Comfort from calvin

Comfort from calvin

Emigration from Israel‏ (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Emigration from Israel‏
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
I did not want to be on the plane I boarded in mid-July. I’ve been through a lot of wars, but this is the first one I was leaving the country for.

How could I? I had two children in active service – a son who’s a special forces officer and a daughter in a combat infantry unit. The wonderful woman that my son was scheduled to marry in just weeks, herself an intelligence officer, had been called up as a reservist.

Twice in the previous week sirens had gone off in Jerusalem as Hamas launched long- range rockets in our direction.

But tickets for the trip, for a visit to Dad and Mom in Denver and a literary conference in New York, had long since been purchased, and Ilana insisted that I not change my plans.

“It’s not as if by being here you could change anything,” she pointed out.

Ilana’s admonishment was more pregnant than she realized. For Israelis like me, loyal Zionists who have for decades spoken out for Israeli democracy, tolerance, and accommodation with the Palestinians, the Gaza War was triply depressing.

We, our family, our friends, and our country are under attack and our soldiers and civilians are being killed. Israeli bombs have killed hundreds of people in the Gaza Strip, embittering a Palestinian population with whom we must find a way to live. But, no less worse, death and destruction are turning the people on both sides ever farther away from accommodation and mutual understanding.

Should we give up? Are we really impotent when it comes to peace? The power to change, the refusal to accept the world as it is and the impulse to make it better is fundamental to Judaism. The concept of free will is built into the Jewish Bible and into the wisdom of rabbinic literature, the building block of the ethical systems of nearly all Jewish theologians and philosophers throughout the ages. Not only can we change ourselves and determine our own actions, we believe, but we can also, through our actions and words, cause other people to change the way they act and think.

How ironic, then, to find myself seated on the plane next to a Calvinist.

I didn’t know right off he was a Calvinist – that is, an adherent of a stream of Protestantism that rejects free will and believes that all souls are predestined by God to salvation or damnation, regardless of their good or bad deeds. But we eyed the books in each other’s laps, got to talking, and as two thinking and curious religious people of different faiths are bound to do, we started comparing notes.

I had very much in mind the increasing fatalism about the conflict among well-meaning and thoughtful Israelis. It’s a way of thinking with deep roots in Israeli history.

In 1956, Palestinian guerrillas crossed from Gaza into Israel and murdered Ro’i Rotberg, a young farmer-officer at Kibbutz Nachal Oz. The eulogy Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan delivered at Rotberg’s funeral, has become a classic statement of Israel’s doom.

Dayan acknowledged that the Palestinian refugees living overcrowded and jobless in the Gaza Strip had good reason to hate Israel and to seek to destroy it. But that was fate, he said. Nothing would change it. Israel was doomed to live by the sword. “We must not be deterred from seeing the loathing that accompanies and fills the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us, waiting for the moment they will be capable of drawing our blood,” he declared.

I asked my Calvinist seatmate if I could pose him a rude question, but one that had always bothered me. “Why on earth would anyone want to be a Calvinist?” I asked.

“Why would anyone want to believe in a God who has predestined the fate of my soul, and most likely sentenced me to the eternal flames of hell, long before I was born and no matter what I did with my life? Doesn’t that lead inevitably to moral paralysis?” “Because,” he told me, “it’s liberating.”

I forgot to note one of the other rationales for canceling my trip. As I mentioned, my older son’s wedding was set for early August.

Much of my family – my brother and sister, and most importantly my parents – would be coming to Israel for the celebration. So wasn’t this summer trip to visit them – planned and paid for before the couple announced their wedding plans – superfluous? Yet there I was on my way to America and, of course, nearly everyone I met shook their heads in sympathy at my plight, and in sympathy or anger or confusion at my country’s straits, and asked me whether war had indeed been inevitable, or whether Israel’s military actions really could be justified politically and morally, and how and when would it all end.

Mostly they wanted black-and-white answers. Israel, its civilians and urban centers under unrelenting bombardment from Hamas rockets, had no choice but to bomb and invade the neighborhoods, schools, and mosques from which the rockets were being launched and where tunnels-cum-invasion routes into Israel commenced. Or Israel, in its decades-long effort to quash Palestinian freedom, was again killing Arab civilians indiscriminately, in violation of international law and human decency. Or the whole Middle East was a frightening, hopeless mess and how could I possibly live there.

BUT I had no black-and-white answers to give. On the one hand, successive Israeli governments had made sincere and far-reaching attempts to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinian leadership. On the other hand, Israel’s policy of settling its own citizens in the West Bank in ever increasing numbers made those efforts look insincere at best.

On the one hand, Israel’s military operation was necessary. On the other, some of the specific Israeli actions, ones that claimed large numbers of civilian lives, seemed hard to justify. On the one hand, Israel’s policies had helped create a situation in which Hamas felt it had no recourse other than an all-out attack on Israel. On the other hand, given recent developments in Egypt, Syria, and within the Palestinian national movement itself, it might well have resolved to attack no matter.