seven years since I’ve last been in Israel and the face of Jerusalem has changed tremendously. There is a massive new commercial district called Mamilla Mall right around the corner from my hotel which leads all the way to the Jaffa Gate. Jaffa Road, a main commercial thoroughfare, is now car-free below King George Street except for the new, sleek, and very popular Light Rail. Both changes make the city more pleasant to stroll around.

Tourism is way down and a lot of businesses which depend on tourism are hurting. The El Al flight over was far from full. There was a birthright israel group from Northwestern University on the flight and the young woman sitting near me told me that of the original 40 who had signed up for the trip, only 22 wound up going. When we got to Ben Gurion airport, there were five lanes open for Israeli passport holders and only two for holders of other passports, a clear indication that most arriving passengers are Israelis rather than tourists. One of the rabbis in our group said that a Family Tour including three B’nai Mitzvah was supposed to take place this week, but was cancelled, so he and his wife came by themselves. Another indication that tourism is down: waiters, cashiers and taxi drivers have all addressed me in Hebrew rather than English, which means they assume anyone here is not a tourist. Ben Yehuda Street, usually packed, is, while not exactly empty, far from full.

I was able to catch up today with a few Israeli friends and their feeling is very pessimistic. Tonight our group was addressed by Dr. Shlomo Avineri, a winner of the Israel Prize, past Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and one of the architects of the Oslo Accords. He, too, is very pessimistic about any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians being achieved any time soon. He told us he still believes that the ultimate resolution lies in the creation of an Israeli and Palestinian State living side by side, but this is going to take a long, long, time.

Our itinerary is changing as the security situation changes. The latest version of our itinerary which we received today -- version 18 -- was obsolete even before we received it. We were supposed to go to Ashkelon tomorrow to tour the Iron Dome battery there, but late this afternoon the Army decided that wasn’t safe so we are going to the Ashdod Iron Dome instead -- assuming it’s safe to do so. We’ll be visiting Masorti (Conservative) congregations in the areas which have been hardest hit by Hamas missiles and learning about their situation. Tomorrow night we’ll have dinner with former Knesset Member Einat Wilf, who served on the Defense and Foreign Affairs committee. Before that, we will meet Rabbanit Rachael Frankel, whose son Naftali of blessed memory was one of the three teenagers kidnapped and killed in June by Hamas terrorists.

If you are on Facebook, go to my page to see some pictures from today. When I’ve had more sleep I’ll figure out a way to share them more conveniently.

Shalom from Jerusalem,

Rabbi Charles L. Arian