My brief stopover in Toronto last week happened to coincide with a solidarity rally for Sderot called by the Toronto Jewish Federation. As an Israeli citizen and a resident of Israel for almost three decades, it struck me that if Jews in Toronto were gathering to show solidarity with their fellow Jews in Sderot, it was no less incumbent upon me to do so.
The growing apathy of North American Jewry towards Israel was one of the topics I had been discussing in a series of speeches on the security situation in Israel, and I felt it also behooved me to observe counterexamples as well.
Finally, the headline speaker was Professor Alan Dershowitz, probably Israel’s most forceful advocate in the mainstream American media. In recent years, he has argued that Israel should announce in advance that the price for rocket attacks on Israel will be the destruction of a certain number of houses in neighborhoods from which those rockets emanate – a rather brave position for a member of the Harvard faculty and someone still identified as an international human rights advocate. I was curious to hear whether he would expand on that proposal and whether he believes that Israel could withstand the international outrage if it followed his advice.
Dershowitz spoke with the expected eloquence, skillfully pressed the crowd’s emotional buttons, and succinctly pointed out how international public opinion is the key to Hamas’s strategy: If they kill Jews with their rockets, they win; if Israel kills Palestinian civilians in an attempt to stop terrorists who operate out of civilian areas, they also win. The Palestinian’s trump card, as their spokesmen constantly proclaim, is that they love death while Jews and the West choose life. They can thus sacrifice their own citizens without compunction.
But about specific proposals as to what the Israeli government should do or how it could turn international public opinion he had little to say.
The standing room only crowd completely filled the large hall. Standing near the back, I could not have seen the stage if it were not for the closed circuit screens. Though a number of speakers referred to 2,000 people in attendance, I would have put the number far higher. My guess is that about 40% of those present were Orthodox, a relatively low figure for such affairs. Nor was my black hat the only one in the crowd.
The most moving part of the evening was the satellite hook-up from Sderot, where a large number of residents had gathered at 3:00 a.m. in the morning in a community center built with funding from the Canadian Jewish Federation. Among those who told their stories was a 31-year-old nurse whose blood-streaked face recently appeared on the front page of Israel’s mass circulation dailies, after her house was hit by a Kassam. A number of teenagers in the community center were interviewed. They described what it is like to live in a place where one is always aware of the distance to the nearest reinforced bus shelter, and calculating whether one can reach it in seven seconds, the amount of advanced warning provided by the sirens (when they work).
There was also a taped interview with a mother of six shown in the basement of her home surrounded by the mattresses on which her children sleep. Hers is one of a group of 120 national religious families who have moved to Sderot in recent months. Though I cannot imagine placing my own children in such danger, there is no denying the insight of those families that if Jews are forced to flee Sderot, it will be just the first of many cities we are forced to flee as the range of Palestinian missiles increases.
FROM THE MOMENT that the scenes from Sderot began, I found myself crying. I wasn’t exactly sure why. The most obvious explanation, of course, was that I was crying over the suffering of the residents of Sderot. But I suspect that there was something else behind those tears as well – a certain question: Why did I have to come to Toronto to focus on the suffering of my fellow Jews in Sderot?
Despite following the news more closely than most, and despite having visited Sderot not so long ago with my neighbor Rabbi Meir Fendel, whose son Rabbi Dov Fendel is the rosh yeshiva of the hesder yeshiva in Sderot, only now was I forced to fully confront the reality of life in Sderot. That realization brought home how cut off Israeli Jews are from the suffering of one another.
I also reflected on how unlikely it would have been for me to participate in such a gathering of a broad cross-section of my fellow Jews in intensely polarized Israel. Even within the Israeli religious community, those things about which chareidim demonstrate generally do not attract the national religious community and vice versa.
It is always dangerous to extrapolate from one’s own feelings, but I suspect that many of my fellow chareidim also yearn for more opportunities to connect with their fellow Jews in common purpose. That is perhaps one reason chareidim have been behind the creation of a wildly disproportionate percentage of volunteer organizations serving the entire population, such as Yad Sarah, Ezer MiTzion, and a host of medical referral organizations. The desire for such connection is also one aspect of the widespread impulse to engage in kiruv work, whether knocking on doors or by telephone.
The concept of Klal Yisrael, of all Jews bound together by a common mission and common destiny, is real for us. But it is also an abstraction, and like any abstraction must be reinforced by concrete experiences.
I can still remember as a young tourist getting on a bus on the morning of the Entebbe rescue, and feeling a magical electricity in the air. My Hebrew was not yet good enough to understand the news blaring from the radio, and it took me a while to grasp why people were hugging and kissing one another with such joy.
That experience was a life-changing one for me, for it brought to the fore my sense of connectedness to every other Jew on the bus and forced me to ponder the nature of what we shared in common, despite all the obvious differences between us. The contrast to my awareness on a New York subway primarily of those things that distinguished me from fellow passengers – skin color, educational level, social class – could not have been starker.
I do not expect to experience anything quite like the joy of that summer morning again until the coming of Mashiach. The Toronto rally was hardly joyous. But it at least offered a hint of Jewish unity, and provided a reminder of how high is the price exacted from each of us by the absence of such unity today.
This article appeared in Mishpacha Mar 5 2008