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Jan. 30, 2024- 20 Sh'vat 5784

01/29/2024 02:37:43 PM


The crisis for Israel has transmuted into a crisis for Jews everywhere as both an internal and an external challenge to our existence with greater intensity than any I have ever known. The external crisis is clear; the internal one represents the diverse interests within Jewish society. 

Political necessity in 1948 dictated the new Israeli state, led by David ben Gurion, to start with the ‘status quo’. Over the years, the very Latin term meaning ‘the current state of things’, entered the vocabulary of everyday Hebrew. That meant the inclusion of Ottoman law, British Mandatory law, and over decades, legislation from the Knesset. More than seventy-five years later, little has been changed in matters of personal status, then as now determined by religious affiliation.

What has changed, however, is the Israeli populace. The early years were shaped by the largely Ashkenazic elites which had played a critical role in founding a modern economy during the Yishuv—settlement from 1900 to 1948. In short order after statehood, immigration from the remnant of European Jewry, and the surrounding nations brought hundreds of thousands of displaced Jews into the new country. There were numerical exchanges between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon: Jews in, Palestinians out. Israel made the new arrivals citizens. The neighboring states rejected theirs.

The international community of the United Nations acted in short order to create a special agency to serve the displaced Palestinians. It bears the name to this day of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA, pronounced /ˈʌnrə/ UN-rə). UNWRA’s responsibility started for all the displaced but ended inside Israel in 1952. As the population has grown, with the majority of the Palestinians living in the West Bank (occupied by Jordan until June 1967) and Egypt (in the narrow Gaza Strip established by Egypt from 1949-1967), the work of UNWRA has continued, especially in matters of social, educational and cultural matters, using funds contributed by Western nations with smaller additions by oil-rich nations [Saudi Arabia, Emirates].

Late last week, more than 100 days into the war that began with Hamas invading Israel on October 7, first reports alleging that multiple employees of UNRWA in Gaza did double duty as part of the Hamas attack.  These serious allegations have led to an international reaction. Led by the United States, about a dozen funding nations have suspended their on-going payments to UNRWA. 

This report comes in tandem with the preliminary report of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the case brought by South Africa against Israel as violating the treaty on the prevention of Genocide, to which Israel is a signatory. While the ICJ did not hold Israel guilty of these charges at this point—but could as the larger case moves through the process in coming years—Israel was warned [again] to take greater care in protecting Gaza civilians from harm as fighting continues.

We have, then, two matters in the news from the war front that mesh in the international conflict that Hamas started but Israel has promised to finish. In this media contest, it is not going well for Israel or the Palestinians. On the ground, despite setbacks and the enormous toll of injured and dead Israel military personnel, Israel has claims to success. The cost for Palestinians, reported as passing 26,000 including more than 10,000 Hamas fighters, is far worse.

This leaves me feeling frustrated and sad—as I hear through the network of limited degrees of separation of deaths—that there is a real danger that the Israeli government has limited incentives to end their battle against Hamas, that the regional situation is growing more tense and that third party military based in Syria or shipping via the vital Suez Canal route are all endangered. 

Last Shabbat, the few verses of Exodus 17 introduce the ancient tribe of Amalek—Israel’s permanent foes—to us. In that scene, the attack on Israelites fleeing from the catastrophe of the splitting of Yam Suf and the subsequent drowning of Pharaoh’s forces—is iconic for the divine intervention required to overcome them. In our times, the power of the Divine in daily life might be less perceivable, but our responsibility to repel the descendants of Amalek is unchanged.

I am hopeful that the announced agreement to release the kidnapped from October 7 will become a reality. I am concerned that a two-month cessation of hostilities will enable Hamas to regroup. The decision to proceed with this agreement rests with the parties involved. Israel was at the table, indicating it will say yes. Hamas’ reaction remains to be seen.

The other crisis—the internal Jewish one remains as a dilemma. How can Israel remain both a Jewish State and a Democracy? How can a language—Ivrit Modernit, Modern Hebrew—with no word for ‘pluralism’ accommodate the social and religious diversity modern Judaism implies?

I draw hope and strength from Israel, from the unanticipated progress of recent years toward acceptance of a Jewish State in the contemporary Middle East. May it so continue.

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784