Like many of you, I have been closely watching events in Israel and Gaza. I am unsure how to describe this past week. The highs and lows, mixed with soul searching and intense conversations.
But first, on Saturday night we learned that Israeli singer Netta Barzilai won the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, the annual international singing competition involving countries from Europe to Australia. If you have never seen Eurovision, think American Idol in its heyday with 43 countries sending a participant and millions of people worldwide watching and voting. Barzilai won with an electronic beat entry called "Toy.” Her win was so popular in Israel that two days later over 50,000 people went to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to celebrate Barzilai. This was the fourth time Israel has won the contest and Israel will now host Eurovision 2019.
To continue the celebration, Israel marked its 70th anniversary on Monday, May 14. As part of the day, the United States officially opened its new embassy in Jerusalem. Much has been written about the move of the embassy and I know there are differing opinions. The fact is moving the embassy to Jerusalem has been official United States policy since 1995 when both the U.S. Senate (93–5) and the House of Representatives (374–37) supported the Jerusalem Embassy Act.
Other countries have announced they will follow. Just two days later, Guatemala opened its embassy in Jerusalem (interestingly, they were also the second country to recognize Israel upon its founding in 1948) to be followed later this month by Paraguay and Honduras.
While the positive excitement was happening in Jerusalem, some 40,000 Palestinian protesters rushed the Gaza security border fence with Israel. As has been reported, over 60 people were killed and over 2,000 injured. I know there are multiple views on what happened and Israel’s response. On Tuesday, we provided access to a briefing by Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus and you can listen to that briefing here.
News outlets around the world used the protester deaths as the lead story and were quick to criticize Israel. It has since been confirmed by Salah Bardawil, a Hamas official, that of the 62 people killed, 50 were Hamas members and three from Islamic Jihad.
Upon the news, an IDF spokesperson responded, “Take his word for it. This was no peaceful protest.”
People will disagree. There were peaceful protesters at the border. In the end, however, many believe Israel is being condemned for defending itself.
Observers say Hamas got what it wanted. Shoot at those charging at you and Hamas has its martyrs. Fail to shoot and people will break through the barrier and bring danger to Israelis living only a few hundred meters away.
Each day I read many articles about the situation. Here are two that stood out to me:
A Chicago Tribune editorial shared, “According to The New York Times, loudspeakers on minarets urged Palestinians to rush the fence bordering Israel, where they were met by army snipers. The Washington Post reports that organizers urged demonstrators to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as they were reinforcing them.
Which suggests that Hamas, the terrorist group that rules Gaza, incited protesters to dash toward Israeli military positions, likely knowing that many would be killed. Hamas leaders had to know that the carnage would ignite an international backlash against Israel and the U.S.
If Palestinian leaders want to know who is responsible for the deaths, they should glance in the mirror. (Side note – Egypt also blamed the Palestinian leadership for the deaths.)
That said, let’s also note that many of the demonstrators were peaceful. They came to protest what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe: the creation of the state of Israel 70 years ago. They came to reassert their “right of return” to what is now Israel. They came to express their despair — as generations of Palestinians have. And they came to denounce the U.S. embassy switch."
These are complex issues. Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem expressed them beautifully in his article The Moral Challenge of Gaza. I encourage you to read it. He concludes, “While Palestinians have every right to their narrative of Nakba, my people have every right to celebrate our independence and our victory in 1967, and to express joy at being home in our country, whose capital is Jerusalem. And we have every right to defend our rights.”
I recently had a conversation with a local rabbi and we both agree that in these difficult times we have a responsibility to engage our community in appropriate conversations. We must model respectful dialogue. To paraphrase my colleague in Boston, these complicated issues deserve thoughtful exploration. People should be able to ask questions and voice their hopes, concerns, fears, and frustration without being attacked and labeled. Moreover, let’s recognize that polarized political divides and leaders add to the difficulty. This should be less about personalities and more about the issues themselves -- the right of Israel to defend its borders, profound concern for the State’s security, the right to self-determination, and the loss of Palestinian lives.
I welcome your thoughts and comments by replying to this email. I know some of you will agree and others will not. But I always go back to what my grandmother taught me -- "You do not have to be wrong for me to be right.” This advice speaks loudly in times like these.
Finally, starting Saturday night we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the “Festival of Weeks.” Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai to the Jewish people. It is celebrated seven weeks after Passover and concludes the counting of the Omer. The Book of Ruth is traditionally read on Shavuot, and many of our local synagogues sponsor “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” all-night study sessions in honor of the holiday. The Jewish Federation office will be closed Monday for the holiday.
Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameach!