Sunday, May 28, 2000

Heroes from the North

Heroes from the North
May 28, 2000

On Wednesday night, as we were discussing plans for the upcoming Shabbat, the phone rang.  The voice on the other end of the line asked if we would like to spend the week-end in Kiryat Shemona, on the northern border of Israel.

My wife lived and worked in Kiryat Shemona almost 25 years ago. In spite of the fact that we have good friends there, we hadn't visited Kiryat Shemona is almost 20 years. They always came down here to see us, but we never managed to find a way to make the trip north.  Being familiar with the pressures of a city under siege, we decided to take the plunge. We didn't take the whole family with us - some of the kids stayed in the Hebron area with friends. But three of them made the trip with us, from Hebron to Kiryat Shemona.

We weren't alone. Two full buses, including close to 100 students from the Kiryat Arba Yeshiva high school, led by Hebron resident Rabbi Avinoam Horowitz, and several other Hebron families came along. We boarded the buses at 11:00 and arrived at our destination at 4:30 in the afternoon.

Don't think it was a boring ride. It wasn't. The view, through the Judean Desert, through the date-studded tree streets of Jericho, climaxes after about two and a half hours. All of a sudden the lush green view is almost swept aside by the magnificence of the Golan Heights, from the right-hand windows of the bus. This stark-looking mountain range, stretching for kilometer after kilometer, is the security line bordering Israel with Syria. It is unimaginable that such a strategic land area should be transferred to our archenemy, Syria. Last week, I spoke to one of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's top aides about PR work in the US. He said to me, in these words, "The problem isn't with the United States. I was there, in Congress. When I started speaking to Congressmen and women from the western United States about the Golan Heights they stopped me in mid-sentence. 'You don't have to tell us - we were there. And anyone who has ever been there understands why the Golan must remain under Israeli control.' The problem isn't there - it's here with us, in Israel."

And on the other side of the bus, beneath the Golan  Heights, is the Kinneret - the Sea of Galilee. What a breathtaking site - on one side the Golan, and on the other side, the Kinneret.

The ride continues, and the road signs show that Kiryat Shemona is getting closer and closer. To the west, the Hills of Naftali. To the East, the Hula Valley. Green, and green, and more green.  What makes the scenery more amazing is the fact that less than 100 years ago the entire area was swampland.  Only after the sacrifices of hundreds of people who perished due to malaria and other diseases, were the swamps dried and the land made arable.

Hebron-Kiryat Arba were not the only visitors in Kiryat Shemona. According to the organizers, over 2,000 people arrived from different parts of Israel to give encouragement to this border city. On Shabbat evening visitors scattered around, praying in one of the 30 or so synagogues in the city. Saturday afternoon, after lunch, the Kiryat Arba Yeshiva high school students, together with their dean, Rav Avinoam Horowitz, visited hundreds of Kiryat Shemona residents, bringing with them a special gift of Hebron wine produced in Kiryat Arba, and proclaimed together with them a special "l'chaim" - "to life" blessing.

On Saturday night the visitors, together with Kiryat Shemona residents, celebrated at a large outdoor gathering in "Kikar Tzahal" - the "Army Square."  A festive atmosphere quickly developed, with yeshiva students dancing side by side with Kiryat Shemona's heroic population. Musical entertainment was supplemented with short speeches by Kiryat Shemona Mayor Haim Barbevai, the city's Chief Rabbi Rav Tzefania Drori, and special guest Rabbi Nir ben Artzi. It was a wonderful couple of hours, leaving everyone feeling the unity of various segments of the Israeli populace, joining together, giving support one to the other.

Many times in the past few years we have organized special Hebron events, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the city of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Countless times I've overheard guests speaking amongst themselves saying, "I came here to give them support, but feel that I am being strengthened more than I am giving them strength."  That is exactly the way I felt after a day in Kiryat Shemona.  These people have lived with, and still live with the threat of an instantaneous missile attack, with Ketusha flying into their homes from Lebanon, only a few miles away. Every time you hear a booming sound, (something we live with constantly in Hebron), everyone looks at each other, asking, "what was that?" A Ketusha attack is translated into the reality of living in tiny bomb shelters, men, women and children of different families, cramped together, perhaps even for a few days. Leaving the bomb shelter may seem the "brave thing to do" but it also means putting your life in jeopardy. Stories of Kiryat Shemona residents wounded or killed in Ketusha attacks are far from being pleasant.

Following the withdrawal of Israeli troops from South Lebanon, there is no longer a 'buffer zone' between Israel and the Lebanese-Hizbullah terrorists. Now Kiryat Shemona is the buffer zone between the terrorists and the rest of the country. It is not an easy fact to live with.

But, live with it they do, and it was a pleasure to watch all the children running and playing as do children all over the world. But these children are definitely special because they are living the kind of existence most of us cannot even imagine, no less try to duplicate.  When the Israeli media describes of residents of northern Israel, the residents of Kibbutz Manara and Misgav Am, Moshav Margaliot, the cities of Metullah and Kiryat Shemona, as the heros of Israel they are not exaggerating.  May they be an example to us all.

Tuesday, May 9, 2000

The Privilege to Die

The Privilege to Die
4 Iyar 5760 - Yom HaZicharon
May 9, 2000

Yesterday afternoon I received an email that left me staggering. The Prime Minister's letter to bereaved families opened as follows:

Dear Families, Parents, Widows, Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters,

Again, we stand together with you on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of
Israel's Wars facing our dear ones who look out at us from the walls of
the memorials and commemorative books.

Again, we visit today the rows of graves that extends to infinity, look
at the headstones with our hearts bleeding - we still refuse to believe
and we  refuse to be consoled.

Because there is no consolation.

Heavy, maybe too heavy, is the price we bear for our independence and building the 52 years of the State of Israel.
The Prime Minister of Israel, a former Chief of Staff, the "most decorated soldier" in Israel's history, is saying that the price of our existence in an independent state is "maybe too heavy?!"
These two days, Yom HaZicharon - Memorial Day, and Yom HaAzmaut - Independence Day, are, at first glance, a strange mix, somehow contradictory. In order to understand the paradox, first it is necessary to comprehend the significance of these two days.

Memorial Day, in the United States, is usually marked by picnics. In Israel, Memorial Day is marked by sad, nostalgic music, tragic and heroic war stories, accounts of the lives of  men and women suddenly severed, and by visits to cemeteries together with solemn public ceremonies. There aren't too many people in Israel who have not been hit, one way or another, by a war and/or a terrorist attack. Whether a beloved family member, a neighbor, a friend, or a friend's friend, everyone knows someone, or of someone who has fallen. The wounds, even if they are 52 years old, are still fresh, and in many cases, still festering. Memorial Day, when a two minute siren is wails twice, once at 8:00 at night, and again at 11:00 in the morning, is a time when all Israelis stand united, crying for those no longer with us.

On the other hand, Independence Day is a time of joy and celebration, a night of fireworks, a vacation day of outdoors activities, a true national festival. The miracle of our return to Eretz Yisrael, the miracle of our statehood is truly a reason to rejoice.

Were these two days a week apart, there wouldn't be any problem.  But there isn't any separation between them. One day leads into the next. One moment we stand somberly at attention, and the next minute we are stretching our necks, watching the fireworks explode above our heads, high in the sky.

The contrast is hard to miss. And for people in mourning, it's a difficult switch to make.

Yet, the two days are back-to-back because it is impossible to celebrate our independence without first paying due to those who gave their very lives in order that others should be able to celebrate, while at the same time we cannot mourn without seeing the tangible fruits of the reason for mourning. The two are intrinsically tied together, however hard it is to turn one off and the other one on.

Late last night, before going to sleep, I listened a radio call-in show, the subject of which was Memorial Day. A father whose son was killed in action called in. He spoke of his son, and of his pain and grief. But then he said, "we have to remember not only the pain of death, but also the "zechut", (which in Hebrew means privilege,) to die for our State. Where would we be if people were not willing to die for their land, for themselves?"

He went on, stating that he is sure that if given the opportunity, all of those exterminated in Hitler's gas chambers would gladly have shorn their civilian clothes and worn uniforms, rather than die as they did. Continuing, he spoke of the pride of building a state, and of having a state to die for, as opposed to all the Jews who were defenselessly slaughtered, without any way to fight back. "If you have a state, and must fight to defend yourself, someone will die. And it is a zechut - a privilege, to have a son who died for his country, for his people."

Such are the words of a bereaved father.

What are the words of the leader of our country?: Heavy, maybe too heavy, is the price we bear for our independence and building the 52 years of the State of Israel.

This is why Ehud Barak was nicknamed Ehud Barach (Ehud ran away - a Hebrew play on words). This is exactly what Barak is doing - he is running away, because the price, as he views it, is too heavy. The question then is, when is the price not too heavy - what price is he willing to pay for a state? The fact that he is abandoning the entire northern border, as well as Judea, Samaria and Gazza gives us a glimpse of the answer. It seems that as far as Barak is concerned, it is preferable not to have a state, than to have a state that must be fought for, defended and even died for.

Ehud Barak, Prime Minister of Israel, seems to have forgotten that the Jewish people were denied a state and the right to fight back for 2,000 years. Today it is a privilege to have a state to fight for. No doubt, it is preferable to live, to live in peace. But under the circumstances, as the bereaved father so stated, it is also a privilege to have a state to fight for, to die for.

On Memorial Day - or as others call it, Remembrance Day, it seems that there is much to remember.

Happy Independence Day.