Throughout Jewish history, the three weeks before Tisha B’Av have been mournful, even dark. The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “baseless hatred” (sinat chinam). This year, with Hamas rockets and tunnels terrorizing the State of Israel, the upcoming day of remembrance takes on additional meaning.
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Hamas is waging a brutal war against Israel’s very existence. The tunnels are intended to inflict terror and death on Israel’s southern border communities. Israelis and Jews everywhere realize that these threats must be ended. But Israelis know something else as well. They know that they will not answer hatred with hatred. They know that the Jewish people and the state of Israel, who aspire to peace, must never give sanction to hatred for another people or another religion.
The danger of this war is that it is also creating a climate of distrust, even hatred, inside Israel, pitting Jew against Arab. And yet, on my recent trip to Israel, I saw with my own eyes remarkable deeds of heroism and compassion, even in the face of such troubling and, yes, mournful times.
I participated in two gatherings made possible by the joint emergency campaign of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conservative and Reform Movements. Through “Stop the Sirens,” JFNA’s broad-based communal fundraising effort, the North American Jewish community is helping Israelis get the care and services they urgently need.
Just a few kilometers from Gaza, I joined Rabbi Yael Karrie, the inspiring young leader of our Reform congregation in Sha’ar Hanegev as she welcomed Shabbat with combat soldiers who had been on the frontlines fighting in Gaza just minutes before.
Later, I ate Shabbat dinner at Mishkenot Ruth, a vibrant Jaffa-based outpost of Reform congregation Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, alongside families from Sderot and the kibbutzim that surround Gaza. After long days and nights spent in bomb shelters, their children laughed and played freely again, and together, we offered prayers and sang songs that bound us to Jewish people all over the world.
Indeed, Jews worldwide are expressing their solidarity with Medinat Yisrael. Also in Israel, I spent time with some of the nearly 2000 North American Reform Jewish teens and young adults who are participating in the Reform Movement’s summer programs there, all ready to share their Israel experience as informal ambassadors.
The war has taken a toll on so many brave Israelis. I joined Dr. Raphael Walden – deputy director of the Sheba Medical Center, a devoted lay leader of the Israeli Reform Movement, and the son-in-law of Shimon Peres – in visiting wounded IDF soldiers at Tel Hashomer hospital. As we made rounds, I was moved to see that these injured soldiers were surrounded, not just by their families, but also by swarms of visitors bearing food, gifts, and love. The Israelis expressed an intense – and deeply moving – display of solidarity with soldiers they had never met.
In addition to treating Israeli soldiers and civilians, Dr. Walden co-chairs Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and spends his free time caring for ailing Palestinians in the West Bank. In recent days he helped arrange for medical supplies to be delivered to Gaza hospitals caring for the many wounded because, he said, he couldn’t imagine treating the injured without basic medical supplies. His faith requires him to care deeply about IDF soldiers and the millions of Israelis in harm’s way, but his compassion extends to all those affected by the war – as should ours.
It was this faith and compassion that drove me to stop at Hadassah Medical Center to visit two young men who were badly wounded – but not from the fighting in Gaza. Samer Mahfouz and Amir Shwiki are Palestinians from Beit Hanina, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. They had been savagely attacked and beaten unconscious by a group of fanatical young Jews filled with hatred for all Palestinians.
As my colleagues and I entered Samer’s hospital room, I could tell his family was nervous to see us. With me were Noa Sattath, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and a delegation from Tag Meir, a group of 40 organizations standing against a spate of Jewish attacks on Palestinians. We were the first Jews to visit since the brutal attack.
Bearing flowers and food for after their Ramadan break-fast, we expressed to these distraught Palestinian families how ashamed we were by the attack. We wanted them to know that the majority of Israeli and Diaspora Jews are praying for the men’s speedy recovery and are determined to see that their attackers are brought to justice. We will do our part, we told them, to uproot such hatred through education, partnerships, and other strategies for creating a society that respects the other.
Samer spoke to us in beautiful Hebrew, telling us that both men have ties to their Jewish coworkers and neighbors. Amir was upstairs in the ICU, just beginning to recover consciousness after the near-fatal attack, but his mother, father, and brothers accepted our visit with open hearts. It’s too easy to let one’s heart close during a time of war; our goal must always be to keep our hearts open.
Make no mistake about it, Iron Dome and brave IDF soldiers are protecting our beloved Jewish State, but ultimately there can be no military solution to uprooting hatred, also a threat to Israel’s future. That can come only after years of education and the fostering of human ties, which we all pray will dawn one day soon.
The kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the attack on Samer Mahfouz and Amir Shwiki dishonor the Jewish tradition and undermine the values of Zionism and the Jewish state. The overwhelming majority of Israelis know this, and Israelis such as Dr. Raphy Walden lead the way. They show us that this long and terrible war imposed upon Israel must never be permitted to kill our individual or collective consciences. And for their leadership, we are intensely proud. Dr. Walden shows us how to walk a moral path; he gives us a most compelling example of a how a heart can have many chambers.
Tonight and tomorrow we will observe Tishah B’Av, when we remember the destructions of the first and second temples and other tragedies of Jewish history. The month of Av is often referred to as Menachem Av, one that requires an extra measure of comfort. Traditionally, the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is referred to as Shabbat Nachamu named for the special haftarah. In Isaiah 40:1, the Israelites are beseeched “nachamu, nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem” – “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.” Ours is a tradition, which, in the face of unimaginable heartbreak and tragedy, rather than to wallow in the sadness and despair, instructs us to dig deep, find comfort, and to pivot our energies toward the positive.
Even - and especially – in these most troubling times when we need to defend our people and our land, all the while burying so many, we must distance ourselves from the inertia of hatred and express the moral expansiveness of our wise and demanding tradition.
Rabbi Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest movement of organized Jewry in North America and affiliated with the Israel Religious Action Center and the Israel Movement of Progressive Judaism.