Wednesday, August 02, 2006

2-Aug-06: Remembering Past Losses

We're a people with a memory, we Jews. Tonight is the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. We call it Tisha B'Av, and it's been a day of fasting for us these past, oh, two thousand years. Not just fasting, but a day of remembering how the heavy burden of Jewish history has impacted generation after generation of Jews down through the ages.

As a child, I recall hearing from a teacher how Napoleon Bonaparte walked past a synagogue and heard the sounds of weeping. He looked inside and saw Jews of all ages sitting on the floor, reading and sobbing. When he asked why, someone told him it was what the Jews do when they call to mind their losses of 2,000 years earlier. His response, as my teacher conveyed it to me, was "A community that can mourn for 2,000 years will surely see the renewal of what was lost."

We spent this evening, as we have in past years, in a public reading of the Biblical book of Lamentations - Eicha, in Hebrew. Not in synagogue, but on a ridge on Mt Scopus about ten minutes drive from our home, looking out over Jerusalem, the city whose name every observant Jew pronounces dozens of times a day in prayer, as our grandparents did in Jerusalem, in Krakow, in Casablanca, in London, in Berlin. And as their grandparents did, and their grandparents' grandparents' grandparents did.

Sitting on a low stool as a sign of mourning (or on concrete steps, as we did) and looking out over Jerusalem as the words of Jeremiah the prophet are intoned mournfully, you would have to be made of rock yourself not to be aware of the history, and of what that history is telling us.

It's not a history that's confined to books, and not even to prayer books, but a history unfolding around us, enfolding us, embracing us.

The particular ridge where our community - with friends, guests, children, we are about 250 people - chooses to meet each year on this night used to be somewhat isolated. Then they built a road right beside it as part of the new rapid access routes that connect Jerusalem's eastern suburbs - places like Maale Adumim - to the center. The new road also serves part of the population that does not see the same significance in Tisha B'Av as we do: the Arab residents of this city. So this year, the quiet of our outdoor prayer gathering blended with the shouts and whistles of Arab Jerusalemites as they pulled up alongside. Not enough to bother anyone. Just enough to remind us of where we are, who else is here and what's on the agenda.

Today was a violent day in a violent period. Hezbollah's 'freedom fighters' have managed to fire more than 1,700 missiles into Israel since the start of the latest phase of this ongoing six-year, one-hundred-year war. Just today, Wednesday, they created a new record: 210 missiles, according to Haaretz; 182 according to Reuters. And the day is not over.

So far today, the Magen David Adom civil ambulance service has had to treat 159 people from injuries caused by Hezbollah missile attacks. 5 are described as moderately wounded; 47 as 'lightly' hurt; 107 needed treatment for shock. You can play with those definitions, because moderate, severe, light are words that make sense when we speak about other people. But when it happens to you and me, we're in much less doubt about what to call it. The family of David Lalchuk understand that. He became a kibbutznik after moving to Israel from Boston about the time we did, two decades ago. 52 years old, he had arranged for his wife and two daughters to take refuge down south while the missiles fell in the Nahariya/Kibbutz Saar neighbourhood. He heard the incoming-missile siren today and got on his bike to pedal to safety, but was hit and died.

In the 22 days since Hezbullah's six-year plan to wage war on the Zionists burst into activity,
2,208 Israelis have had to be treated in hospital for injuries from the missile attacks. 77 are still hospitalized, 3 in serious condition, 34 moderately injured and 40 in what Israelis like to call light condition. And 19 are dead, not including soldiers killed in action.

For the apostles of proportionate response, these are bad numbers. There need to be far more injured and killed Israelis. Perhaps there will be, and those critics will be happier. Meanwhile, almost every last one of us Israelis - stubborn, opinionated folk that we are - would like to have those casualty numbers stay exactly where they are and not grow.

Sitting on that dark hillside tonight, reading from the light of a small lantern, we could hear the cacophany of Moslem muezzins from various corners of East Jerusalem, calling their faithful to prayer. It's a fairly raucus sound if you are not familiar with it. Not melodious in a conventional sense, not meant to be easy-on-the-ears, but rather to burst right through whatever other activity might be underway. Which is just how it was for us tonight; disturbing, intrusive, a reminder of their very different outlook on life. They do it five times each day, and each time it seems, for those of us who hear it in this renewed, flowering, thriving Jerusalem a reminder of profound differences.

That's not to say that we Jewish Jerusalemites are provoked or angered or even, in most cases, bothered. Tonight at least, sitting on the hillside, looking down at the Temple Mount, visualizing the many tragedies we associate with the 9th day of Av, the person chanting the mournful verses did not even raise his voice. It's something we Jews do well: remember, quietly mourn our losses, recall our pain, honour those who came before us and who did not forget.

When you internalize the lessons that history has handed our people, you understand why there are some thousands of young Israelis on Lebanese soil and guarding northern Israel and southern Israel tonight. And also why the sputtering moral outrage and crocodile tears that accompanied yesterday's photographs of dead Lebanese children have so little impact on mainstream thinking in this country.

We have internalized our lessons from history, and other people have internalized theirs. On the whole, our version works for us, and has allowed us to establish a mainly tolerant, robustly democratic, forward-looking and justice-cherishing society. And for those still wondering: there is very, very little we need to learn regarding respect for human lives and for children from the Nasrallahs, the Assads, the Ahmadinejads and the Chiracs.

May the occasions of mournful remembering be turned to days of joy and celebration quickly in our time.


Gharqad Tree said...

Amen to that. I hope that you, and any peaceful Lebanese, may soon enjoy the peace that you wish for; a peace that comes of victory, and will last, not a peace that is merely the absence of violence while Hezbollah re-arm.

The-View-From-Ramot said...

Your sentiments are those of people of goodwill everywhere. Thank you for your prayer. Awareness of the Hezbollah malignancy is a relatively new thing here in Israel. It's surprising to see just how widespread is the awareness and determination that their missiles have unleashed. A public opinion survey was being discussed on a talk show just now, on Israeli television (we have going in the background round the clock) and it speaks of something over 80% of Israelis who view this Hezbollah war as being existential from Israel's point of view - literally a matter of life and death. Which I think means a general unwillingness (and that translates into political mandates in terms of domestic Israeli politics) to brush hezbollagh under the carpet as part of a ceasefire. People here are saying they're not going to be fooled again. They want a permanent change in Hezbollah's ability to make war - not a change in their willingness, since that's just words, but in their ability. Agreement on the part of 80% of Israelis is unheard of, in case that's not obvious to you.

Gharqad Tree said...

The things that Israelis want from this are, it seems to me, the ability to live in peace and security, safe from death or the fear of death. Is there any country in the world that does not demand the same as its right?

I am ashamed that Israel, on the other hand, is expected to live with a murdering militia on its northern border, simply because we in Europe are unconsciously afraid of our own 20 million muslims becoming even more radicalized should we allow Israel to actually defeat Hezbollah. As a Londoner, I say we should stand for what is right, and therefore stand by Israel, even if it makes us the targets of these thugs. We've stood toe to toe against this kind of hatred before, but we seem to have lost our balls (and with them our morality) since then.

It is good to know that Israel - with all its diversity - is unified in facing up to this threat and recognising it for what it is. How the European press can still dismiss Hezbollah as a minor irritant to which Israel is over-reacting is beyond me, especially when we consider that Hezbollah's sponsor Ahmadmaninjihad has yet again said that the world's woes could be cured if Israel were destroyed.

I wish you all strength and courage, and many prayers.