Chancellor Arnold Eisen Reports from Jerusalem: A Week in Israel at War

Posted on Nov 20, 2012


At Eshel Avraham in Beersheba (left to right): Dr. Ehud Zmora, Dr. Irit Zmora, Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Yizhar Hess, and Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary

I am leaving Israel for America in a few hours, along with JTS Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary. We have spent the day visiting Masorti communities around the country, including Masorti Congregation Eshel Avraham in  Beersheba, capping a week that for me included the usual round of JTS meetings and time with old friends, but now against the background of Israel at war. I feel relief to be heading home later this evening, but also strong regret at no longer being a direct part of what is happening to my people in the Land of Israel at a time of trouble. I am full of admiration for the discipline, confidence, and good spirit with which Israelis are handling the latest matsav to come their way. Marc and I have not encountered much jingoism or bluster this week, just recognition that missiles must be stopped from raining down on Israel, and pervasive sadness that the suffering and casualties are mounting on both sides. When will it end? The news today is about continued exchanges of both fire and negotiators. Hillary Clinton is on her way to the region. It might be that on this, the seventh day of the current conflict, Hamas will agree to cease from the work of destruction and permit an interval of rest. Like many Israelis, I am hopeful. But like all we have met, I do not count on it.

On the drive to  Beersheba, we get instructions from our Eshel Avraham host, Rabbi Mauricio Balter, president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, about what to do in the event of an air-raid siren. Park the car, and run to the nearest structure to take cover. If on the open road, lay flat on the ground with hands over head to protect from shrapnel. We get to  Beersheba not long after a missile had penetrated the Iron Dome, mercifully with no loss of life. We would learn a couple of hours later that another rocket had landed not long after our departure.

The news on the car radio features interruptions every few moments announcing where in Israel the sirens are sounding. One announcer reminds us to follow instructions, and assures us that with God’s help all will be well. Even sober newscasters, reporting missiles that fail to injure life or limb, add the words todah la-el (thank God). This is Israel at a moment when the normal boundaries between dati and hiloni are meaningless. Schools have been closed in  Beersheba all week. Stores are closed. The streets are eerily empty of pedestrians, there is almost no traffic, and inside shuttered homes parents are comforting children and one another, making sure TV or radio are playing loud enough to keep track of what is going on elsewhere in Israel—but not so loud as to muffle the sirens. Sixty seconds only to reach a safe room. Mauricio himself had a narrow escape several days ago, crouching under cover of a truck as the rocket soared straight overhead. It’s a serious time for the people of Israel.

Marc and I made this trip to be with Mauricio, to stand with him physically, so he would not doubt the fact that Israeli Jews do not stand alone. The hug he gave me—and I gave him—carried more than the usual message. He thanked us for being there. I thanked him for being there, and not just for a visit. Two American Jews, accompanied by the head of the Masorti Movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, reinforced the conviction among the members of Mauricio’s family and his congregation that there really is a Jewish People out there and a Conservative Movement that cares for them. One by one, they tell us the stories of being under fire, having children and grandchildren under fire, comforting teenagers who seem to be taking things especially hard. A bar mitzvah is cancelled because of the matsav. A mourner is denied a shi’vah minyan. A vibrant synagogue that normally teems with life is empty. It was not a time for speeches, but for presence. Marc and I were proud to bring the JTS family with us to the Eshel Avraham family. Later, we went with Mauricio and two members of his congregation to a hotline-shelter in which they are volunteering—a center that is getting far more calls than usual, most of them the direct result of the conflict. Post-traumatic stress. Difficulty coping with kids who cannot leave the house for a week. There, too, we did not give speeches, but simply thanked the staff, composed largely of volunteers, for their hard work. They thanked us for coming. At normal times the exchange would count as pleasantries. Not this time.

In Kfar Saba, our next stop, the street outside the Masorti congregation of Hod Ve-Hadar is bustling. Kids boarding busses from school. Stores open. Not quite normal, since everyone has family in a place of danger. Sirens again today in Jerusalem and no doubt soon in Tel Aviv. But not the same as in the south. Two weeks ago, there were two Manhattans, north and south, and now there seem to be two Israels, north and south. I finish this letter at Kibbutz Hannaton in the Galilee, where the quiet at sunset is truly remarkable. “Desert to mountains in one day,” says Yizhar. War zone to quasi-normality. Except that the radio and TV take one live to the front. It is a small country. I get the sense that Israelis are hopeful something will soon change in the rhythm of the conflict, but they don’t know what, and are not really sure what to hope for.It has been quite a week. Here is a brief day-to-day account:

Marc and I arrived Tuesday, had a quiet dinner, and began taking in the pleasure of once again walking the streets of Jerusalem. I went to bed early to manage the jet lag and had a good night’s sleep. There would not be a lot of good sleep on this trip.

Wednesday begins with routine: meetings with JTS rabbinical students who are studying at the Schechter Institute for the year and with faculty and staff involved in JTS’s Schechter program. The day is like many others I have had in Israel since becoming chancellor. The streets and stones are as I remember them. The air is mild and fresh. A first hint that this trip will not be like all the others comes with a visit, in the evening, to friends who are worried about their grandsons doing army service or in reserve units already called up for duty in Gaza. The conflict has begun. TV and radio are providing nonstop coverage. My friends have been through this drill many times before. I can see they are beginning to steel themselves for what may come. To live in Israel is to bear with tension and come to terms with tragedy. There is no choice. Weeks like this one come with the territory.

At lunch with Donniel Hartman (president of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute) on Thursday—day two of Operation Pillar of Cloud—we cannot but talk about his kids in the army, the risk of widespread loss of life, and the apparent lack of any prospect other than more operations like this one, year after year. We talk about army discipline and the obligations accepted by the IDF to minimize civilian casualties. Donniel tells us about conversations with IDF commanders about the ethics of warfare. I tell him about the conference I attended at Stanford last week, where I heard from a US Air Force officer sent by the Pentagon to investigate ethical lapses committed by American soldiers. Both armies can boast officers of exemplary thoughtfulness—and must deal with others who are callous. The IDF’s will be weighing the gains of targeted attacks from the air versus collateral injury to civilians a lot in coming days. Donniel, Marc, and I hope our soldiers will not also have to weigh the lives of Gaza civilians versus their own safety in the course of a ground invasion that takes them into urban areas. The prospect is chilling. No one is sure it can be avoided.

My friend Ari is more weighed down than usual when we meet. Every time I visit Israel, he and I sit over coffee or a meal. Our friendship began in 1975 when I was doing graduate work in Oxford and Ari was taking a break from Israel after the fighting in the Yom Kippur war. Each of us has decided to live in the country where we were born. I am worried this day about my son, because he is making a nine-hour drive, alone, from Ohio to Manhattan. Ari is worried about two sons, because they are in the army: one in an elite unit that might already be in Gaza, the other in an officer’s training course. He and I both study and teach Judaism. Our names are differentiated only by the n and e in mine. Ari has bet his life and that of his family on the future of Israel. I have done the same in America. We sit in that coffee shop and reflect on lives long joined together and set apart. Our friendship seems something of a parable of Israel and Diaspora.

Friday starts off with a meeting that our Israeli host has to leave early. He lost a son to war 20 years ago, and now the reserve unit in which another son serves has been called up. His wife is not taking the news calmly, he explains apologetically. We continue the meeting without him.

The air-raid siren that took Jerusalem by surprise Friday evening caught me on my walk to shul. I was not sure it actually was a siren, and had no idea what I was supposed to do. The young men playing ball to my left kept playing. The couples walking ahead of and behind me on the sidewalk continued walking. Cars did not stop. So I kept going too, and even paused to tie a shoelace. I arrived at shul just in time to see Kabbalat Shabbat interrupted by order of the police: any gathering of 80 or more (some said 100) had to disperse. No angels of peace were gathering around us this Shabbat—or perhaps they were, and caused the missile sent to Jerusalem from Gaza to fall harmlessly in a few pieces somewhere outside the city. The Iron Dome had done its job.

My Israeli friends told me at dinner that they had gone to the shelter in their building, only to find it locked. Now they had the key ready for the next time. No one expected a missile in Jerusalem. The TV news had been left on, and we watched a good long time before dinner. Split screen coverage of the major cities, with live sightings of Iron Dome interceptions of incoming rockets. Endless speculation by the commentators on the IDF’s achievements and options, the political calculations and ramifications, the likely course Hamas and Egypt will follow, the reactions of Obama and other world leaders. I go to sleep wondering whether I will get dressed if a siren sounds in the middle of the night or go down the hotel stairs in my pajamas.

Shabbat morning, the “egalitarian minyan” in the neighborhood of Baka, largely composed of young Israeli families, is missing men called up to Milu’im. The wife of one of them takes his place as gabbai. I am struck that the prayers for Israel and for the IDF are recited quickly and quietly with no special fanfare. Perhaps the woman leading prayers wants to will into existence a “routineness” that we all know is not there. An old friend is in shul. Rabbi Michael Graetz (rabbi emeritus of Congregation Magen Avraham) is in shul, visiting his son Tzvi in Jerusalem. “I am a refugee,” he says not entirely in jest. “I thought I would flee the war by coming north, but it followed me.” I can’t help but think—as we read in Parashat Toledot about Isaac’s negotiations with Avimelekh, the king of Gerar—that the story of our ancestor occurred in the neighborhood of present-day Gaza and perhaps even inside its borders. “Why have you come to me,” Isaac asks the king, “seeing as you hate me?” They reply that they see he is blessed, and want to make a deal to share in his good fortune. Hamas hates us too, but maybe they too will see advantage in making a deal. Some things never change for the Children of Israel in this Land.

Sunday, Marc and I travel to Tel Aviv for meetings, and a few minutes after we get off the freeway, the siren sounds. “What do we do?” we ask the driver. “Nothing,” he says, then: “If you want to get out, get out, take cover somewhere.” We do so—cover being the shadow made by a large truck parked at the curb. “What’s happening?” I ask someone. “Look up,” he points to the southern sky, and I follow the gaze of everyone around us to a white circular cloud that has just formed in the azure, trailed by the kind of white stream that jets leave behind.
“That’s it,” my informant says. “That’s the Iron Dome.” A Pillar of Cloud indeed. Within minutes life is back to normal. We drive away. Cafes are full. Shorts and sandals are as ubiquitous as the sunshine. Tel Aviv as per usual—except that, around 6:00 p.m., the sirens sound again. “This is new,” my friend Eilon says. “Two attacks in one day.” We leave our window-table in the café for the kitchen, where the customers and staff are gathering. This is the “safe area.” I comfort an old woman who tells us she is upset, her heart pounding. We urge her to sit, get her a glass of water. Then comes the boom, and that is that. Later, on the radio, we learn that Israelis should wait 10 full minutes after hearing the boom before returning to normality. Sometimes incoming missiles are sent in waves.

Eilon says his eight-year-old daughter is frightened by the air raids. Today, in school, the children had to move quickly to the shelter. Eilon and his wife made aliyah many years ago, and stayed. My wife and I made aliyah in 1984, stayed two years, and came home. Israel is not home for me—and yet it is not a foreign country either. These streets are mine somehow, the people on the streets belong to me, the history of the Jewish people happening at this moment in the Jewish State, where half of the world’s Jews are concentrated, is my history. I know this even at “normal” times, and certainly feel it keenly today.

“We each make a bet on history,” I reflect with Eilon before dinner, and I value the way Israeli friends like him are content with their life-choice as I am with mine. I yearn for a Zionism free of the need to “negate Diaspora,” and an American Judaism that holds the State of Israel and its people close. “I expected a lot of things when I came here,” says Eilon, “but not missiles being fired at Tel Aviv.” Neither of us sees a lot of options for Israel right now when it comes to long-term peace, though we wish the government would explore them anyway with as much imagination as it can muster. But that is for next week, not for now. Politics has nothing to do with the present moment, when incoming missiles are threatening Tel Aviv and several have done real damage in the south. Without the skill and resolve of the Israeli army, we could not sit in peace at Eilon’s dining room table. It is good that Amir Peretz pushed for the “Iron Dome” when he was minister of Defense (the city of Ashkelon honored him today), and it is good that America is backing Israel so resolutely, both militarily and politically. Jerusalem, tonight, is indeed a refuge. No sirens expected.

I spend Monday preparing for my talk in the evening at the JTS Schocken Library in Jerusalem, across the street from the prime minister’s residence. My host, Professor Shmuel Glick, director of the Schocken Institute, opens the evening with instructions about where to find shelter in the event of a siren, followed by a prayer for the soldiers of the IDF. I am speaking about relations between American Jewry and the Jews of Israel, on the basis of Torah and Covenant. But I, too, feel compelled to start out by stressing the solidarity Jews the world over feel right now (not all of them, some in the room stress in the Q&A period; true, I reply, but many more than you think). We recognize that the future of the Jewish people depends on what happens in the Jewish State, including what happens this week. The very meaning of my life is bound up in what Israel achieves, how it conducts itself, the new interpretation its facts on the ground contribute to the study and the practice of Torah. I love the place dearly, and feel the love acutely at this moment. The talk is in Hebrew because I want to address Israelis directly on this subject—and I am all the more thankful to be giving it here, now, in this language. A solidarity of speech, as it were.

I am thinking as I get ready to go to the airport about the first verse in this week’s Torah portion. Ya’akov departed  Beersheba for Haran, the other center of his extended family. Marc and I have left  Beersheba, and are en route via Kfar Saba and Hannaton to New York, the other center of my extended family, who treasure and carry on Ya’akov’s story. May we do so wisely, and in peace.