Monday, July 14, 2014

Report from Jerusalem

Of all the times my 19 year old daughter could have chosen to travel to Israel for a birthright trip, she ended up going last week. While she was in Jerusalem, she participated in two air raids, in which she had to run down four flights from her hotel room to the mall under her hotel designated as a bomb shelter. The second time, she and her roommate didn't have time to make it all the way downstairs, so they had to huddle together in a stairwell with other guests at the hotel, waiting for the all clear signal. She's not experienced enough with rocket fire to distinguish different types of explosions, but was told both times that the booms she heard were actually the sounds of the Iron Dome interceptors deflecting the rockets before they could strike the ground. Now that she has experienced the anxiety of waiting to find out whether her building was going to be struck by a rocket, my daughter thinks the Iron Dome defense system is a great idea!

It's not exactly the experience we had in mind for her. But as she says, it has made her appreciate the struggle for survival of this small country, and also how difficult it is to understand a conflict until you find yourself in the middle of it.

Most of us are far removed from the situation, and hold only a partial understanding of the complicated historical background to this conflict. That doesn't seem to stop those of us posting snap reactions on Twitter or Facebook from holding ourselves out as experts and casting blame on one side or the other for causing all the trouble.

To those who see Israel only as the villain, I would ask what you would expect any nation to do upon being struck with barrages of rockets by a group pledged to the destruction of that nation? What would the United States do, for example, if militants in Mexico seized the city of Tijuana and began lobbing rockets into homes in San Diego? And how do you justify the deliberate targeting of civilians, and the deliberate concealment of rocket launching sites inside homes and schools? Finally, if Hamas knows that this rocket fire is going to trigger a massive retaliation in which Palestinian civilians will suffer disproportionately while Israelis will emerge mostly unscathed, don't they bear some responsibility for the deaths of their own people?

And to those who see Hamas only as the villain, I would ask whether the retaliatory bombing of Gaza is giving Hamas exactly the propaganda victory it wants. Is Israel playing into its enemy's hands by carrying out what many are viewing as a disproportionate response? How will these periodic wars help end the cycle of violence and allow Israel to live in peace?

What's horrifying about this latest spate of violence (in addition to the overwhelming worry of my own kid being in the middle of it) is not that it's senseless and tragic. It's that both sides actually have some logical reasons for pursuing violent methods. For Hamas, the Israeli bombing of Gaza may create sympathy for their cause from much of the world. For Israel, Hamas rockets provide the opportunity to gain at least a temporary increase in security by cleaning out some of the rocket bases from which attacks are being launched. But I wonder whether either side has properly calculated the longer term costs of attempting to resolve their conflict by violent means. Violence does not seem the most direct way to peace. Blaming one side or the other is also not the way to peace. And however important it may seem, establishing who is right and who is wrong is also not a sure path to peace.

The way to peace is through understanding of the other side's perspective, appreciation of both sides' common humanity, and figuring out practical ways in which people of different views and traditions can learn to live together.

UPDATE (7/17): Cora's full report in the Jewish Journal