Less than a month ago, I thrust my 2-year old into my arms, grabbed the hands of my two other children and ran for my life.
Just minutes before, we were playing ball on the beach in Tel Aviv. It was our final night in Israel, and my wife and I, after changing our plans a half-dozen times, were determined to show our children the Mediterranean Sea before flying home to Raleigh. There were sunbathers on the beach, windsurfers in the water and plenty of people enjoying the setting sun. It was a postcard moment.
But then the sirens began to blare, and we ran, with hundreds of others, in search of shelter. Within a few minutes, we were standing to the rear of a restaurant when suddenly we were hushed by those near the windows. Holding our breath, we heard the sounds of Iron Dome doing its magic: “Puff, puff, puff.” Three missiles, my cellphone told me, were intercepted in the sky. One fell into an open field. And one hit an Israeli civilian causing life-threatening injuries.
When nearly everyone had cleared out, my son turned to me: “Abba, what if one of those missiles hits our plane?” To calm him, I made up a plausible answer. “Don’t worry, sweetie. There are extra Iron Dome batteries protecting the airport.” He seemed relieved but, truth be told, I wasn’t. Inside, I was worried for our lives.
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In those moments, I confess that thoughts arose that make me cringe now that I have returned to the comforts of suburban North Raleigh. Put euphemistically, for the safety of my family, I wished that all of Gaza would simply disappear.
But, thank God, my thoughts did not stay there and here’s why.
Two weeks earlier, after assessing the risks, my family and I decided to take a hike in southern Israel by the Dead Sea. Near the end of the hike, we gathered under the shade of a cluster of trees when a huge boom roared from the sky. Instinctively, I jumped to cover my daughter. White in the face, I asked a nearby hiker what happened. He said it was a sonic boom from a jet doing a training exercise.
While still holding my daughter, it occurred to me, “What is it like for innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza right now?” They were experiencing a steady stream of booms from Israeli planes not only flying close but also launching missiles.
For them, the fear must be indescribable. My heart just broke.
I unequivocally believe that Israel was justified in responding to Hamas’ missile and tunnel attacks. Having traveled during the war to towns near the Gaza Strip, I saw Israeli suffering with my own eyes. Whole families were living in bomb shelters and, due to the constant rocket fire over the years, children suffered from anxiety attacks and PTSD. To protect them from life-threatening chaos, Israel had no choice.
And yet I agonized over the innocent children killed by Israeli fire. Though their deaths were unintentional, each life lost was a cataclysm.
This internal clash between the fear for our lives and the painful reality that innocents were being sacrificed tore me in two. I experienced, what many Israelis and American Jews express in quieter moments, enormous angst. Paralyzing sadness. Intense questioning as to whether war is the only way to resolve this conflict.
I also noticed the opposite response. Hamas and Israeli right-wing extremists were ironically united in rejecting any sense of angst. For them, the enemy is any living being on the other side of the border.
“An Israeli child is a future soldier,” a Hamas fighter might say. “They voted for Hamas so they are all terrorists,” an Israeli extremist might add. Both affirm barbarism and deny the image of God in the other.
In Genesis, Jacob and Esau, the two children of Isaac, engage in a nearly life-long conflict. Just before they reconcile, Jacob dreams of wrestling with an angel and, by daybreak, his name is changed to “Israel,” translated as “one who struggles with God.” The Jewish people, named collectively as Israel from that day onward, were then defined as a people who struggle. Or, in other words, a people who embraces angst.
By refusing to focus exclusively on ourselves and choosing to open our hearts to the suffering of others, we strugglers avoid succumbing to idolatrous, single-minded, unfeeling tribalism. Our angst, while nearly unbearable, is actually a blessing. One that is needed now more than ever.
There is a possible path toward resolution of this age-old conflict. Polls consistently show that a majority on both sides wishes to live in peace, raise their families, earn their keep and see their children reach a ripe old age. But they will never be able to take steps forward if extremists are in the lead. To have any chance at peace, we must help bring the voices of moderates to the fore.
My family and I have returned home, re-acclimating to the serene beauty of life in the Triangle.
But, even now, whenever I hear a siren, I find myself scanning for the nearest shelter. Every time I see the war in the news, I wonder how Israelis and Palestinians will find a way to carry on after losing so many loved ones. Deep in my soul, I still have angst. For the sake of peace, I pray that it never goes away.
Rabbi Eric Solomon is the spiritual leader of Beth Meyer Synagogue in North Raleigh.