The American Jewish World provides a weekly assortment of news reports and opinion pieces about Israel and the Middle East — likely more than the average subscriber of this newspaper cares to read. The skewed coverage, of course, reflects the inclinations of the editor, who is fascinated with Israel and tries to keep abreast of what’s happening in the Jewish state.
I read dozens of e-mails each day from Israel, and search for information both online and from printed newspapers and magazines. Also, I visited Israel for about a week in November (my sixth visit since 1996), as the embedded reporter with the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Israel @ 60 Mission. I wrote several articles and editorials about Israel, during the lull before the current storm.
Early last Friday morning, I woke and, after getting a glass of orange juice, phoned Israel. Instead of going to the Internet or the Star Tribune, I got my Israel update directly from Aharon Barnea, a veteran TV journalist who will be speaking Jan. 13 at the Sabes JCC. He is the senior correspondent and anchorman for Israel’s Channel 2 TV in Washington, D.C.
What has happened today in Israel’s war in Gaza?
“Today started early this morning with four missiles falling inside the town of Ashkelon,” Barnea reported, and added that a number of missiles launched from Gaza hit other nearby Israeli towns. “As far as I know, only a few people injured today, no mortal casualties. The Israeli air force is continuing to hit, in a very surgical way, very certain Hamas targets. And everyone is talking about a move on the ground, but there is a lot of controversy regarding whether it’s going to be a smart move or not. A big debate is going on regarding that option.”
On Saturday, Israeli leaders launched a ground offensive. At the time of this writing, there does not seem to be a consensus about whether this is a “smart move.” The death toll in the Gaza Strip is 550, with a rough estimate of 100 civilian deaths in that total. The images in the news portray a horrific reality in Gaza, which was not a garden spot prior to Israel’s current military campaign.
As the AJW went to press this week, six Israeli soldiers had been killed in the ground operation. And there was more dreadful news about civilian casualties: Haaretz, and other Israeli news outlets, reported Tuesday that 30 Palestinians were killed, and 55 injured, by Israeli tank shells that exploded in the courtyard of a Gaza school where people had taken shelter.
I don’t believe the rhetoric about “surgical” strikes; Israeli bombardment of the densely populated Gaza Strip – Gaza City and refugee camps — will kill and maim civilians. Perhaps this is the martyrdom sought by some of the true believers in the ranks of Hamas; but we’re really talking about men, women and children burned and ripped to bits by high explosives, and families left to grieve their losses. The war planners refer to this as “collateral damage.”
Perhaps Israel is warning Palestinians in Gaza of impending attacks (see letter from Jonathan Paradise); but this war, any war, is taking a tragic human toll in innocent lives.
It is also true that Hamas is firing rockets out of residential areas and hiding themselves and their weapons in mosques, hospitals and apartment buildings. Hamas is a reprehensible group with an evil, benighted anti-Semitic ideology; the hand of the Iranian regime can be seen in its aggression and criminality.
Israel is dealing with an implacable foe, which does not concern itself with humane considerations or international conventions regarding the conduct of warfare. Hamas has illegally held an Israeli captive, Gilad Shalit, incommunicado for two and a half years. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says that Israel has “nothing against the people of Gaza but we are in a war to the death with Hamas.”
During the Friday telephone interview, I asked Barnea about the timing of Israel’s war against Hamas forces, vis-Ã -vis the imminent change of government in Washington. He responded that there is much speculation among Israeli pundits about the military offensive being launched in the waning days of the Bush administration — and before an Obama administration, a relatively unknown quantity, Middle East policy-wise, takes over. In any case, Barnea ventured that Obama will concern himself with the deepening economic crisis, and delegate the Israeli-Arab conflict portfolio to “Hillary” — the new secretary of state, Ms. Clinton.
Barnea acknowledged that the Israeli citizenry generally thought that the government had to act, after the tadiyeh (truce or calm) between Israel and Hamas expired on Dec. 19 — and the rocketeers began stepping up the pace and increasing the range of their attacks, from 12 to 18 to 24 miles outside of the Gaza Strip.
The chancellor of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba — which has the largest student body of any campus in Israel, according to Barnea — cancelled classes last week because of the threat of missile attacks. Barnea said the chancellor is a friend of his from high school.
From my online gleanings, I read that there is a lively debate in Israel about all facets of the war in Gaza; there also have been antiwar street protests. Some demonstrations have degenerated into physical clashes between Israeli Jews and Arabs, at the University of Haifa and at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
In a more hopeful vein, I talked on Tuesday morning with Dr. Merav Moshe-Grodofsky, a lecturer in the social work department at Sapir College in Sderot, Israel. She helped organize a vigil on Tuesday in Beersheba to promote “continued communication between Jews and Arabs on both sides of the border” between Israel and Gaza.
Moshe-Grodofsky said that her group is comprised of students, academics and public officials, who are working together to keep open the lines of communication.
“We think that the ability of Jews and Arabs to live together is possible; we know it from our lives in the south of Israel. And we want that to be the message in a very, very difficult time,” she explained during a brief phone conversation.
Moshe-Grodofsky has lived in Sderot over recent years, at the proverbial ground zero of the rocket fire coming from Gaza.
“Absolutely, I have experienced the bombing, the effects of the bombings. I worked with students who have lived under the conditions of bombings; and yet, I am very clear that we have to continue to talk and look for viable solutions,” she said.
As for Jewish Americans, the official unelected spokespersons for the Jewish community have closed ranks behind Israel in this war. But I think that many Jews are disturbed by what they see in the news coverage and have profound doubts that Israel has embarked upon a wise course. Judging from the quiet telephone on my desk and the dearth of e-mails, it seems that most Jews are apathetic about the war. There are other pressing concerns facing Jewish families in this uncertain economy. Fewer than 20 percent of American Jews have ever visited Israel.
Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer recently wrote about various segments of the American Jewish community and their views on Israel’s war. He notes that there are a “large number of Pavlovian flag-wavers, good and innocent Zionists and Jews who see only the trauma inflicted on the people of Sderot, Ashkelon and other parts of the country’s southwest, and instinctively position themselves behind the IDF, often saying that the government should have allowed it to go in further and strike harder.”
The second cohort identified by Pfeffer is comprised of “highly vocal” dissenters “who feel compelled to atone for Israel’s manifold sins and join its enemies in the demonstrations and sign petitions accusing the Zionist entity of war crimes. They have cut themselves firmly off from the local community’s mainstream, and they are fine where they are.”
Finally, Pfeffer comes to a “third stream of Jews — perhaps not the widest one, but I believe quite significant — who have more complex and uncomfortable feelings on the matter. They care deeply for Israel and understand even why its government felt compelled to launch the devastating Operation Cast Lead, but they are extremely disturbed and hurt by the level of civilian deaths and destruction that almost seems part and parcel of the action. Surely, they say, there must, there has to be another way of doing this.
“And they live with those doubts, often unexpressed, even among families and close friends because the worst thing they find is that others around them don’t seem to discern between the different nuances, and can’t find in themselves compassion for the dead and wounded on the other side. They begin asking themselves very awkward questions: Are they surrounded by latent racists, or is something wrong with them that denies the feelings of certainty of those around them? Or does everyone have similar doubts but is simply afraid to express them?”
In this third group, according to Pfeffer, are some in perhaps the “most difficult predicament,” those who work for Jewish communal groups, “the kind of august institutes that have already felt the need to issue those meaningless announcements that ‘the pan-national Jewish forum stands firmly in support of Israel.’ Almost constantly, they find their dearest beliefs challenged.”
I see the rhetorical cant in statements from all sides about Israel’s war in Gaza. I am disturbed and saddened by the loss of life and the destruction wrought by Israel, and by Hamas, in the ongoing war. I have written many editorials about the growing danger in the Middle East, about the hopelessness spawned by Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which has been blockaded on all sides by Israel.
With the ongoing war, the crisis has deepened and any chances for a negotiated settlement of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem remote. People, Jews and non-Jews are always asking me about Israel and the Middle East, as if I know the magic formula for a settlement — if such a thing actually exists — because I happen to have this job in the Jewish press.
I do think that Israel’s war in Gaza provides an opportunity for the Jewish community to come together and talk about their concerns regarding Israel’s current war, and share ideas about creating a sustainable future for Israel and her neighbors, and for Jews in Minnesota.
The upcoming talk by Aharon Barnea on Tuesday, Jan. 13, at the Sabes JCC in St. Louis Park, provides such an opportunity. The American Jewish World is the media sponsor for this event, which is sponsored by the Israel Program Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. There is a reception at 7 p.m., and Barnea will speak at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $5. For information, call Noga Shavit, the Minneapolis area shlicha (Israel emissary) at 952-381-3551, or e-mail: email@example.com.