Gil Troy: Don’t cry for us, New York Jewry

Center Field: Don’t cry for us, New York Jewry

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 4-8-09

Reports of distressed American Jews are stacking up faster than airplanes trying to land at La Guardia at rush hour. On a recent visit, lovely, passionate, pro-Israel friends shared their dismay. Some admitted they avoided talking about Israel because “it is too painful.” The epicenter of the worrying – and the disdain – seems to be New York’s Upper West Side, still the capital of liberal American Jewry.

Taking a break during a Tel...

Taking a break during a Tel Aviv Purim party. The foreign headlines overlook the vibrant community life, the warm Jewish holiday observances, the Western comforts, the openness and diversity.
Photo: AP

The latest trigger, of course, is the anti-Israel backlash following the Gaza war. The IDF has withdrawn, Hamas’ rocket fire has resumed, but the condemnations of Israel have intensified. The New York Times, the New York Jew’s Bible, has fed this frenzy. The Times gave splashy, repeated, front-page coverage to rehashing the unsubstantiated rumors about Israeli soldiers brutalizing Palestinians, with no independent reporting. Days later, the damage done, an article buried on page 4 treated the IDF’s defense as a “he-said, she-said” disagreement rather than a strong repudiation, not only by the top brass but by many soldiers who tried hard to minimize civilian casualties.

Good people should be angry with the Palestinians, not embarrassed by Israel. Inon, a 25-year-old law student turned soldier, saw an elderly Palestinian woman in pain during the war. When Israeli medics approached to help, they noticed her suicide bomb belt. “This is what we are up against,” Inon sighed on During my two visits to the Gaza front, most Israeli soldiers I met mentioned “Hadilemot,” the Heblish word for the dilemmas in fighting an enemy cowering behind civilians.

More recently, the lovely story about the Palestinian youth orchestra from Jenin that played for Holocaust survivors in Holon soured when the “moderate” Palestinian Authority shut down the orchestra, banning the conductor from the PA. The Palestinians denounced the conductor and any attempts at “normalization,” which is also why Palestinians face death if they sell Jews land, and many “moderate” Fatah leaders still insist they never recognized Israel’s right to exist.

It is not PC to acknowledge that we are dealing with a different culture and a murderous ideology – the resulting “dilemmot” are heartbreaking, horrible. I remain proud that under these circumstances the number of civilian deaths was far smaller than it would have been with any other army in the world – including America’s. Yes, one wrongful death is too many. But given both sides’ firepower (and Hamas has smuggled in another 70 tons or so since the war ended), that only a few hundred civilians died reflects Israel’s moral and operational discipline.

AFTER 60 YEARS, Israel should no longer be on probation, with its legitimacy questioned in the world, or its popularity among Jews so contingent upon good behavior. American liberals did not question America’s legitimacy even when they hated president George W. Bush. Yet many Jews and non-Jews repudiate Israel entirely because of one action, or one leader. Nationalism, patriotism, morality, usually runs deeper.

This Upper West Side discomfort suggests that if Israel is not the Disneyland in the Desert it promised to be in the 1960s, it is not worth supporting. Yet Israel is more friendly, pleasant and in many ways progressive than it was in the heyday of the kibbutz and Moshe Dayan. Israel today is remarkably functional. with a higher quality of life than New York Times reportage suggests. The headlines overlook the vibrant community life, the warm Jewish holiday observances, the Western comforts, the openness and diversity, let alone the scientific and hi-tech breakthroughs.

At the same time, yes, there are struggles. Ruth Gavison, the Hebrew University law professor and founding president of Metzila, a center for Zionist, Jewish, humanist and liberal thought, embraces the creative tension resulting from forging a state that is Jewish and democratic, that is moral and fights for survival. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis reminds us in his compelling new book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, the “very name ‘Israel,'” the name Jacob earned after wrestling with the angel, connotes “struggling, grappling, the interaction of the human with what is beyond human.” Gordis proclaims: “The real challenge facing Israel is to produce a society worthy of its name.”

As Americans – and Upper West Siders in particular – adjust to the startling new economic realities, more and more are recognizing that this prolonged, Reagan-Clinton-Bush “Never, Never Land” that is ending seemed to defy the laws of gravity, unrealistically promising a life without struggle. As a result, our collective moral conscience lost its edge – which the new age of austerity may revive.

Similarly, modern Judaism has been dulled. Many Jews have simply stopped “doing Jewish,” because it was too hard, too distracting when there was so much money to be made and so much fun to be had. Many Jewish leaders fed this problem, watering down Judaism, trying to make Jewish life as fluffy as the rest of American life. But this unbearable lightness of being Jewish failed to compel many, who then felt if Jewish values were pale reflections of secular values, why bother? Traditionally, the rabbis taught about “the neshama yetara,” the extra soul acquired on Shabbat. This weekly boost gave Jews a taste of redemption while steeling them for the week’s upcoming hardships.

Too many of us – and I regret to say, too many of my prosperous, self-righteous, Upper West Side friends – have lost that extra soul. Since Yasser Arafat led his people from negotiations toward terrorism, my family and I have set an extra seat at the Seder in memory of one terror victim who is missed at his or her Seder; this year, I am tempted to set an empty place for New York Jews’ deliciously constructive grit, for their neshama yetara.

We need warrior Jews not just worrier Jews. Israelis should justifiably say: “Don’t cry for us New York Jewry (and elsewhere). Our state, for all its challenges, is thriving. Our neighbors – and the world – need fixing.”

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

Gil Troy: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

Center Field: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-8-09

I felt no shame about Madoff or Israel’s actions in Gaza. But reports of my fellow Jews’ cravenness made me cringe. Many American Jews are reeling from a series of blows to their standing as America’s model minority. Following autumn’s economic meltdown, Bernard Madoff confessed to his $50 billion scam, the Gaza war triggered new waves of anti-Semitism and now Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu seems poised to lead a conservative Israeli government. The disappointment of America’s mostly liberal Jews in Bibi’s resurgence is compounded by worries about how the conservative Netanyahu will get along with the liberal US President Barack Obama, especially because each thinks he is the smartest man in the room. All this fretting suggests many American Jews are much less secure in their Promised Land than most admit.

Yes, it is logical to lament American Jews’ financial straits individually and collectively, to despair at Madoff’s evil in robbing charities along with individuals, to find the vicious backlash against Israel’s justified actions alarming and to worry about American-Israeli relations. But shame is the unfortunate emotion escalating these reasonable concerns into collective anxiety.

The New York Times has described Americans Jews’ embarrassment, suggesting Madoff’s crime reflected some communal moral failure. Moreover, the article explained, “Jews are also grappling with the implications of Mr. Madoff’s deeds for their public image.”

Novelist Nathan Englander told The Forward that Madoff’s crime “really raises up for me this primal thing of,  ‘This is the kind of thing that looks bad in a general Jewish way.’ It gave me that ‘circle the wagon’ mentality that I don’t have very often.” I confess I feel no shame about Madoff, Israel’s actions in Gaza or Bibi’s rise. Or at least I felt no shame until I read about American Jewish embarrassment. In the Times, one rabbi discussing Madoff mentioned the “shanda factor,” using the Yiddish term for “an embarrassing shame.? This disgrace, we learned, was stirring anti-Semitism.

The full expression the rabbi should have taught is a shanda fur die goyim, something which embarrasses Jews in front of non-Jews. The rabbi probably was nervous about using the word goyim with the Times’s reporter, given that the term is often perceived as setting Jews up as superior to non-Jews. Actually, the phrase reflects Jews’ historic insecurity. “Shanda fur die goyim” evokes the image of Jews perpetually on probation, with our people only tolerated as long as we are on our best behavior or perform some salutary social function.

Perhaps I have spent too much time in Israel, where, alas, there are plenty “shandas fur die yiddin”: Jews acting disgracefully in front of their fellow Jews. From cruel mobsters who strut around Netanya, occasionally mowing down civilians while rubbing out rivals, to settler hooligans menacing Palestinians and IDF soldiers, to the corrupt prime minister (for life?) who has overstayed his welcome, Israel has its share of scoundrels.

But brazen behavior triggers the correct reaction – outrage not embarrassment, condemnation not cowering.  The Zionist idea was that in our own country Jews would behave normally – sometimes heroically, sometimes despicably – without being on probation. True, as nationalists, we mourn our people’s losses, celebrate successes and regret any of our people’s sins. But the leap from condemning a fellow citizen’s crimes or excesses to worrying that a fellow Jew’s sins or unpopularity may lead to a backlash against me personally, descends from the realm of normal national solidarity to the wandering Jew’s pathological insecurity; never at home, never at peace.

The American Jewish community’s cravenness is particularly shocking considering that so many Jews star in the great American success story. In a twisted way, Madoff’s fraud demonstrates how accepted Jews are in America today. The extent of Madoff?s reach – and damage – from his Palm Beach country club to the secretive sanctums of Swiss banks, from the board of Yeshiva University to the shores of Abu Dhabi, shows that in today’s globalized economy, successful Jews can do business anywhere.

Fears that Madoff’s crimes or Israel’s actions cause anti-Semitism imputes to anti-Semites a logic they lack. Too many of us have spent too many centuries trying to figure out what we did wrong to encourage anti-Semitism. This search focuses on the wrong actors in the play. Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jew, but of the anti-Semite, as Jean-Paul Sartre taught.

Anti-Semitism reflects the anti-Semites’ twisted cosmology, not the Jews’ sins; it is an irrational hatred, not a rational response belonging to the world of cause and effect.

When Nicholas Leeson’s trading losses broke Barings Bank in 1995, no English people worried that his sins would reflect on their own integrity. Allen Stanford?s recent $8 billion fraud triggered no discussion about his religion. A rational assessment of the Madoff scandal would note how much this criminal harmed Jews, and how quickly Jews condemned the man and the underlying materialism, undermining the notion that “the Jews” perpetuated some crime against humanity. (By contrast, consider how Islamist terrorists perpetuate crimes in Islam’s name, yet few Muslims denounce them.)

An honest appraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would identify this as a national conflict with religious overtones, but the ones making it a religious war are mostly the Islamic jihadists. And a fair assessment of Bibi Netanyahu’s record in dealing with Bill Clinton’s administration would note his pragmatic streak; many right-wingers thought he was too accommodating during the 1998 Wye River Summit.

Bernard Madoff’s sins are his sins, not the Jewish people’s. And even when Jews debate Israel’s actions or Bibi’s policies, Jews are far too settled in America, and America’s ties to Israel run too deep, to justify so much skittishness. Ultimately, the Madoff story is as much a quintessential American tale of the man on the make as it is a Jewish story. Madoff is a criminal, not a shanda, while Israel’s actions have been necessary and moral, not disproportionate or shameful.

The shanda is still feeling so wobbly in a land that has been so welcoming.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books.

Center Field: Disproportionate, dishonest and discriminatory critics

Israel’s justified, in fact long delayed, military response to the rocket fire from Gaza triggered debate worldwide. Some criticism was reasonable, anguished, sympathizing with a state’s right to self-defense after eight years of bombardment, no matter how intermittent, while questioning the response’s intensity. Alas, much criticism was – dare we say it – disproportionate, dishonest and frequently discriminatory. Shouting at Jews “go back to your ovens” in Fort Lauderdale, vandalizing synagogues in Chicago, smashing Starbucks Coffee windows in London, lacks any ambiguity. The barrage of criticism launched illustrates how quickly condemnation of Israeli actions degenerates into anti-Zionism, which is often a thin veneer for anti-Semitism.

Although calling the response disproportionate implicitly conceded that some response was justified, most critics went further. Critics silent about Muslim murders of fellow Muslims in Gaza, Iraq or Sudan became obsessed with Israel’s “crimes,” no matter how surgical the IDF tried to be. More disturbing, the Mideast conflict’s dysfunctional, polarizing gravitational physics led many who criticized Israel’s actions to idealize Hamas.

Demonstrating this dishonesty in prominent essays in The Washington Post, Guardian and The New York Times, respectively, former president Jimmy Carter, Avi Shlaim of Oxford University and Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University all sanitized Hamas to demonize Israel.

Carter treated Hamas as a peace-loving movement seeking a “comprehensive cease-fire in both the West Bank and Gaza,” ignoring its charter’s vows to destroy Israel. Khalidi defined Israel’s 2009 war aims by unearthing a 2002 comment from Moshe Ya’alon, chief of General Staff at the time, about trying to crush Palestinians, ignoring many more recent, far uglier, Palestinian calls to annihilate Israel. And in a down-is-up essay, wherein Israel’s painful withdrawal from Gaza became an attempt to expand its territory, Shlaim treated Hamas as a democratic movement even though it seized power in a coup by murdering fellow Palestinians.

Shaim wrote of Hamas: “Denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak – terror.” It is particularly disingenuous for an historian to claim Hamas only “resorted” to terror due to the evil Israelis – as if Hamas had not first used such “weapons of the weak” back in the early 1990s, to sabotage the Oslo peace process.

Despicably, others used Holocaust shorthand to berate Israel. Calling Gaza a “big concentration camp,” as Cardinal Renato Martino, the Vatican’s justice and peace minister, did, or writing in on-line in Spain that “the Machiavellian brain of this entire extermination operation is no different from that which designed Nazi Germany,” crossed the line. For starters, the Holocaust – and other genocides – killed thousands, tens of thousands, millions – dwarfing the Palestinian civilian casualties in the hundreds despite three weeks of war.

Moreover, there is something particularly dastardly about preying on an ethnic group’s historic sensitivities. President Barack Obama will endure much criticism, but if critics make slavery analogies or refer to minstrel shows, their condemnation will be racist. During her campaign, Hillary Clinton and her supporters did not deem attacks on her Iraq war stance sexist. They complained about excessive attention to her clothes, speculation about her grit and other comments invoking stereotypes which historically demeaned women.

MANY OF these anti-Zionist attacks resurrected the historic ghost of anti-Semitic essentialism. When asked about his fellow protester in Florida who shouted at Jews, “You need a big oven, that’s what you need,” one rally organizer initially seemed to disavow the remarks. “She does not represent the opinions of the vast majority of people who were there,” Emmanuel Lopez told Fox News. But Lopez quickly added that “Zionism in general is a barbaric, racist movement that really is the cause of the situation in the entire Middle East.” Lopez, a state coordinator for ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) engaged in classic racist essentialism.

For centuries, critics of Jews have degenerated from criticizing specific Jews’ individual actions to generalizing about Jews and Judaism. Generalizing about Zionism’s essence condemns Jewish nationalism with this age-old anti-Semitic tactic. A sign at a Melbourne rally took this rhetoric further, crying: “Clean the Earth from Dirty Zionists.” You do not need a PhD in Jewish history – or in genocide studies – to see the Hitlerian overtones. Many victims of racism – and most especially the Jews in the Holocaust – were tagged as unclean, thus deserving of extermination, lest the general population be infected.

The ugly inverted rhetoric follows its inexorable logic: accusing the victims of the 20th-century’s most horrific genocide of committing genocide, then essentializing and demonizing their movement for collective national fulfillment, leads to calls for eradication. (It also excuses Iranian calls for Israel’s genocide). Jews have seen this happen too often to be blasé about it, whether the speaker is a Vatican official or a street punk.

Essentialism poisons the environment and corrupts other arenas. In the past 40 years, no Western power has engaged in any major military action that did not trigger massive criticism. However, the broad lynch-mob atmosphere against Israel singularly questions its existence, not just the proportionality of its actions. More than 60 years after the country’s founding, the world still has the Jewish state on probation, seemingly only accepted when it behaves well. Rogue states like Pakistan – an artificial creation carved out of a crumbling British Raj – do not have their existence questioned, while Israel constantly has to justify itself.

It is depressing in the 21st century to see such anti-Semitism, especially among those who designate themselves knights in the fight against racism. But the disproportionate demonization, the idealization of Hamas, the essentialism, the animosity coursing through so much criticism of Israeli actions suggests that the world has yet to heal from one of its most persistent afflictions.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University in Montreal. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Israel’s Dr. Hug returns – with Montrealer’s help

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jews News, January 28  2009

In October 2000, Hezbollah terrorists using United Nations vehicles kidnapped Benny Avraham and two fellow soldiers.

For more than three years, Benny’s parents, Haim and Edna Avraham, along with the parents of Adi Avitan and Omar Sawaid, led a worldwide

campaign to free their sons, unaware that Hezbollah had already murdered them. In Israel, Haim Avraham became a national icon representing all fathers who have been forced to send their sons to war, never to see them return.

When Israel finally confronted Benny’s killers in 2006, Haim, Edna, and their two daughters, Efrat and Dafna, spent the war visiting soldiers. While distributing goodies to thousands, they spread the message that the war was just and necessary. Haim insisted on embracing every soldier, lechazek eem chebuuk, to strengthen with a hug.

This January, Haim and his family took to the road again, this time with assists from Montrealers, particularly congregants of Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem and Rabbi Adam Scheier of the Shaar Hashomayim Congregation. As soon as they heard that soldiers needed warm socks, long johns and fleecies, they joined others in Israel and the Diaspora and sprang into action. Thanks to their generosity, Haim, his daughter, Dafna, Haim’s colleague, Yoram, and I visited the Gaza front to spread his message with love, idealism and treats.

In one gruelling, inspiring day, we visited an air force base, a tent city of reserve paratroopers, a tank squadron, the engineering corps, crack Givati troops, and a naval base. Particularly moving were the visits with the engineers – it was Benny’s battalion – and the reserves – Haim’s son-in-law served there. One officer who bristled when he first spied interlopers melted when he recognized Haim, hugging him and saying, “I teach reserve soldiers about that incident all the time, to foster awareness.”

Haim told the soldiers that his family had sacrificed repeatedly to build Israel. One relative died in Acre Prison in the 1940s. One sank in the Dakar submarine in the 1960s. Haim’s brother, Benny, died during the Yom Kippur War, before his brother’s namesake, Benny, fell in 2000. Still, Haim remains patriotic, understanding that such anguished heroism protected millions. Haim honoured me with the opportunity to speak. I told the troops they were the modern Maccabees.  I said the Jewish people – and good people worldwide – understand that they represented the forces of freedom in a larger struggle against terror.

The soldiers’ calm, mature, professional and high-spirited demeanours impressed us. This was not a war of anger and chaos, but of necessity and discipline. No one rejoiced in the civilian casualties –  and many spoke of trying hard to minimize civilians’ suffering. The soldiers noticed, of course, that Israel always targeted terrorists, and occasionally missed. Hamas always targeted civilians. All wars are ugly, but if there is such a thing as a healing war, a war of correcting past mistakes, this was such a war. All wars are brutal, but if there is such a thing as a moral war, Israel tried to fight within ethical limits.

Soldiers joked about the new phenomenon of a “misgrad” – a misgad, a mosque, harbouring Grad missiles, but they detested this kind of blurry urban combat. Still, the soldiers understood that “ein breira,” we have no choice. They all hoped that this time, they could finish the job. And they desperately wanted to free Gilad Schalit, the kidnapped soldier whose family has endured the kind of hellish purgatory the Avrahams know all too well, for nearly three years.

At the naval base, a young officer thanked Haim for coming. She said her brother’s death in combat when he was 18 broke her parents. She admired Haim’s ability to function, let alone to move forward, remain positive and retain his idealism. Every time her mother hears of another casualty, she bleakly welcomes the grieving parents into her enveloping black hole.

The Avrahams – like the whole family of Israel – have experienced that black hole’s horrors. But the Avrahams show us that life continues – and we should appreciate the heroism and devastating sacrifices of the few that keep so many of us safe and free.

One soldier, absorbing all the love, support and generosity that was raining down on him and his comrades, from the homefront and from abroad, exclaimed: “Tiroo ezeh am yesh lanu” – look at how special the Jewish people are.

How very true.

Center Field: Gaza war shows Israel’s democratic resilience

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, Thursday Jan 22, 2009

Photos by Dafna Avraham, for full album visit Facebook

After the Second Lebanon War, one former tank commander sighed, “when my kids were teenagers and stumbled, I reassured them that, fortunately, the lessons learned outweighed the damage done: so too with Israel’s army.” Two and a half years later, forced to confront Hamas’s rocket barrages targeting Israeli civilians, Israel fulfilled this prophecy. Great democracies like Israel can transform citizens’ grumblings into constructive self-criticism, turning officials’ failures into redemptive improvements.

Ironically, while applying many lessons learned, this war illustrated the Lebanon War’s success. Hizbullah’s inaction as Israel pummeled another Iranian proxy, Hamas, suggests Israel’s message of deterrence worked. Still, despite this gain, the civilian Winograd commission and numerous internal IDF reviews proposed clever solutions to the logistical and strategic problems that plagued the battlefront and the homefront.

This time, with Hamas’s Grad missiles reaching Beersheva, “the entire country is the front line,” one radio announcer proclaimed. Still, the municipal and national governments kept citizens informed and calm, responding quickly to emergencies. In 2006, individual citizens and flamboyant tycoons compensated for bureaucratic incompetence; in 2009, the bureaucrats were the heroes.

More surprising, Israel’s governing trinity – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni – avoided the Lebanon War’s bragging and mission creep. This self-discipline reverberated down the chain of command. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was the war’s Greta Garbo, often seen rarely heard. And this time, officers collected soldiers’ cell phones to thwart electronic eavesdropping or loose lips.

The military learned to be as nimble as the terrorists. In 2006 Hizbullah easily ambushed regularly scheduled supply convoys lumbering along the three border crossings into Lebanon. This time, units entered and exited Gaza via multiple routes at random times, frequently picked out of a hat, so no one knew the next move.

This time, like last time, the entire army tried minimizing civilian casualties. Soldiers – especially pilots – occasionally aborted operations, missing targets to avoid killing unnecessarily. As the world’s self-righteous arbiters of morality protested – usually marching with crass anti-Semitic slogans – Israel’s soldiers struggled to balance strategy with morality while fighting an enemy that hides behind its own civilians. Soldiers coined a new word “misgrad,” linking the Hebrew for mosque, misgad, with the Grad missiles stored in too many Islamic houses of worship.

Considering Gaza’s density, Hamas’s propensity for cowering behind civilians, and the firepower Israel learned it needed to protect soldiers in urban combat, the number of civilian deaths was surprisingly low. Every innocent death is tragic. Still as one young tank commander said, “I saw an old woman hunched over with a suicide belt wrapped around her, walking into a building where our guys were stationed, what can you do…”

This soldier had just spent nearly two weeks in a tank. When encouraged, he described the cramped conditions, how cold the box of metal gets at night, the attempts to laugh at humiliating hygienic conditions. Apparently, one pair of underwear can last eight days. After two days you reverse it. Two days later turn the underwear inside out. Two days later, reverse again.

While Israel’s finest young people are forced to harden themselves amid the war’s blood, sweat, smoke, smells, fear and brutality, wars bring out a soft side in Israel’s body politic. The radio plays sappy songs, about – as one hit goes – the desire to embrace every soldier, from the Chief of Staff to the rawest recruit. Talk shows broadcast heartbreaking letters from teary mothers and fathers to their fighting “Dudus” and “Mickeys.” People like Haim Avraham, whose son Benny was kidnapped then killed by Hizbullah in 2000, visit the troops, hugging them and delivering supplies of candy bars, long johns, and, mercifully, clean underwear.

An often-impatient, aggressive society becomes remarkably calm and gracious. Pilots receiving gift bags say “give it to the soldiers”: reservists then offered the bags ask what about the recruits inside Gaza. Presented with gifts from the home front – or from Israel’s supporters worldwide – many soldiers were visibly moved, saying, “you strengthen us,” “this is what it’s all about,” “we’re fine, we’re doing our jobs, it’s the civilians in harm’s way who suffer.”

Perhaps the best perspective on the war could be found in Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital, where the homefront and the battlefront meet. Despite occasional “Tzeva Adom,” “red alert” sirens, the staffers worked resolutely, calmly, heroically. Many still can’t forget the heartbreaking new mothers’ shuffle, when the bombing began, leaving the maternity ward for a safer area. The pictures of Jewish, Beduin, Druse, and Muslim Israelis dressed in pajamas, some rolling their newborns in carts, others dragging IV monitors, illustrated just who Hamas targets  – as did the hospital’s need to put sandbags over its sleep lab. Just outside the hospital, by its helipads, a line of stretchers stood, waiting to be filled with the day’s casualties, the whiteness of the sheets soon to be stained by the blood of young kids who would rather surf the net than fight this tragic but justified war.

At one briefing for a North American rabbinic solidarity mission, one rabbi asked: “Do the Palestinian casualties from Gaza arrive here, too?” The administrator answered, “No longer. This is now for soldiers and for locals. Gazans go to other Israeli hospitals.” Here is Israel’s democratic dilemma, in all its messy grandeur. A democracy that sustains 10,000 rocket hits – especially after withdrawing from an area whose people could have then pursued peace – must defend itself. But both the rabbi and the doctor assumed – correctly — that Israel would nevertheless act as moral as possible in hellish circumstances.  And here, too, is the secret to Israel’s success. Along with the democratic capacity to improve, it has the democratic conscience to protect its own citizens while trying to minimize the enemy’s civilian casualties too.