July 19, 2006
War Is Not the Answer
We all come to crises from different perspectives. I come to the current Israeli conflict from a place in the north of Israel.
I grew up there on a kibbutz near the Lebanese border and later raised my children there.
Most of my life, my family and I lived with the sounds of the bombs, first from Syria, and then from Lebanon, as Israel reacted to keep peace in the presence of unstable Palestinian factions that had moved there after being ejected from Jordan.
My husband almost lost his life in the first cycle of war in Lebanon. Eighteen years later, my son entered a commando unit and lost many of his friends. He was almost killed as well.
And the bombs continued to fall. It seemed like a frozen situation. Someone had to stand up. As our tradition teaches us: "Where a [wo]man is needed, endeavor that thou be the one" (Avot 2:6).
One day in 1997, I was one. I began reaching out to friends, colleagues, whoever was willing to listen. We formed the "Four Mothers" movement and lobbied the Israeli government to stop the war with Lebanon.
The New York Times had this to say about us in 2000, shortly after the Israeli army pulled its troops out, ending more than 20 years of armed conflict: "Today many Israelis celebrated with the Four Mothers. The women took a classic Israeli stereotype -- the silent, suffering soldier's mother -- stood it on its head and dared to challenge the military."
I am currently teaching religious studies at a university in Columbus, Ohio, taking a much-needed break from politics and wars. A few days ago, I returned from a visit to Israel, meeting with colleagues at Hebrew University about a research project. While there, I was amazed to find that even though six years have passed since our movement did its work, people still acknowledge our achievement.
They were thankful for the quiet life they finally have enjoyed in the North. Many urged me to return and enjoy the life of peace there as well. Then, overnight, the situation changed. The northern part of Israel returned to the same horrible state of war we had suffered through before. An attack on our army and kidnapping of our soldiers hurt our pride and confidence.
The most natural reaction when we are being hit so badly is to hit back. But how hard? How do we make sure we do not return to another 20 years of war in the North?
The new Israeli minister of defense, Amir Peretz, keeps saying, "I want to tell every mother and father in Israel that we are not going back to the Lebanese mud."
But have we dug ourselves into an old hole?
Is it realistic to ask the Lebanese government to take responsibility for Hezbollah, after Israel fought in Lebanon for more than 20 years and didn't eliminate this terrorist organization? How do we stop Hezbollah now, knowing that Syria and Iran are arming them?
No one, including the Israeli government, wants to enter into a war with Syria and Iran.
Recent history has taught us that our actions aimed at eliminating terrorism "once and for all" usually produce a lot of destruction, but don't achieve the goal. The question now becomes: How are we going to lead this time and not be led?
On my trip I saw how Israel is bustling -- filled with tourists from around the world. Aren't we playing into the hands of the few terrorists? Aren't we letting them bring Israel to a standstill?
A strong state that has a strong army like Israel's surely has the means to come up with a solution that is better than merely hitting back harder. I am sure the Israeli army knows how to keep our borders and soldiers safe, so that small groups of terrorists will be unable to cross and kidnap soldiers.
My life experience has taught me that wars haven't simplified situations or solved problems. On the contrary, fighting makes situations more complicated and destructive.
I have been glued to the Israeli media. People keep calling into radio stations asking what to do next. They are overwhelmed. They don't know how to stop their lives and lock themselves in shelters any more. Some of them don't have functioning shelters and they are totally confused.
Unlike in the movies, war is not so heroic. I have lived through too many, and they are nothing more than death, destruction, fear and total chaos. We must not return to wartime in Israel. We can bring Israel back to its best version of peacetime, although I know we will continue to be part of an ongoing conflict.
In Jewish history, we have experienced war and destruction too many times. As a Talmudist, I am inspired by the thousands of pages written over hundreds of years by people who lived through the consequences of the Second Temple destruction, namely 2,000 years with no Israel.
On Tisha B'Av we will read again the texts the sages developed after the destruction. They teach us how to try to engage in dialogue, even with your worst enemy.
As they say: "Who is the greatest of heroes? He who converts his enemy into his friend" (Avot d'Rabbi Nathan 23).
Is it still possible? Just a thought.