Yonina, My Israeli Soldier Niece
I have a niece, Yonina, who made aliyah and lives in Israel. Yonina serves as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces reserves. During this summer’s Gaza war, Yonina sat in a bunker on the Gaza border, receiving real time intelligence from multiple sources, directing and guiding troops as they made their way into and through Gaza. Just 26, Yonina is responsible for the safety, and thus, the life and potential death of many soldiers. This summer, I watched the war in Gaza through her eyes.
One night this summer, my phone buzzed at 2 am. I bolted awake. In instant messages, my niece confided in me her deepest fears. Yonina, who has always been a tower of courage and strength, wrote that she was worried about whether her desire to be with her family, to find passionate love, and to protect herself, might compromise her ability to protect her soldiers, the very people tasked with protecting the state of Israel. She asked me, her uncle, to tell her that everything was going to be all right.
I thought, “Who am I, lying safely here in California, to tell an Israeli kid going off to war that anything would be okay?” But she needed comfort and strength, so I texted the truth, “Yonina, you are one of the strongest people I know. In your short life, you have faced many challenges. And you have overcome them all. And you will with this one too.” “How can you not be afraid? It is good that you love life. It will help keep you focused. It will ensure that you give 110%. As you realize that war is anything but glorious, you become more human. You will feel more deeply than ever the need to take care of your troops, giving them the wisdom and courage so they can be careful and ethical when they go out into the field.”
Of course, this conversation happened before I knew about those 40 tunnels, dug under Israeli homes and kindergartens, built by Hamas with concrete originally donated by the world community for the purpose of building housing and hospitals. Those terrible tunnels hid arsenals of anesthesia-filled syringes, handcuffs, and motorcycles for the purpose of kidnapping and killing innocent Israeli civilians. Scary.
When Yonina texted me a week or so later, she seemed despondent. During the shift immediately before hers, terrorists popped up from a hidden tunnel and killed five Israeli soldiers. She wondered with heaviness about whether she might have been able to protect those soldiers, if only she had been on duty then. What a burden to carry. It broke my heart. And then it infuriated me, that so many Israeli youth must grapple with existential questions. She asked me, “What should I write in my pre-battle letter to my family, you know, the one they will get if I don’t come back from this conflict?” My niece should instead be concerned with the direction of her career or how her date went on Saturday night.
Hamas Made the World A Lot Scarier
Yes, this summer, the world became a much scarier place for Yonina, for me, and for so many of you. Before services began, I invited you all to text me your feelings about the conflict between Israel and Gaza. As you all texted: [Here, I read texts sent by worshippers.] The Gaza war illuminated that darkness, and the evil that resides in the hearts of some dangerous people.
If you were on Facebook, Twitter or cable TV, you learned about the unimaginable, as Gaza’s ruling party Hamas shot rockets at Israel from school yards and hospitals grounds, from hotel parking lots, and residential neighborhoods. They deliberately placed their children in harm’s way. By digging tunnels, and rejecting 8 Israeli ceasefire offers, their actions led to battles that did not need to happen and to the deaths of 72 Israelis and 2,100 Gazans, deaths that should not have occurred… except that Israel was between a rock and a hard place.
Israeli leftist Amos Oz framed it this way to a German newspaper, “What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery? What would you do if your neighbor across the street, digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or to kidnap your family?” (Philip Gourevitch, An Honest Voice in Israel, The New Yorker). That is why it is so astounding and infuriating that so many condemned Israel. Like every other nation, Israel fought to protect itself from incoming rocket fire and the constant threat of violence from the Gazan tunnels.
Yes, 2,100 Gazans died in the war this summer. 2,100 too many. Honest analysts have concluded that 1000 were likely combatants, fighters. As Jews, we mourn the deaths of each of the 72 Israelis who died defending the Jewish State. Simultaneously, we mourn the deaths of each innocent Gazan. The loss of Gazan life is tragic, especially because it resulted from the Hamas leadership provoking Israel to have to defend itself. Make no mistake, Hamas intentionally sacrificed Gazan civilians, as they have for years. I am angry at much of the media for falling into Hamas’ trap and blaming Israel for civilian deaths it tried to avoid (quoting Yossi Klein Halevi).
It gets worse. Israel safeguarded Israelis, with America’s steadfast help, by building the Iron Dome missile defense system. The IDF reported that more than 4,500 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel. Let’s do the math. Every rocket shot at Israel had a purpose, to kill, say, about 1 to 5 Israelis. The intent of those rockets, therefore, was to kill up to 25,000 civilians. THAT is the war crime that the world and that the United Nations should be condemning (paraphrasing David Suissa).
So when we reflect back on this war, think not only about the power politics of Hamas, Iran, Qatar, Egypt, and the United States. Think about Yonina, and the other people whose lives were turned upside down because they were called to defend the Jewish state. And think about a 24-year-old Max Steinberg, who grew up in Woodland Hills, whose life was sacrificed on the altar of Hamas’ contemptuous calculations that God still wants martyrs.
Let us also think about what the mothers in Jerusalem and the mothers in Gaza know only too well. That their children are too precious to go to an early grave; that if there were a way, they would embrace the path toward peace. Most Jews instinctively know that to be a Jew means to balance paradoxes – security and morality, realism and vision, self-defense and self-critique (quoting Yossi Klein Halevi).
Raw, Unadulterated Anti-Semitism
Sadly, Hamas is cynical and hate-filled, and its violence is fueling yet another wave of hatred that keeps spreading. This summer’s conflict in Gaza somehow gave permission to people worldwide to release their hatred, not just of Israel, but of all Jews.
American Jewish Committee’s Lawrence Grossman recently wrote in The Hill, “since hostilities broke out between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas in early July, raw, unadulterated anti-Semitism at a level not seen since the Holocaust years has become commonplace on the streets of Europe and elsewhere. In England, about 100 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in July, double the expected number. In France, several pro-Hamas rallies that began peacefully degenerated into anti-Semitic mob scenes; in the course of one week, eight synagogues were attacked and cries of “Death to the Jews” and “Slit Jews’ throats” were heard. Roger Cukierman, president of French Jewry’s umbrella organization, emphasized, “They are not screaming, ‘Death to the Israelis’ on the streets of Paris. They are screaming, ‘Death to the Jews.’” A Jewish woman in Berlin told The New York Times that her friends were removing mezuzot from their doorposts for fear of being targeted by anti-Semites. The president of the Central Council of German Jews said, “You hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed,’ ‘the Jews should be burned’— we haven’t had that in Germany for decades.”
Smaller Jewish communities are not immune. In Sweden, a Jewish woman wearing a Star of David necklace was beaten, but refused to report the incident to the police for fear of retaliation. And in Copenhagen, a Jewish school founded in 1805 had its windows shattered, and was spray-painted with anti-Semitic slogans (Lawrence Grossman, The Hill, Can opposition to Israel avoid anti-semitism? August 26, 2014).
There were hopeful moments, like July’s powerful statement by the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Italy. These three nations that once murdered Jews were now saying, loudly and officially, that “anti-Semitic agitation and hostility against Jews, attacks against people of Jewish faith and against synagogues, have no place in our societies.” They rightly recognized that anti-Semitism threatens not only Jews but the very fabric of European societies (AJC Welcomes Joint French, German, Italian Statement On Anti-Semitism, July 22, 2014).
It is time for us to recognize that this anti-Semitism is not about Israeli government policy or the failure to find a solution with the Palestinians. One can have disagreements with the Israeli government and its policies – I personally think most of the settlements need to be dismantled sooner rather than later – but even these policies do not account for the growing virulent anti-Semitism. When both Europe’s far left and the radical right are joined in common cause – the hatred of Jews – we need to be worried and vigilant.
7 Things to Do Right Now
So what do we do from here in America, in California, in Calabasas and Thousand Oaks: What can you and I do? I offer seven steps:
1. We must watch the words we use, calling out publicly dangerous hate language. To help us, I need to explain the origins of an ugly word, a word so horrid that no one should repeat it. Yet it has been repeated, most recently by a student in Calabasas who spewed it at another student, and, though others heard it, alarmingly, no one protested. This word becomes especially dangerous when young people give permission for its use.
The word is Kike. Kike was born on Ellis Island when some non-English speaking Jewish immigrants refused to sign their immigration entry-forms with the customary “X.” They associated an X with the cross of Christianity. So instead, they drew a circle, which in Yiddish is kikel (pronounced ky-kul). Soon, immigration inspectors called those who signed with an “O,” a kikel (which morphed into kike. Sadly, the very signature that came to mean freedom for so many Jews was turned by anti-Semites into a hateful slur. Simply put, this word is vulgar and we must teach our kids to protest its use.
2. To fight hate speech, we must learn this number: 4/20. To some 4/20 is a code-term that refers to using marijuana. But 4/20, April 20th, is also Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Around that date, anti-Semites and their naïve followers post heinous phrases like “finish the job” or “back to the gas chambers,” referring to the need to finish exterminating the Jews. Recently in nearby Oak Park, some students, both non-Jews AND Jews, repeated these phrases in small groups, then tweeted and retweeted them. We need to let our youth know that such language and ideas have no place in conversation. Explain to yours that hate words – against Jews or anyone else – have destructive power, even in jest. We must also banish the hateful words we use: shvartza, a Yiddish slur against blacks, faigele, a slur against gays, and even shikse, a put down against a non-Jewish woman. Let’s train ourselves never to participate in such speech, nor condone it with our silence.
3. Join the fight against anti-Semitism. Hate is best combated when we shine light into its darkness. As individuals, we lack strength to ensure that governments – local and national, our own and those overseas respond forcefully against anti-Semitism. But when we work together, we make a huge difference. Three Jewish organizations particularly do phenomenal work here – American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Joint Distribution Committee – respectively, the AJC, ADL and JDC. They collect data about anti-Semitism, publicize dangerous trends, urge and guide political leaders to speak out, and act in defense of Jews. Join one of these organizations this week, and support its work.
4. Work to perpetuate a strong America-Israel relationship. The Iron Dome missile defense system was developed with an influx of US Foreign Aid. While one might disagree with this policy or that – of the Israeli government or our own – true friendships like the one between America and Israel transcend temporary challenges. I support Israel through AIPAC, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC works in each congressional district, all across the country, to ensure that we have a pro-Israel Congress. I invite you to join me this March in Washington DC for AIPAC’s National Policy Conference. Of course, there are many other pro-Israel, pro-peace organizations that do significant, meaningful work as well. Whichever you support, use its resources to continue to educate yourself and others about Israel. And let’s make sure to elect another pro-Israel Congress.
5. This winter, the Jewish community will vote in the World Zionist Congress elections. The World Zionist Congress distributes billions of dollars to aid Jewish education and to influence the Jewish character of Israel. We progressive Jews want to show Israelis that Judaism can be open, pluralistic, egalitarian. We want to ensure that Israel has healthy Jewish spirituality that our kind of Reform Judaism has to offer. This is important. The very character of Israeli society is at stake. Every adult Jew is eligible to vote, but you must register first. Please pledge to register and vote later this year. The vote happens later; but you need to begin the process now.
6. Jewish community creates Jewish pride. If we want the next generation to love Israel, to understand why Judaism is beautiful, and to understand why anti-Semites are wrong, we need to invest our time, energy, and money in Jewish communities. Every significant study has shown that synagogues are the most successful gateway into Jewish knowledge, connection and pride.
If you are part of the partnership we call Congregation Or Ami, then thank you for investing in the Jewish present and future. If you are not part Or Ami’s partnership, please consider what it means to our Jewish people to have a community like this, that is ensuring the Jewish future by educating the young, engaging the teens, connecting the adults, advocating for Israel, and vocally fighting the hatred in our world. When you are done thinking, please join a synagogue. Join Or Ami.
7. Visit Israel, and take your family and friends there. We best understand the Jewish state, the dangers it faces, and the amazing place it is, when we set foot on the holy ground. Cantor Doug and I are leading two trips in the next 18 months. A trip for adults in April 2015, and a multigenerational trip in July 2016. Tour information on our website. Sign up soon.
We WILL Stand Up for Israel!
Listen, this discussion has been intense, serious, and perhaps frightening to some. But at its root, it is hopeful. We can transform the reality, because we Jews are notorious for optimistic action. Our Jewish national anthem is Hatikvah, which means, “the hope.” On Chanukah, the longest, darkest day of the year, we light candles, and put them in our windows, to shine light into the world.
So even as we remember the young people, like Yonina, her soldiers, and the awesome responsibility on their shoulders, and when we think about the young boys and girls growing up in Israel, in Europe, and here in the Valleys, let’s make sure they know that we are taking this seriously and determined to act.
We won’t stand by idly while our Israeli brothers and sisters bleed. We will support Israel’s right to defend herself. Yes, we will stand up for Israel. And we will stand up against anti-Semitism.
And then we will pray, with all our hearts. We pray as did a young Doug Cotler, now our cantor, who happened to be in Israel during the Six Day War in June 1967. He recalls with passion the moment when Israel announced it had recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem, which for years was under Jordanian rule and inaccessible to Jews. Cantor Doug joined with a quarter of a million other Jews, climbing that hill up to Jerusalem to visit the Kotel, the Wailing Wall. So many people freely visiting the Kotel for the first time in almost 2000 years.
When they arrived, people wrote their prayers on tiny scraps of paper, and put them into cracks of the wall. So many prayers were written that day, that they fell from the cracks, covering the ground like a few inches of snow. Cantor Doug also wrote his prayer that day 40 years ago, about that climb up Jerusalem’s hill to the Kotel, about the hope, never-ending, for our people and our future. This was his prayer. Shir Hamaalot. A song of ascent.
This sermon was first delivered on Rosh Hashana Day 5775|2014