|Light and Serenity|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
In a way, the Jewish year 5766 is ending on a low key. Yet again the Arab world launched an attack against Israel and many young Jews have lost their lives or have been seriously wounded defending the State. So each of us is asking ourselves in what state of mind we should be approaching the New Year. To help us face up to it optimistically, we asked Rav Israel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and currently Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, to guide and enlighten our thoughts.
For many of us, this year has ended with a shock. As Jews of the Diaspora we know that our one and only safe haven is Israel, especially in the face of rising anti-Semitism and its attendant dangers. It would appear that in this past war Israel’s army was unable to pull off a dazzling victory. In these circumstances should we be thinking that our “life insurance” has been undermined or is even in danger?
When the war broke out following the kidnapping of the two soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, we at first assumed that it would be a sort of Six Days War, during which our air force destroyed the entire air forces of all our neighbors. We then discovered that we were involved in a war more like the Yom Kippur War, for which we had not been truly prepared. The commissions of enquiry that are going to determine what truly happened prior to and during the war will provide answers for all these questions. There can be no doubt that our morale has taken a beating, and that 160 deaths in a single month, 39 of them civilians, was a very high price. For us, every soldier and every civilian that dies like this is a drama of universal proportions. However, if we look objectively and compare Israel’s strength to that of the Great Powers, we can see and understand that the Almighty wants us to be here, on the land of our ancient/new country, and that we should live and survive here, strong, powerful and above all deeply rooted. Let’s take the example of the USSR in its war in Afghanistan or of Russia in its conflict with Chechnya: there is no light at the end of that dark tunnel in which those countries are stuck. And as for the world’s leading power, our best friend and ally, the USA, how many years was it forced to fight in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos? Today, it is unable to discern the end of the war in Iraq. Britain was obliged to fight a dreadful war in the Falklands. Not one of these nations won a war in six days. So what do we expect of Israel, faced by an enemy in Southern Lebanon that built tunnels a mile long that connected an Arab village with the forward Israeli army position on the international border? Let us not forget that Ariel Sharon, who knew very well what was happening, always refused to let Israel become embroiled militarily with the Shiites and Hizbullah. It was only when this terrorist organization kidnapped two of our soldiers, killing eight others at the same time, that we were obliged to act against wretched Lebanon, which found itself in a war forced upon it by Hizbullah. When we compare Israel’s situation with that of the Great Powers of the 20th century, we are in an excellent position.
Despite everything, when Great Britain fought in the Falklands, London was not threatened and the country’s survival was not in question. The same applies to the wars of the USA and Russia. So my question is to know whether or not our “life insurance” has expired?
I am speaking of the war’s results, because we should not lose sight that this war was not fought against Lebanon or Hizbullah, but directly against Iran. So if I consider the time, effort, energy and resources that the US and the UK must employ to maintain the appearance of stability in Iraq, I believe that at the end of this difficult war Israel finds itself in a very good position, even militarily. We have noted another, extremely encouraging matter: Egypt, our greatest and oldest enemy, and Jordan, with whom we have the longest frontier, in no way cooperated with the Arab terrorists, nor even made the slightest proforma declaration on behalf of Hizbullah. Even Syria restrained itself from joining in directly in the fighting with Hizbullah. This shows that that these states respect Israel’s strength, unfortunately more than we do ourselves. I personally have absolutely no doubt that Israel is and remains the safe haven for Jews the world over, and has in no way been undermined. Apart from everything that arises from our military strength and our determination, there is one simple fact that we all too easily forget: we have no choice. This is alluded to in the first letters of our alphabet, “Aleph” and “Bet”. The “aleph” is the first letter of the word “Ayn” and the “bet” the first letter of “Breirah”. What we see are the initials of the phrase “Ayn Breirah” – no choice. If we take a look at our history of the last 1,800 years, we note that nowhere in the world has a Jewish force truly existed and even less been successful. This has only happened in Israel, thanks to the iron fist of our army. Before World War II, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland and there was never a military tradition in that society. It’s true there were Jewish heroes in every army in the world, but never a Jewish army. We were experts in every field except in the art of warfare. However, here in Israel, without a military tradition and within a single generation, we have created a power that fights to defend our home. We saw it during this last war. The fight against Hizbullah was the fight for the survival of Kiryat Shemoneh, Safed and Haifa. Let’s not forget how the Yom Kippur ended, which in our short recent history was the worst we have suffered. After 18 days of combat, after having been attacked simultaneously by two powerful armies, our forces were solidly entrenched 21 miles from Damascus and 64 miles from Cairo. On 6th October 1973 we found ourselves on the defensive but by 24th October, the date of the second ceasefire negotiated by Henry Kissinger, our offensive had turned in our favor. The only thing that could stop us was our goodwill to save the 2nd and 3rd Egyptian armies and Syria. It was that victory that five years later led Anwar Sadat to the Knesset in Jerusalem, where for the first time an Arab state officially accepted the right of a Jewish state to exist in the Middle East.
There is an impression that in general support by Jews for Israel during this latest war was rather subdued if not non-existent, like in Switzerland, where the communities, rabbis or Jewish institutions organized no public demonstrations of solidarity. How do you explain that?
At the beginning, this war was not taken seriously. On account of the relatively low number of casualties, everyone believed it was just a limited military operation and not a war, and certainly not a war for our existence, or a deep crisis. There was an illusion that in next to no time the air force would destroy Hizbullah and that a commando unit would snatch Nasrallah, who would be brought before Israeli courts. More and more, the major American British television channels showed practically only pictures of a “destroyed” Beirut, which was not even true, while the devastation in Northern Israel was treated as just an afterthought. The entire world wrongly believed that “the Israelis know what to do and they do not need our support”. On this point, I want to return briefly once again to the Yom Kippur War. At the time, everyone very quickly grasped the gravity of the situation because both on the Golan and at the Suez Canal the Israeli army was faced by powerful, determined enemies. During Chol Hamoed Sukkot in New York, Hassidim dressed in black or white stockings started raising money in their neighborhoods, going from house to house in Brooklyn. Jews who had never acknowledged the existence of the Jewish State in the Land of Israel made collections for the army, the IDF, to provide blankets, boots or arms. They went from town to town, to Williamsburg, Flatbush, Boro Park, then telephoned Israel asking, “Where should we send the money we have raised?” They did not cooperate with any of the major Jewish organizations or with the Israeli consulate in New York. But they knew one thing: “Eretz Israel is in danger, we must help”. Happily, that reaction, which at the time did not only exist in New York but throughout the world, was not necessary for the war we have just lived through. Having said which, relations between the Diaspora and Israel have always developed with ups and downs, like the relationship between a pair of brothers.
Exactly, how do you see that state of relations between Jews around the world and Israel?
Without wishing to remake history, on each side there have occasionally been some unhappy statements. I have a fundamental belief in the teaching of the great Hillel, who in the Ethics of the Fathers (II:5) says, “Do not judge your fellow till you are in his place”. This is true for the Jews of Europe during the Shoah. Those who were not there could never understand the psychology of the Jews under the Third Reich, which had started to disseminate its venom in 1923, long before 1st September 1939. Even though the situation is not comparable, I think that when a Jew in the Diaspora lets himself judge the Israeli government without feeling or truly knowing the situation in which we currently find ourselves, without even coming here, that is unfair.
You said that the world perceived this last war through the prism of the bombardments on Beirut. At the same time we have witnessed an increase in anti-Semitism, of course disguised as anti-Israeli sentiment, particularly in Europe. Do you think these two things are in fact linked?
There is no doubt that certain anti-Semitic phenomena are liable to be influenced by the Middle East conflict. However, anti-Semitism is a kind of mental sickness that is not based on logic but forever searching for pretexts and excuses to justify itself. When today certain anti-Semitic statements are heard or Jewish cemeteries are desecrated in Australia and New Zealand, I absolutely do not believe that such things are based on or even influenced by the Arab-Israel conflict. They come quite simply from the deepest wellsprings of pure anti-Semitism. In this connection I would like to cite an unhappy experience I had in Melbourne, Australia, at the beginning of the 1980s, at the time I was Chief Rabbi of Netanya. One Friday night towards midnight, following the Sabbath meal, a lawyer friend walked me back to my hotel. Since he is a Hassid, like me he wore a frock coat and a black hat. While we were waiting at a pedestrian crossing, there right in the middle of town, to cross when the lights turned green, a car stopped in front of us, with in it two very well dressed men. They wound down the window and called out, “Jews, did you pay the gas bill for what you used at Auschwitz?” I asked my friend if I had heard right. Embarrassed, he replied in the affirmative and said that this type of incident, even if usually less serious, was not at all unusual. That happened twenty-four years ago. I then made some enquiries to know whether the Jews were particularly rich or politically influential in Australia. Nothing of the sort. Among the hundred richest persons in the country, the first Jew was placed number 87 and none were members of the government. What’s more, Australian Jews are language-wise and culturally particularly well integrated. And lastly they are very few in number, around one hundred thousand. So we can ask ourselves what fight we have with Australia that people hate us so much. There is no logic involved, and certainly no cause and effect.
During this last war, in fact as in all Israel’s wars. IDF soldiers died protecting Arab civilians. Do you think that from a Jewish point of view this is really justified?
That depends upon the facts on the ground at any given time. The principle of the sanctity of life of every human being is one of the fundamentals of Judaism. When Jacob returned home from 20 years exile in Haran he heard that his brother was lying in wait for him with four hundred armed men, while he had just eleven sons and a daughter. And at that point Scripture tells us, “Jacob felt fear and sadness”. The fear of being killed by his brother and the sadness of possibly being forced to kill Esau. That was our patriarch and such was his teaching. With us the life of innocents and civilians is very important, however, as I have said, it is for each commander or his superior to judge at the time and on the spot what is the right course to take. Having said that, we should never forget what our Sages said, that he who pretends to be a sheep will end up being eaten by the wolves. In this connection, I will remind you that following the attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya, where on Seder night in 2002, 29 people were murdered, our infantry entered Jenin to fight and pursue the terrorists, moving from house to house. We did not bombard the city, which would certainly have been simpler, for the sole purpose of sparing the civilian population. During that operation the IDF incurred dead and wounded. So there is no general answer to your question, but as in a trial, it must be addressed and solved on a case-by-case basis. We do everything we can to spare civilians, but the terrorists do everything they can to use civilians’ homes to hide weapons and as jumping off points for attacks. They hide in the houses and use the women and children as human shields.
To end up, with what message of hope should we approach the New Year?
I think that to succeed we should be inspired by a prayer we say every morning before the service and which is valid throughout the year. It is a text of the famous Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, who said, “Make us be able to see the qualities and the wisdom that are in our fellow man, and not his faults”. This is true for Israelis between themselves and for Jews the world over, among themselves and in their relations with Israel… in fact for everyone. We must be optimists and each time give our fellowman another chance. This is the only way to live, with the hope of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Recently we have been thrown back into the darkness of this proverbial tunnel. This was not the first time, neither in our long history nor in our recent past. Personally I believe that we can regain happiness and serenity by demonstrating just a bit more brotherly love and friendship among us. As for the Jewish people, we should always remember, at all times and in every place, that there is nothing temporary about our presence here in Israel in our old/new homeland, but that it is destined to last forever. It is the responsibility of each Jew, even those living temporarily in the Diaspora, to repeat loud and clear that Israel is our home and that we have nowhere else on earth. We must proclaim that our hope and our future are in Eretz Israel. I believe this will let us confront and overcome those of our neighbors who are still our enemies. A new year is always a harbinger of hope, but it is for us to turn it into a reality. To do that we must put aside our differences so that we can struggle together for the wellbeing of our families, our homes and our nation. That is the spirit in which we should approach the New Year and direct our prayers.