The front page news from Gaza feels like an assault on our humane sensibilities. The mounting death tolls of soldiers and civilians leaves me feeling sickened. I've just returned from three weeks in Israel, where I've taken cover in bomb shelters during rocket attacks, shared the anguish of friends whose children are called to military service, and wondered what would bring respite, if not solution, to the current fighting.
I still think about my colleague's story of his four-year-old daughter coming home from day camp in Jerusalem, reporting, "We learned the safety game today. First we all learned a song about going to a safe place where you can't get hurt, then we learned that when our counselor calls us to play the safety dame, we all hold hands and start singing the song; when our whole group is together, then we sing the song as we go down into the shelter, where we sing other songs and have a snack. Then when the time is up, we can go back up to our playground."
Did your four year-old come home from camp this summer with a story like that?
In early July, I experienced the red alert siren in Jerusalem for the first time. In the summer night's sky, we heard the boom of a rocket being intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system. While Jeru salem endured several alerts that week, there were far more attacks in the southern half of Israel.
In your home town, I'm guessing that a "bus shelter" means there's a roof over a bench so you can duck in out of the rain while waiting for the next bus to arrive. In Sderot, a "bus shelter" means a concrete room, about 10 feet square, built on the sidewalk. In Sderot, they have only 15 seconds to find shelter when a siren alerts them to an incoming missile. In your town, your city hall might be one of the taller buildings on the landscape. In Sderot, the city hall is underground.
As a souvenir of my recent travels, I kept the red alert app on my phone. Three rockets have fallen on the city of Ashkelon while I've been writing these words.
The current fighting in Gaza is not simply about borders and settlements. It is a response to months of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, and it is about the presence of more than 30 tunnels, with dozens entry points into Israel which represent a clear and present danger to residents of southern Israel. Israel has responded to Hamas, a militant organization whose charter declares "... our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging and grave ... Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it." As a Jewish person, it is chilling to know that not only does Hamas seek to eliminate Israel, in any form, but also seeks to eliminate Jews. Indeed, the Hamas charter not only denies the right of Israel and Jews to exist, it clearly rejects the Christian faith, even though many thousands of Pales tinians embrace Christianity.
The fighting in Gaza is not a religious war of Islam against Judaism. Hamas represents a particularly militant form of Islam, that grafts a religious tradition to political extremism, who hide destructive intentions behind religious identity, even as their tunnels are hidden underground avenues of killing. Judaism and Islam are not the identity of this conflict. Intractable extremism and a willingness to sacrifice innocent civilian lives for the sake of front-page photographs, are the cynically evil intentions of Hamas.
The region of Gaza where this fighting is taking place is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. Hamas has chosen to use mosques as places of armament storage. It has sited rocket launching sites on rooftops of apartment houses and schools. Hospitals are likewise military staging centers. Civilians have died in this war both from explosions of Hamas-fired wayward rockets, and from their exposure to Israeli attacks on military targets because their homes have been turned into military encampments.
The current fighting is, tragically, a continuation of Israel's war for independence in 1948. When the United Nations affirmed in late 1947 that there would be a Jewish homeland in Palestine, not everyone in the world celebrated the way we did. There was partition of land, but not everyone agreed. And so that war has continued in many ways and on many fronts since Israel's birth as a nation.
Soon there will be a truce, because manpower and weaponry will be exhausted. How temporary will the next cease-fire be? If Israel successfully represses the destructive power of Hamas, will that respite last only until the next militant fighters pick up where Hamas left off?
In spite of this bleak picture, I refuse to engage life without hope. I have always believed that human beings can find common ground for disputes if they are willing to engage openly and honestly. I have never been so challenged as I am at this current stage of fighting.
I continue to pray for peace because I believe that ultimately these neighbors will recognize that the history and love of land that brings them into conflict ultimately will bring them to an equilibrium that will keep the precious land, and its inhabitants, safe.
Cantor Robert Scherr is the Jewish chaplain for Williams College.