Dear fellow Jews who live in the Diaspora, I do not cry easily. Only when my parents and siblings were taken from this world. I have had happy days almost all my life, and am blessed with a selective memory that wipes out the bad.
But a few times in my life I have really wept. Tears ran down my face. Let me tell you when. Once you read on, you will find the reason, the pattern.
Toward the end of the Yom Kippur War in November 1973, Israel TV’s Channel 1, still in black and white, revealed the names and pictures of the thousands of our soldiers killed in battle, so young. Israel’s finest announcer sat, Bible open, and read from Samuel II, Chapter 1, David’s lament for King Saul and his son, Jonathan. The Hebrew is so beautiful, and this translation captures it well:
Thy beauty, O Israel, upon thy high places is slain!
How are the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.
Ye mountains of Gilboa,
Let there be no dew nor rain upon you,
Neither fields of choice fruits;
For there the shield of the mighty was vilely cast away.
Saul and Jonathan, the lovely and the pleasant
In their lives, even in their death they were not divided;
They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions.
Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
Who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights,
Who put ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan upon thy high places is slain!
How are the mighty fallen,
And the weapons of war perished!
Who could restrain from tears? How could one not cry? As soon as Moshe Hovav began with the Hebrew words, “Ha’Tzvi Yisrael,” the tears began to come. How Jewish was my state to begin with that lament. I don’t remember if the full number of “fallen” – 2,656 – was announced then. Probably not. There were more to come. But in that broadcast, Moshe read out name by name, his enunciation perfect. He did not cry. I am sure he did when he was given the list. I cried.
November 4, 1995. And then came that Saturday night, for which the clichי “fateful” fits so justly. Our daughters and sons-in-law had gathered for a joint meal, a kind of post-Shabbat celebration. One couple left early. A short while later they telephoned. “Put on the TV!” Our prime minister had been shot at a rally for peace in Tel Aviv. A few minutes before, glowing with joy, his bass voice had joined in singing the “Song to Peace.”
“Let the sun rise,” the song began. I knew Yitzhak Rabin. We had crossed paths countless times when he was chief of staff. He had spoken at dinners over which I presided. We had a private lunch together at Shemesh’s restaurant.
Now he was being rushed to hospital. Now he was in the emergency room.
Now he was dead.
The sun had set on prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Perhaps it had set on peace. We shall never know.
Our son, Daniel, then 18, pale and shaken, saw my wife, his mother Henrietta, crying. So too was I. “Avi,” he said, “I have never seen you cry before.”
Now we are in the year 2000. The second intifada. Civilian buses with men, women and children being blown up. Restaurants, cafes. Rifle and machine-gun fire on civilian traffic. Sleazy Arafat paying killers, urging them on.
I have a daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren in Gush Etzion. I would drive out to visit them. Close windows to keep out stones. If they fire at me, I thought, I would play games with the accelerator. A few seconds faster, a few seconds slower. Confuse their aim. Weave on the road. Until beyond range. Then allow yourself a quick bout of trembling as the adrenalin seeps away. But “it” never happened. No one shot at me, no one detonated a roadside bomb as I drove by.
I had not been frightened when I drove on that road, but I became very upset when I arrived, parked and began walking to see my offspring. A friend who happened to see me said, “Thank you.”
He said, “Thanks for coming here now.” What he said did not upset me. The fact that he had to express his thanks did. It did not occur to me that people did not come to visit their close ones. That did not make me cry. What did took place later.
My daughter, Drorlee, told me she was driving with her five-year-old son, Ori Shlomo, on the road to Jerusalem. He said, “Ima, what do I do if something happens to you?”
“Abba will look after you.”
“And if something happens to Abba?”
“There will always someone to look after you and take you home.”
A few seconds of silence.
“Ima… I don’t know how to get home.”
“Tell them our address.” And she taught him the address.
During that Second Intifada, Palestinian fighters opened fire across the small valley that separates Beit Jala from Gilo. Among the targets was an elementary school that was included in the area covered by the same daughter Drorlee, who is an educational psychologist.
On returning to her home, she was placed on the team charged with breaking the terrible tidings to parents and siblings and children. A close one had been wounded, a parent or a child had been killed.
Walking on King David Street, I happened to run into the late Dr. Ralph Halpert, a fellow-Torontonian and then chairman of the board of governors of Hebrew University. I told him how my daughter was busy day and night helping people at work and at home and under potential fire while at that school and twice a day on the road. When I had put everything together as I did for Ralph, I suddenly burst into tears. I know he loved Israel but could he understand it?
Now let me tell you about my other two daughters. Shosh went to Ma’aleh High School. In her graduating class, there were 17 boys. Two were killed in the Yom Kippur War. She visits their graves in the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery every Remembrance Day. Two boys who will forever be 19 and 20.
On finishing her military service as a lieutenant, she was posted to reserves. “What will you be doing?” I asked.
“I volunteered for the unit that brings the bad news to the parents.”
“OMG, why? That must be so hard.”
Shosh, not yet 21, said quietly, “Somebody’s got to do it.”
Would you not cry?
Tova was principal of Keshet Elementary School in Jerusalem. One day we met in the gated, locked play yard, while she was supervising the children being met at the guarded exit. I was there once a week to pick up a grandson for a humus lunch. Her phone kept on buzzing. She kept looking at it.
Innocently I asked, “What’s going on?’
She said, “I get news notifications.”
“All the time?”
“My pupils take buses. I make sure they are all safe.”
When I repeated this to David Wollach of Geneva, I cried.
Have you ever rushed children, rousted from their beds at midnight, into a phony sealed-with-plastic “gas-proof room” in your home, while sirens shrill and you adjust their gas masks? We have.
Do you call friends in Sderot every time there is an “incident”? We do.
There is a lot more I can tell. Let me choose my velvet-faced granddaughters. One taught recruits how to handle and toss live hand-grenades. One taught new Russian recruits who chose to learn more about Judaism. One is not permitted to tell me what she does. Each grandson has been under fire. Have you ever been with someone pulled out of the front for a two-day break and see how his eyes have changed? To see the weariness and the wear on him? Whose best friend was wounded saving the life of a fellow Golani soldier.
My children have kept from me the details of their sons’ dangerous military service. Imagine the stoicism of a mother and a father who did know from the very beginning.
This is our family’s country, the only place where the Hebrew calendar and the Hebrew language determine our Jewish rhythm of life. Whether I, and members of our family, agree with all that has been done here, or are critical of its acts and its leaders, we have happily invested our lives here. There will not be another Holocaust, we swear.
So let me tell you, brethren and sistren, and let me tell you, “knee-jerk, one-issue liberals,” you will never understand us. Yes, we have our own knee-jerk liberals who think a stunted man like Sen. Bernie Sanders is a worthy spokesman. We have our home-grown fascists and semi-fascists and “knee-jerk, one-issue” right-wingers. Their overseas supporters too need give us no advice.
Here in Israel, Jews and Muslims and Christians and agnostics and atheists, people of many shades and many colors live cheek by jowl in this one state where Jews are not a minority. It’s ours to have and to hold. To love and to build.
Are you beginning to get it now? Are you?
The writer describes himself as a true liberal, judging each issue on its merits with freedom of thought. He identifies totally with the liberal Israeli Declaration of Independence, and with the founding fathers whom he served as a senior civil servant. He tried to implement their principles as well when he helped create the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University and as a leading member of the Jewish Agency Executive. He can be contacted at email@example.com