Creo que si un triángulo pudiera hablar, diría… que Dios es eminentemente triangular, mientras que un círculo diría que la naturaleza divina es eminentemente circular. Por lo tanto, cada uno atribuiría a Dios sus propios atributos, asumiría que es como Dios y consideraría que todo lo demás está mal formado.
Pregunta para reflexionar
Spinoza (1632-1677) tiene mucha razón en esta observación. No solo los triángulos y círculos, sino también los seres humanos quienes solo pueden captar a Dios en términos de su propia naturaleza. En otras palabras, los humanos solo pueden hablar de Él en términos humanos. Sin embargo, esto no significa que, dado que no podemos hacer algo mejor que esto, y en consecuencia, utilizando descripciones simplistas y limitadas de Dios, se pueda concluir que Dios no existe.
Esto es similar a la electricidad o un átomo. Solo sabemos de la existencia de estos porque observamos sus consecuencias. Después de todo, los seres humanos nunca han visto electricidad ni un átomo. Cuando los científicos describen o enseñan sobre estos, utilizan modelos e imágenes en la pizarra o en la pantalla de la computadora. Sin embargo, estos son solo metáforas y símbolos.
El peligro del que habla Spinoza es cuando los seres humanos comienzan a creer que la imagen es “das ding an sich“, la misma “cosa en sí”. Esto es exactamente lo que la Torá tiene en mente cuando prohíbe hacer una imagen de Dios. No significa que no se me permita tener una imagen de Él, sino que no se me permite creer que la imagen sea real.
El gran rabino Cabalista Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) elabora sobre esto:
Cuando tu mente concibe a Dios, no te permitas imaginar que realmente existe un Dios como tú lo has representado, porque si haces esto, tendrás una concepción corporal finita, Dios no lo quiera. En cambio, tu mente debería detenerse abiertamente en la afirmación de la existencia de Dios y luego debería retroceder. Hacer más que esto es permitir que la imaginación se refleje en Dios como Él mismo es, y tal reflexión seguramente resultará en limitaciones imaginativas y corporeas. Por tanto, hay que ponerle riendas al intelecto y no permitirle una gran libertad, sino afirmar la existencia de Dios y negar la posibilidad de comprenderlo. La mente debe correr “hacia” y “desde”; corriendo para afirmar la existencia de Dios y retrocediendo ante cualquier limitación, ya que la imaginación del hombre persigue su intelecto. (Elima Rabati 1:10, 4b).
Entonces, ¿qué hay de malo en que la Iglesia Católica utilice imágenes de mármol en sus catedrales? Sin duda, sus adoradores no creen que estas imágenes posean divinidad alguna; son solo metáforas. Si este es el caso, ¿por qué la ley judía prohíbe cualquier imagen de Moshé u otras figuras bíblicas en nuestras sinagogas? (¿Es este realmente el caso?)
¿Es posible que los católicos crean que estas imágenes realmente contienen la divinidad y, por lo tanto, poseen santidad? En otras palabras, ¿cuándo es la adoración de ídolos, que está totalmente prohibida por la ley judía, realmente considerada adoración de ídolos? ¿Es cuando la gente cree que hay más de un dios, o aun cuando uno cree en un solo Dios, pero cree que Él tiene una imagen corporal y que esta imagen es real? ¿Podemos convertir a Dios en un ídolo?
¿Es esta la razón por la que Moshé rompió las tablas de los Diez Mandamientos cuando vio a los israelitas adorar un becerro de oro recién creado, probablemente con la intención de ser una representación material de Dios, como ‘la cosa real’? ¿Se preocupó Moshé de que los israelitas hicieran lo mismo con las tablas de piedra, adorándolas y declarándolas santas? ¿Entendió él que se relacionarían con las Tablas en lugar de con el texto de las tabletas?
¿Existe este peligro con el Muro Occidental en Jerusalén?
I believe that if a triangle could speak, it would say… that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus, each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped. —Baruch Spinoza
Question to Ponder
Spinoza (1632- 1677) is quite correct in this observation. Not only triangles and circles, but human beings, too, can only grasp God in terms of their own nature. In other words, humans can only speak about Him in human terms. However, this does not mean that since we cannot do better than this, consequently using simplistic and limited descriptions of God, one can conclude that God does not exist.
This is similar to electricity or an atom. We only know of the existence of these because we observe their consequences. After all, human beings have never actually seen electricity or an atom. When scientists describe or teach about these, they use models and images on the blackboard or computer screen. However, these are but metaphors and symbols.
The danger Spinoza speaks of is when human beings start to believe that the image is “das ding an sich,” the very “thing-in-itself.” This is exactly what the Torah has in mind when it prohibits making an image of God. It does not mean that I am not allowed to have an image of Him, but that I am not allowed to believe that the image is the real thing.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) elaborates on this:
When your mind conceives of God, do not permit yourself to imagine that there is really a God as depicted by you, for if you do this, you will have a finite corporeal conception, God forbid. Instead, your mind should openly dwell on the affirmation of God’s existence and then it should recoil. To do more than that is to allow the imagination to reflect upon God as He is Himself, and such a reflection is bound to result in imaginative limitations and corporeality. Therefore, one should put reins on one’s intellect and not allow it great freedom, but assert God’s existence and deny the possibility of comprehending Him. The mind should run ‘to’ and ‘from’ – running to affirm God’s existence and recoiling from any limitations, since man’s imagination pursues his intellect. (Elima Rabati 1:10, 4b).
What, then, is wrong with the Catholic Church using marble images in its cathedrals? No doubt its worshippers do not believe that these images possess any divinity; they are just metaphors. If this is the case, why does Jewish law forbid any image of Moshe or other biblical figures in our synagogues? (Is this indeed the case?)
Is it possible that Catholics believe these images actually hold divinity and thus possess sanctity? In other words, when is idol worship that is totally forbidden in Jewish law actually idol worship? Is it when people believe that there is more than one god, or even when one believes in only one God, but believes that He has a corporeal image and that this image is the real thing? Can one make God into an idol?
Is this the reason Moshe broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments? Seeing the Israelites worshipping a golden calf they had just created, likely intended as a material representation of God, as ‘the real thing,’ Moshe became concerned that the Israelites would do the same with the stone tablets, worshipping them and declaring them holy instead of relating solely to the text on the tablets?
Does this danger exist with the Western Wall in Jerusalem?
Vivió al menos hasta hace 130,000 años, han sido descubiertos en las excavaciones del yacimiento de Nesher Ramla, cerca de la ciudad de Ramala (Israel).
Los huesos de un humano primitivo, desconocido para la ciencia, que vivió al menos hasta hace 130,000 años, han sido descubiertos en las excavaciones del yacimiento de Nesher Ramla, cerca de la ciudad de Ramala (Israel). Al reconocer la similitud con otros especímenes de Homo arcaico de hace 400,000 años, encontrados en Israel y Eurasia, los investigadores han llegado a la conclusión de que estos fósiles representan una población única del Pleistoceno Medio, ahora identificada por primera vez.
Este descubrimiento, publicado en la revista ‘Science’ y en el que participa el español Juan Luis Arsuaga, catedrático de Paleontología de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM), pone en entredicho la hipótesis predominante de que los neandertales se originaron en Europa, sugiriendo que al menos algunos de los antepasados de los neandertales procedían en realidad del Levante.
El nuevo hallazgo sugiere que dos tipos de grupos de Homo convivieron en el Levante durante más de 100.000 años (hace 200-100,000 años), compartiendo conocimientos y tecnologías de herramientas: los Nesher Ramla, que vivieron en la región desde hace unos 400,000 años, y los Homo sapiens que llegaron más tarde, hace unos 200,000 años.
El nuevo descubrimiento también da pistas sobre un misterio de la evolución humana, sobre cómo penetraron los genes del Homo sapiens en la población neandertal que presumiblemente había vivido en Europa mucho antes de la llegada del Homo sapiens. Los investigadores afirman que al menos algunos de los fósiles de Homo más tardíos encontrados anteriormente en Israel, como los desenterrados en las cuevas de Skhul y Qafzeh, no pertenecen a Homo sapiens arcaicos (tempranos), sino a grupos de linaje mixto de Homo sapiens y Nesher Ramla.
Investigadores de la Universidad de Tel Aviv y de la Universidad Hebrea de Jerusalén señalan que la morfología de los humanos de Nesher Ramla comparte rasgos tanto con los neandertales (especialmente los dientes y las mandíbulas) como con los Homo arcaicos (concretamente el cráneo). Al mismo tiempo, este tipo de Homo es muy diferente a los humanos modernos, ya que presenta una estructura craneal completamente diferente, no tiene barbilla y tiene dientes muy grandes.
Según los resultados del estudio, los investigadores creen que el tipo de Homo de Nesher Ramla es la población “fuente” a partir de la cual se desarrollaron la mayoría de los humanos del Pleistoceno Medio. Además, sugieren que este grupo es la llamada población “desaparecida” que se apareó con el Homo sapiens que llegó a la región hace unos 200,000 años, del que se tiene constancia por un estudio reciente sobre los fósiles encontrados en la cueva de Misliya.
En este importante descubrimiento han participado dos equipos de investigadores: uno de antropología de , la doctora Hila May y la doctora Rachel Sarig, y otro de arqueología, dirigido por el doctor.
El profesor Israel Hershkovitz, de la Universidad de Tel Aviv, resalta que “este descubrimiento de un nuevo tipo de Homo es de gran importancia científica. Nos permite dar un nuevo sentido a los fósiles humanos encontrados anteriormente, añadir otra pieza al rompecabezas de la evolución humana y comprender las migraciones de los humanos en el mundo antiguo. A pesar de haber vivido hace tanto tiempo, en el Pleistoceno medio tardío (hace 474,000-130,000 años), los Nesher Ramla pueden contarnos una historia fascinante, que revela mucho sobre la evolución y el modo de vida de sus descendientes”, asegura.
El importante fósil humano fue encontrado por el doctor Yossi Zaidner, del Instituto de Arqueología de la Universidad Hebrea de Jerusalén, durante unas excavaciones de salvamento en el yacimiento prehistórico de Nesher Ramla, en la zona minera de la fábrica de cemento de Nesher (propiedad de Len Blavatnik), cerca de la ciudad de Ramla.
Al excavar unos 8 metros, los excavadores encontraron grandes cantidades de huesos de animales, como caballos, gamos y uros, así como herramientas de piedra y huesos humanos. Un equipo internacional dirigido por los investigadores de Tel Aviv y Jerusalén identificó la morfología de los huesos como pertenecientes a un nuevo tipo de Homo, hasta ahora desconocido para la ciencia. Se trata del primer tipo de Homo que se define en Israel y, según la práctica habitual, se le dio el nombre del yacimiento donde se descubrió: el tipo de Homo de Nesher Ramla.
Zaidner resalta que “es un descubrimiento extraordinario. Nunca habíamos imaginado que, junto al Homo sapiens, el Homo arcaico vagara por la zona en una época tan tardía de la historia de la humanidad –asegura–. Los hallazgos arqueológicos asociados a los fósiles humanos demuestran que el ‘Homo de Nesher Ramla’ poseía tecnologías avanzadas de producción de herramientas de piedra y muy probablemente interactuó con los Homo sapiens locales”. La cultura, el modo de vida y el comportamiento del Homo de Nesher Ramla se analizan en un artículo complementario publicado también este jueves en la revista ‘Science’.
El profesor Hershkovitz añade que el descubrimiento del tipo de Homo de Nesher Ramla cuestiona la hipótesis predominante de que los neandertales se originaron en Europa.“Antes de estos nuevos descubrimientos, la mayoría de los investigadores creían que los neandertales eran una ‘historia europea’, en la que pequeños grupos de neandertales se vieron obligados a emigrar hacia el sur para escapar de los glaciares en expansión, y algunos llegaron a la Tierra de Israel hace unos 70,000 años”.
Añade que “los fósiles de Nesher Ramla nos hacen cuestionar esta teoría, sugiriendo que los ancestros de los neandertales europeos vivieron en el Levante hace ya 400,000 años, migrando repetidamente hacia el oeste, hacia Europa, y hacia el este, hacia Asia. De hecho, nuestros hallazgos implican que los famosos neandertales de Europa occidental son sólo los restos de una población mucho mayor que vivió aquí en el Levante, y no al revés”, apostilla.
Según la Hila May, de la Facultad de Medicina Sackler y el Centro Dan David de Investigación de la Evolución Humana y la Biohistoria y el Instituto de Antropología de la Familia Shmunis, situados en el Museo Steinhardt de la Universidad de Tel Aviv, a pesar de la ausencia de ADN en estos fósiles, los hallazgos de Nesher Ramla ofrecen una solución a un gran misterio en la evolución del Homo: cómo penetraron los genes del Homo sapiens en la población neandertal que presumiblemente vivía en Europa mucho antes de la llegada del Homo sapiens”.
“Los genetistas que han estudiado el ADN de los neandertales europeos han sugerido anteriormente la existencia de una población similar a la de los neandertales, a la que llamaron la “población perdida” o la “población X”, que se había apareado con el Homo sapiens hace más de 200,000 años”, recuerda, pero en el artículo de ‘Science’, los investigadores sugieren que el tipo de Homo Nesher Ramla podría representar a esta población, hasta ahora desaparecida del registro de fósiles humanos.
Además, los investigadores proponen que los humanos de Nesher Ramla no son los únicos de su tipo descubiertos en la región, y que algunos fósiles humanos encontrados anteriormente en Israel, que han desconcertado a los antropólogos durante años –como los fósiles de la cueva de Tabun (hace 160.000 años), la cueva de Zuttiyeh (250,000) y la cueva de Qesem (400,000)– pertenecen al mismo nuevo grupo humano ahora llamado tipo Homo de Nesher Ramla.
“La gente piensa en paradigmas –señala la doctora Rachel Sarig–. Por eso se ha intentado atribuir estos fósiles a grupos humanos conocidos como el Homo sapiens, el Homo erectus, el Homo heidelbergensis o los neandertales. Pero ahora decimos: No. Este es un grupo en sí mismo, con rasgos y características distintas”, asegura.
That insecure, hungry, and traumatic experience of wandering in the desert forged the Israelites into a responsible, self-governing nation (Hukat)
The fact that the Torah places two events in close proximity frequently leads to an illusory effect on the reader. For example, this week’s Torah portion of Hukat follows Parshat Korach, which was read last week, bolstering the distortion that the events that appear in Hukat happened immediately after those chronicled in Korach. In actuality, the narrative appearing in Hukat, which details the arrival of “the whole congregation to the desert of Tzin,” occurred 37 years after the events of Korach.
The opening five parshiyot in the Book of Numbers recount the first two years of the Jews’ sojourn in the desert. The narrative takes a sudden turn and deposits the reader 37 years later to the threshold of the Jews’ entry into the Land of Israel. What happened during those intervening years and why is the Torah silent about them?
The Torah’s reticence might be indicative of the icy relationship between God and the group that experienced the Egyptian redemption and Divine revelation at Sinai. Rashi points out that the expression “the whole congregation,” which appears in the parsha, refers to the new nation destined to enter the land of Israel after the previous generation perished in the desert. Since these added years are punishment for the colossal sin of the spies, the Torah omits mention of them.
Other biblical sources, however, provide a glimpse into the relationship between God and the people Israel during this period. Psalms presents God as declaring: “Forty years, I quarreled with a generation, and I said, ‘They are a people of erring hearts and they did not know My ways’” (95:10).
The mystery of the Torah’s omission of these 37 years is an indication of the nation’s continuous downward spiral away from the Divine. Even Moses had prophecy elude him during these years (Rashi on Deut. 2:17). Given that Moses merited prophecy solely in his capacity as leader of the Jewish nation, this is not surprising. When God is remote from His people, He has no need for Moses as His emissary to them or as a representative of the people. Thus did God also remain distant from His greatest prophet.
The Torah itself indicates that the experience of traveling in the desert was full of trials and afflictions:
“And you shall remember the entire way on which the Lord, your God, led you these 40 years in the desert, in order to afflict you to test you, And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know.” (Deut. 8:2)
Various commentators connect the suffering to the manna. The manna would spoil overnight and the desert sojourners did not have iron clad confidence that they would have food the following day, provided by God. The people’s reactions also suggest that, while the manna provided all the essential nutrients for human survival, they never felt fully satiated. Hunger and insecurity accompanied them for 37 years. They were wrong, however. Throughout the desert exile punishment and the people’s relative detachment from God, and He from them, He still miraculously provided them with adequate sustenance.
The biblical text goes on to describe how the clothing and the shoes worn in the desert did not disintegrate. The midrash further claims that the garments fit properly, even as the wearers grew; the clothing was simply laundered and pressed by the surrounding clouds, however that was manifest. (To the modern style-conscious reader, this might be the ultimate trauma: wearing the same garment for 37 years!)
Another difficulty the desert generation faced was the utter uncertainty of the itinerary. There was no advance notice as to whether the temporary stay would last days, weeks, months, or even years. The technical issues involved were frustrating and difficult. No one was sure whether to unpack and settle in or live out of their suitcases, as it were. Midrash Tanchuma identifies this uncertainty as part of the punishment, while Seforno maintains that people following God blindly without knowing where or for how long was praiseworthy, and that trust was the trait that made them worthy of redemption.
Rambam, in his seminal work of philosophy, The Guide of the Perplexed (III:24), explains that, in addition to the suffering of those bleak years, the people were given opportunities for growth, learning, development, and maturation. The difficulties they confronted and overcame in the desert prepared the nation to conquer and settle the land. It would have been impossible for the people to emerge from being a docile, ragtag band of slaves to become a large nation with military and national agendas had they not benefitted from the ripening provided by years of reflection, planning, and overcoming domestic and foreign challenges. The Israelites needed to evolve from a group of lowly slaves beholden to Egyptian taskmasters to become a free nation that would form an eternal and enduring covenant with God. It was in the silent barrenness of the desert that a nation is formed.
The Torah recounts how Moses ascended Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, where he ate no bread and drank no water (Deut. 9:9). The prophet uses similar terminology to describe the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert (Deut. 29:5). Thus, one can understand that the nation’s desert experience mirrored Moses’ time on Sinai, in that just as his rapport with God was singular and unlike that with any mortal, the Israelites also developed a unique connection to God, unlike that of any other nation.
The unusual punishment of wandering in the desert, hungry, insecure, and traumatized is what ultimately forged the Israelites into a responsible, self-governing nation. The Torah thus teaches a great deal about the nation and its experience specifically by NOT mentioning the 37 years of distress in the desert.
Haim Nachman Bialik, in his poem “Meitei Midbar,” allegorically describes how the Israelites desert sojourn foreshadowed Jewish history. Both are, at once, difficult, dotted with trials and pain, and yet, God is ever-present, albeit silent with a promising end result.
“Also, the terrible wilderness, the empty desert Shall echo his call: ‘Israel, Arise and possess!’”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Chana Tannenbaum lectures at Bar Ilan University, Michlelet Herzog, and Matan. She has worked as a Jewish educator, in teaching and administration, for more than 30 years. She earned her doctorate at Yeshiva University, where she was also the recipient of the Baumel award, given to the most outstanding faculty member throughout Yeshiva University. Dr. Tannenbaum made aliyah with her family in 1997, moving to Nof Ayalon.
Long shut out of the country’s story, Middle Eastern Jews now make up half of Israel’s population, influencing its culture in surprising ways. Who are they?
The story of Israel, as most people know it, is well trod—perhaps even tiresome by now. It begins with anti-Semitism in Europe and passes through Theodor Herzl, the Zionist pioneers, the kibbutz, socialism, the Holocaust, and the 1948 War of Independence. In the early decades of the return to Zion and the new state, the image of the Israeli was of a blond pioneer tilling the fields shirtless, or of an audience listening to Haydn in one of the new concert halls. Israel might have been located, for historical reasons, in the Middle East, but the new country was an outpost of Europe. Its story was a story about Europe.
This story was a powerful one, and it has not changed much over the decades, certainly not in its English version. A recent example is Ari Shavit’s best-selling My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, in which the characters, with few exceptions, are the usual pioneers, Holocaust survivors, lovers of Europe spurned by Europe, devotees of classical music forced to become farmers and fighters, and their children and grandchildren: Ashkenazi Israelis like the author, and like me. Other actors are present onstage, but they are extras or props, not the stars. An earlier example of the form was Amos Elon’s richly told The Israelis: Founders and Sons (1971; reissued 1983), which purported to peer into the soul of the country but had scarcely a word to say about anyone not from Europe. Everyone knew who “the Israelis” really were.
A confluence of interests has endeared this same narrative to Israel’s enemies, who have used it to increasing effect. In Israel, goes one variant of the story, Arabs were made to pay the price of a European problem. A less benign variant posits that Israel is not a solution to anyone’s suffering but instead a colonialist European state imposed by empowered Westerners upon a native Middle Eastern population: that blond pioneer is less a victim rebuilding himself as a free man or an agent of progress than he is a white Rhodesian rancher.
It is 2014, and it should be clear to anyone on even passing terms with the actual country of Israel that all of this is absurd. Israel has existed for nearly seven decades and, like most things on earth, has turned into something that would have surprised the people who thought it up. Half of Israel’s Jews do not hail from Europe and are descendants of people who had little to do with Herzl, socialism, the kibbutz, or the Holocaust. These people require not the addition of a footnote, but a reframing of the story. Hard as this is for those of us whose minds were formed in the West, this means putting aside the European morality play that so many still see when they look at Israel, and instead viewing non-Europeans as main characters.
In what follows I will not try to offer anything resembling a comprehensive history but only trace an alternative way of seeing things and point out what this might yield by way of insight into the life of the country that exists today.
I’ll begin by introducing my friend Rafi Sutton.
1. Aleppo, 1947
Opposite Rafi’s apartment in a middle-class neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria, was a delicatessen owned by a Jewish family named Mizreb. This was in 1947. The deli sold canned foods imported from abroad, preserved meats, pickled cucumbers made by the proprietor’s mother, and French baguette sandwiches. The Jewish geography of Aleppo was ancient: Jews had been praying at their Great Synagogue since the 5th century C.E., and the first known evidence of Jews in the city is seven centuries older than that. The community thus predated not only Islam but also Christianity and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews were the oldest of the city’s native sects.
Mizreb’s delicatessen was a new addition to the geography, but an important one, or at least so it seemed to Rafi. If a young Jewish man wanted to treat his girlfriend in those days, he took her to the deli and bought her a baguette sandwich and a drink. Rafi was not yet old enough to do such things himself but he was, in the manner of fifteen-year-olds, attentive to them.
On November 30, 1947, a Sunday, Rafi looked out at his street from between the slats of wooden shutters. The night before, he had listened on the family’s radio to the broadcast from the United Nations where delegates voted to partition Palestine into a state for Arabs and a state for Jews. Now Jewish stores were ablaze in Aleppo, and up the street were piles of Jewish books in flames; like the burning of books and smashing of glass nine years earlier, in colder cities, the smoke augured the end of a Jewish world. Bands of rioters incited by the press and the government roamed the neighborhood looking for Jewish homes and businesses. According to one contemporary report, the mob burned down 50 stores, 18 synagogues, five schools, the community’s orphanage, a youth club, and more than 150 homes. In the ancient Jewish quarter in the Old City, families huddled in basements, hid in the apartments of friendly Muslim or Christian neighbors, or—in the case of one boy I would interview as an elderly man decades later—jumped barefoot from a kitchen window ahead of a mob bursting through the front door and sprinted through the alleys to a chorus of Arabic jeers and breaking glass.
A group of rioters gathered outside the storefront of Mizreb’s deli. Rafi could tell by their worn slacks and shoes that they were from the provinces or the city’s poorer quarters. They smashed the storefront, and two of the marauders ran across the street with an enormous jar of Mizreb’s famous pickled cucumbers. Sitting on the steps of Rafi’s building, they began to fight over the jar, tugging it back and forth until finally it fell to the ground and shattered, spilling the contents on the ground. This would be one of Rafi’s indelible memories of that day, a fifteen-year-old’s view of the beginning of the end.
By the next day the community’s well-off families had fled. By the mid-1950s, of the 10,000 Jews in Aleppo in 1947, only 2,000 remained, mostly the poor. They were prisoners of the Syrian regime and its secret services, the mukhabarat.The Jews’ passports were stamped in red with the word mousawi, “Mosaic,” so that their movements could be more easily restricted. Travel between cities was forbidden except by special permission. Many university faculties were closed to Jews. In the early 1990s, when the remaining members of the community were finally allowed to leave, they did so immediately, shuttering the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, the oldest functioning house of Jewish prayer in the world.
By this time, Rafi was long gone. In 1949, two years after watching the riot through the shutters of his home, he escaped on a rickety boat that sailed from Lebanon and deposited him on a beach in the new state of Israel.
My first intimate exposure to this history came in the course of writing about the Aleppo Codex, a manuscript of the Hebrew Bible guarded in that city for six centuries. That led me to Rafi, who became a character in my book. Prior to our long conversations, which still occur regularly, I might have thought of Jews like him as Sephardim, meaning Jews of mainly Spanish descent—but Jewish Aleppo and other eastern communities existed not only before the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 but before they arrived there in the first place. Or I might have thought of them as Jews of the Islamic world, which is not inaccurate but conceals its own slight, since Jews were in places like Aleppo at least a millennium before the birth of Islam. Jews of the Arab world, then? True of most of them—except that Jews had been living in Arab countries long before those countries were Arab.
Let us call them, with apologies for the lack of geographical logic, Jews from the Middle East, stretching the term “Middle East” to include North Africa even though the “eastern” city of Casablanca is farther west than the “western” city of London. In the 1940s there were about 260,000 Jews living in Morocco, 140,000 in Algeria, 40,000 in Libya, 140,000 in Iraq, 80,000 in Egypt, 60,000 in Yemen, and many others in Arab countries and in non-Arab countries like Iran and Turkey. Most were Arabic-speaking, with minorities who spoke Persian, Kurdish, Turkish, and other languages.
In all, there were nearly a million Jews living throughout the Middle East only 70 years ago, members of one of the region’s ancient native religious communities. Beginning in the mid-20th century they were forcibly displaced en masse, never to see their homes again. Most of them became concentrated in one minute slice of the region. There they developed the ability to defend themselves and have thus survived and thrived, unlike every other religious minority in this part of the world.
In Israel they have become known collectively as Mizrahim, easterners, a generalization that incorporates people from vastly different countries and classes but sharing roots in the world of Islam and similar experiences after their arrival in Israel. (The other generalization is Ashkenazim, describing Jews from a multiplicity of backgrounds anywhere between Vilna and Vancouver.) At age seventeen, Rafi became one of these many hundreds of thousands. Joseph Intabi, the child who ran barefoot from his home in Aleppo’s old city, arrived in Israel at the same time. Batya Levi, the woman who lives in the apartment next to mine, arrived from Morocco. The parents or grandparents of half of the 20 families who live in our building in Jerusalem came from elsewhere in the Middle East. My brother-in-law’s family arrived from Oujda, on the Morocco-Algeria border, my sister-in-law’s family from Yarim, in the highlands of the Yemeni interior. Others came from hundreds of other cities, towns, and villages.
Today, these Jews and their descendants can be said to make up, according to the Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola, 50 percent of Israel’s total Jewish population of just over six million, although the numbers are becoming significantly blurred by the kind of mixing evident in my own family. Fifty percent: this means that in 2014 their story is, as much as any other, the story of Israel.
2. Jews and Judaism in the Middle East
A few brief details about the past will be helpful before we return to the present. If one grows up immersed in the story of Ashkenazi Jewry, one might believe that upon being exiled from Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Jews appeared in places like Lodz and Vilna and then shortly thereafter on New York’s Lower East Side. In fact, 1,000 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, nine out of every ten Jews on earth still lived in the Middle East. By the 12th century, when the philosopher Moses Maimonides came to prominence in Cairo, Jews were taking root in Christian Europe, but the center was still very much in the Muslim-dominated Middle East. In this world, Jews were a second-class minority, afforded certain protections because they were monotheists but subject to a special tax and restrictions on housing and dress. The Muslim term for this status is dhimmi (now reportedly being resurrected and applied to Christians by the Islamist forces in control of parts of Syria).
It has become something of a cliché that the pre-modern Islamic world was a place of kindness toward Jews—if not, indeed, of convivencia (coexistence), the term adopted by some to characterize what is known as the Golden Age of medieval Spain. This is fantasy. There were periods of relative ease, and there were periods of tyranny and violence. Maimonides himself was forced to flee Muslim persecution in Spain and is thought by some scholars to have lived for a time as a Muslim to save his own life before arriving in the relative safety of Cairo and openly reverting to Judaism. He remained preoccupied all his life with shielding his co-religionists from the seduction of voluntary conversion, and the threat of forced conversion, to Islam.
Centuries later, Islam’s fortunes had fallen drastically, and yet an 18th-century traveler in Morocco could still describe the country’s Jews as “oppressed, miserable creatures, having neither the mouth to answer an Arab, nor the cheek to raise their head.” A visitor to Maimonides’ city in the 1820s and 1830s reported that Cairo’s Jews were “held in the utmost contempt and abhorrence by Muslims in general.”
By the 1800s, however, ideas of nationalism were beginning to change Europe, and they gradually began to affect the Middle East as well. In Europe these ideas led to the creation of political Zionism, which sought to protect Jews from the nationalism of others by giving them a national movement of their own. In the Middle East they led to the creation of Arab nationalism. Just as nationalism in places like Germany and France would come to exclude Jews, Arab nationalism did the same; and just as Jews in Europe would find their situation to be increasingly precarious, so did the Jews of the Middle East.
Because of poverty and uncertainty about the future, a Jewish exodus from the Middle East was under way by the time European Zionist pioneers began arriving in Palestine in earnest; by the 1920s there was already a thriving Aleppo Jewish diaspora in places like New York City and Manchester, England. As national movements grew in strength in Middle Eastern countries, the situation of Jews only worsened. Western-style hatreds became more evident. In 1925, a Lebanese Maronite priest translated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Arabic and the book found an enthusiastic audience that seems to have flagged little since then—I encountered it eight decades later in several respectable bookstores in Beirut.
All of this goes to say that the appearance of Zionism did not create the persecution of Jews in Muslim lands—a common claim that at best, in the words of the historian Norman Stillman, amounts to a “gross oversimplification.” (The infamous blood libel of Damascus, to take just one example, occurred in 1840.) Rather, Zionism exacerbated a growing precariousness that, like Zionism itself, was a result of the advent of modernity and the rise of nationalism, and that appeared atop an older and more stable kind of discrimination.
Zionism initially found relatively few adherents among Jews in Muslim lands. It was a European movement dominated by people who might have an ethnographic interest in eastern Jews but did not regard them seriously as political actors. Nevertheless, whatever their degree of involvement or lack of involvement in Zionism, Jews in Muslim countries increasingly found themselves the targets of popular discontent spurred on by elite opinion, and had to plead their loyalty to their Muslim compatriots. In one memorably abject example from 1929, a Jewish youth club placed an ad in a Damascus newspaper declaring:
Zionism was founded by the Jews in northern Europe, and the Jews of Damascus are totally estranged from it. It is for this reason that we have come to declare by the present note to our Arab fellow citizens and to the members of the press our attitude vis-à-vis the Zionist question, and we ask them to differentiate between the European Zionists and the Jews who have been living for centuries in these lands.
This would not save their community.
By 1941, with the founding of the state of Israel still only barely imaginable, anti-Jewish sentiment became linked to the pro-Nazi posture assumed across the Arab world, manifesting itself in increasingly extreme acts of violence against Jews. The most notable instance among many was a Muslim pogrom that year in Baghdad. Known as the Farhud, the riot killed an estimated 180 people and did much to seal the fate of the Jewish community of Babylon—one that, like the community in Aleppo, predated Islam, Christianity, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. At the time, by some estimates, as many as a third of the residents of Baghdad were Jews. Most eventually escaped to Israel and made their new homes not all that far away from their old ones. Were there no borders, Baghdad would be a day’s drive from Jerusalem, and if one left Jerusalem early in the morning one could be in Aleppo by mid-afternoon.
These Jews were, in other words, members of a persecuted minority who re-established themselves as free people in the Middle East after their displacement from elsewhere in the Middle East. They now lived alongside new arrivals from Europe and alongside people like Mazal Sides, my wife’s grandmother, who grew up speaking Ladino in the old pre-Zionist Jewish community of Jerusalem, in a family with roots in Hebron. The families of the newly arrived Middle Eastern Jews were not native to Palestine. But then, neither were the families of all Arabs in Palestine. The decades leading up to 1948, peak years of Jewish immigration, saw Arab immigration as well, mainly for economic reasons and much of it undocumented. Some of the Arabs in Palestine in 1948 were natives of the same places as were some of the Jews, particularly Syria and Egypt; anyone around the Haifa port in the 1940s, for example, remembers the workers from Houran, an area in Syria. The point can be overdone, and has been the subject of debate in which numbers have often been used to bolster ideological claims, but it is safe to say that the question of who is native in the land and who is not is more complicated than might at first appear.
The name “Israeli” seems to denote something new, and that was the idea: “Israelis” were supposed to be an improved version of “Jews.” But the price paid for that aspirational title was to bolster the argument that Jews were newcomers in this part of the world. It is interesting in this respect that Israel’s enemies have found it difficult to get used to the term “Israelis,” and have generally preferred “Jews.” In his book Hezbollah: The Story from Within, the organization’s deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassem, makes clear that the Jews in Israel are the same ones mentioned repeatedly in the Quran. He cites numerous passages in support of his argument, including this one: “And we decreed for the Children of Israel in the scripture: Ye verily will work corruption in the earth twice, and ye will become great tyrants.” His point is that just as the Jews were once punished by being driven out of the land, so they will be defeated and driven out again. The Hamas charter similarly identifies the Jews of modern Israel with the Jews of Islamic tradition–that is, with the Jews whom Muslims have been meeting around the Middle East since the birth of Islam.
Jews are, and always have been, familiar characters in the Islamic world. In that world they were regarded as people who could usually be tolerated if they accepted the dominance of Muslims, but who lacked honor and could not fight. This is important if one is to understand the sense of humiliation in the Islamic world at being defeated militarily by Israel, a much sharper humiliation than being defeated, as Muslims were, by Christian armies. Being beaten by Jews is not like being beaten by the English or the Americans. It is, as we used to say in the schoolyard, like being beaten by a girl.
If you visit Cairo today, you can ask directions to an area downtown called the Jewish Quarter, a name it retains despite the disappearance of its Jews. In that quarter, several years ago, I found a man who knew the precise location of one of the Jews’ abandoned synagogues, which he remembered from its days of activity. I had a similar experience in the old mellah of Fez and in the Rif mountain town of Chefchaouen, homes to Moroccan Jewish communities that vanished in the relatively recent past. The flight of Jews from the Islamic world has been forgotten elsewhere, and even the descendants of the emigrants themselves do not, as a rule, think of themselves as refugees or ask for anyone’s pity. But reminders of this exodus, and of the absence of the Jews, are encountered daily by millions in Arab countries. They know who once lived in their cities and towns, why they left, what happened to their property, and where they are now.
Presenting Israelis as newcomers is not just an effective way to play on Western guilt over Europe’s supposed transplanting of its Jewish problem to the Middle East. It is a way to expunge the uncomfortable knowledge that “Israeli” is just a new name for old neighbors—and dangerous neighbors, because they have a legitimate grievance that they remember. It is clear to people from this part of the world that one does not forget such things. I believe this is one of the hidden gears of the Middle East conflict, one that remains invisible as long as one regards the history of the native Jews of the region merely as an exotic detail.
3. Becoming Israeli
What happened to the Jews of the Middle East once in Israel? Their arrival was generally unhappy. Not that any of the refugees who flooded the Jewish state after its founding, doubling its population in three years, were treated gently; the internment of immigrants in camps and their disinfection with DDT, for example, remembered as having been inflicted specifically on arrivals from the East, was in fact inflicted on everyone in the desperate chaos of those days. Similarly applied to all were generalizations about supposed national characteristics, though Jews from Arab countries were usually placed at the bottom of the list. If Romanians and Hungarians, as one official wrote, “have no pioneering spirit at all” and “expect a life of luxury,” the new arrivals from North Africa were primitives, “hot-tempered and unorganized.”
The state’s founders had wanted to save the Jews of Europe, but Israel had not been created in time to do that. Instead, it ended up saving the smaller but far older Jewish world of the Middle East, to which few of the founders had devoted much thought. They had not been expecting these strange people, who reminded them of a region few of them particularly cared for and which was at war with them. But the state needed citizens, workers, and soldiers, and besides, ingathering the exiles—all of the exiles—was seen as a mission of nearly religious import. The state went to immense lengths to absorb them.
The process was made more difficult by the contempt some European Jews felt for Jews from the East, and by the immense cultural gaps that divided the populations. Those gaps were not imaginary. Some of the newcomers did hail from places where standards of living could accurately be described as medieval—even if things were not much better in some parts of Europe, and even if many Middle Eastern immigrants came from places far more cosmopolitan than did many Europeans. One official was of the opinion that the immigrants from Arab countries displayed “mental regression” and “a faulty development of the ego.” “Perhaps these are not the Jews we would like to see coming here,” wrote another, “but we can hardly tell them not to come.” Saying that their absorption succeeded beyond reasonable expectations—as it unquestionably did—is not to deny that it could have been handled far better or that the country is still paying the price for mistakes it made all those many years ago.
And today? Ethnic lines are fading in places but are still very much present; social and economic gaps are narrowing slowly but have by no means closed. One recent study found that Mizrahi Jews occupy only 29 percent of managerial positions requiring a university degree, as opposed to 54 percent for Jews of European descent, and that a poor person in central Israel is three times as likely to be descended from immigrants from the Middle East as from Europe. Similar studies abound.
At present, most people who can claim to be victims of European male hegemony seem unable to resist the temptation, but it would be a mistake to limit discussion of Mizrahi Jews to that constricted, patronizing category. Rafi Sutton’s father Moshe, who escaped from Syria, reached Israel in 1950 at age eighty-five, and died several years later, felt neither humiliated nor angry but rather convinced he had lived to see redemption. He believed, Rafi says, that David Ben-Gurion was Moses. Like many Aleppo-born Jews I have interviewed, he did not see Zionism solely or even primarily as a modern construct but as the straightforward realization of liturgical passages like, “May our eyes see Your return to Zion in mercy,” recited in prayer thrice daily. Rafi himself, who became an army colonel and a case officer in the Mossad, insists he was never insulted and, when asked, would not list a single complaint. This would seem to be exceptional, but given the solid identification of today’s Mizrahi Jews with the cause of Zionism and the Jewish state, it is perhaps not as unusual as some might think.
The academy and the upper echelons of Israel’s political system tend to remain, largely and regrettably, the province of Jews of European descent. But the fabric of everyday life is otherwise. To draw an example from the world of pop culture: Israel’s music TV station, Channel 24, is dominated by the genre dubbed Mizrahi, a blend of Middle Eastern and Greek influences that has become the country’s signature musical style and whose fan base is by no means limited to Israelis of eastern descent. Most of it is dreadful, though no more so than popular music anywhere else, and it is markedly better-natured than much on offer from its American equivalents.
Aesthetically, many of the videos are not especially different from what one sees on Arabic music channels elsewhere in the region. Most of the songs are about romantic love, of course, but in this genre it is wholly permissible to devote earnest love songs to God or to your mother, two subjects that in the West are quite off-limits to pop singers (except in country music). This reflects the fact that personal and family ties in Israel operate largely according to Middle Eastern norms. If, in the modern West, loving one’s mother after age twelve or so is something you’re not supposed to be vocal about, in the culture of modern Israel things are the other way around: if you do not love your mother and phone her regularly, there is something wrong with you. Speaking loudly, affectionately, and respectfully to her on a cellphone in public at age thirty-five, far from contradicting a macho persona, is a necessary component of one.
Israel’s prevailing ideas of family, hospitality, friendship, and accepted degrees of warmth in normal personal interactions—as in the amount of male cheek-kissing in some of the military’s toughest combat units—share the same Middle Eastern origins. One can only be thankful that this is the case. Certain human qualities (like guilt, for example, and self-deprecating humor) that American Jews, being still linked to the world of Europe, consider to be intrinsically Jewish, are absent here.
Beyond mainstream pop, the country’s soundtrack is being altered by other Middle Eastern sounds as well. The rock singer Dudu Tassa released, to considerable acclaim, an album of songs by the great al-Quwaiti brothers of Iraq; the brothers were Jews and one of them, Daoud, was Tassa’s grandfather. The local indie music scene has recently produced Riff Cohen’s irrepressible North African-influenced music in French and Hebrew, and also the band Yemen Blues, whose exceptional sound is insufficiently hinted at in its name.
On the more classical end of the scale, ensembles like the New Jerusalem Orchestra and the Andalusian-Mediterranean Orchestra (whose musicians are as likely to hail from the former Soviet Union as from the Middle East) have become known for fusing Middle Eastern melodies with jazz and symphonic composition. A renaissance in the eastern Jewish liturgical tradition of piyyut, performed by such masters as the Moroccan-born Rabbi Haim Louk, has attracted pop singers like the mainstream rocker Barry Sakharov.
All this would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. At the root of the eastern music phenomenon is not an orientalist interest on the part of Europeans but a new willingness on all sides, including among formerly alienated “returnees” from the Mizrahi world itself, to explore and to integrate this part of the native culture of the citizens of Israel. And music is just one example of the process; similar instances can be found in areas of cultural and national life from literature and painting to cuisine and from religion to politics.
These last two, religion and politics, merit a brief discussion of their own.
4. The Mizrahi Influence Today
When it comes to the religious life of the country, a misfortune visited upon Israeli Judaism was the modern and Western idea that one is either “religious” or “secular,” a distinction that never existed in the Jewish communities of the East. There, Jews were bound to an inescapable but flexible amalgam called “tradition.” One could not leave tradition, but there was room for movement within it. In Rafi Sutton’s Aleppo, even the wives of chief rabbis did not cover their hair, and though most men were ritually observant, no one wore a skullcap or any other visible sign of Jewishness in public.
The fact that a sizable number of Israelis still cling to the idea that one is either “secular” or “religious” makes it difficult to perceive that much—perhaps most—of the country answers to neither definition. In a recent poll, 43 percent of Israeli Jews categorized themselves as “secular” and 32 percent as “traditional,” but, confusingly, fully 80 percent said they believed in God and 72 percent in the power of prayer, and 66 percent said they light candles on Friday night. Rafi, for one, does not observe most religious laws but was insulted when I suggested that he was “secular.” In a traditional eastern family in Israel, you might follow a Sabbath dinner on Friday night with a soccer game, or attend synagogue on Saturday morning and then go to the beach. Tradition is not something you must take or leave, but something in which you live to the best of your ability in different ways at different times.
The idea of a deep religious identity combined with a deep religious flexibility has yet to find coherent public expression in Israel. In politics, the primary representative of Middle Eastern Jews has instead been the Shas party, which has steered many away from the mainstream into an ersatz form of Eastern European ultra-Orthodoxy, and therefore also from productive work and service into a dead end of insularity and government handouts. Rafi believes Shas to be “the worst disaster ever to befall the Mizrahim.” In the last national election, a renegade Shas rabbi, Haim Amsalem, tried to start a new party with a relatively moderate platform. Insisting in a newspaper interview with me that stringent Jewish observance by no means contradicts joining the workforce or the army, he said that his views were inspired by those of his father, David Amsalem, a rabbi in Morocco and Algeria, and also reflected what he saw as the true teachings of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the most important Mizrahi religious figure of the last century.
Yosef himself, who died last year, was a complicated and often contradictory character who will be remembered both as a Jewish scholar of genius and considerable flexibility, and as the person responsible for the rise of Shas in Israeli politics. With Yosef’s blessing, Amsalem was excommunicated from the party, and though his splinter faction gained significant attention it failed to win enough votes to gain a seat in parliament. And yet the idea of “tradition” in the old eastern style remains widespread and is becoming influential in non-Mizrahi circles as well. Last summer, a journalist for the national-religious newspaper Makor Rishon noticed that many of her friends were texting on Shabbat, looked into the phenomenon, and discovered young Ashkenazi Israelis from modern-Orthodox homes who were looking to identify themselves as masorti, “traditional,” a term that in Hebrew refers specifically to the moderate style of Judaism practiced by many eastern Jews. “Maybe a new kind of observance is coming into being under our nose,” she wrote.
This is possible. In Israel, the liberal streams of Judaism familiar to Americans are seen as foreign and quite irrelevant, a result in part of the relatively small number of their adherents who have immigrated to Israel. But masorti in the eastern style is seen as an authentic Israeli identity, and its increased adoption may be another product of the creeping admiration for eastern Jews on the part of Israelis of European descent. “Cool” does not get measured in polls but is nonetheless worth noticing. If being Mizrahi was once uncool, that is no longer the case. A young man told me he would never call himself a Conservative or Reform Jew because he does not “speak with an American accent.” But he did not see why he had to suffer religious rigidity merely because his grandparents were from Europe, and so he identifies himself as masorti.
In politics, finally, with the notable exception of Shas, eastern Jews in Israel have not acted in concert as a bloc of voters any more than European Jews, and politicians of Middle Eastern descent are represented across the political spectrum. Still, it is accurate to say that most Mizrahi Jews have generally been stalwarts of the Right. This has been true since the era when the old Labor establishment tended to treat them with condescension while Menahem Begin’s Herut, the precursor to the Likud, did not. Their affinity for the Right also has much to do with personal memories of displacement by Muslims, and with a sense of the way things work in the Middle East. That sense tells you that words spoken by opponents are not important and promises not to be trusted, that you do not easily give up things that are yours, and that if you do, you should expect not a grateful and reconciled adversary but scorn and further exploitation.
To anyone convinced that Israel’s war with its neighbors will end in a reasonable compromise, such stubbornness must seem lamentable. If, however, one understands the conflict as a test of wills that will go on indefinitely, and in which Israelis are outnumbered by people of admirable persistence and patience, one develops a greater appreciation for those on one’s side who are unapologetically rooted in their own identity, have no illusions about their enemies, and are quite indisposed to giving up.
Taking Rafi Sutton as an example of this approach, I would describe his position as pessimistic without being ideologically inflexible. After the 1967 war, as an intelligence officer in Jerusalem, he believed that Yasir Arafat was threatened more by Arab governments than by Israel. Acting on this belief, he managed to open a channel to the Fatah chief through a middleman who assured Arafat that Rafi, “an Arab like us,” was someone with whom certain arrangements could be made. Arafat wanted to talk. But Rafi’s superiors, who did not want to lend legitimacy to a terrorist, vetoed the idea. Their thinking, Rafi says, was “typically Polish.” And yet, at the same time, he himself believes no Palestinian leader will ever sign a peace deal with Israel on any terms, for the simple reason that doing so would make him a traitor to the Palestinian cause—that cause being the destruction of Israel—and would be certain to get him assassinated like the first King Abdullah of Jordan or Anwar Sadat of Egypt. In Rafi’s view, the recent U.S. effort to engineer a quick peace deal is “idiotic,” because such a deal is impossible.
This skepticism is not an extreme position and has nothing to do with the messianism of the religious settlement movement, an Ashkenazi affair with which eastern Jews have always had a complicated relationship (and where they have not always been welcome). It has been vindicated in the eyes of most Israelis and is, I believe, the country’s dominant political sentiment at the moment.
5. The Next Phase of Israel’s National Existence
What does the future look like? Thanks to intermarriage between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews, and to the increasing openness of the Israeli mainstream to Mizrahi religious, political, and cultural norms, I believe it is fair to predict an accelerating erasure of the ethnic divide. But I do not want to exaggerate: that divide remains deeper than many Ashkenazi Israelis would like to think, and its disappearance is still many years away. Such things take time. In Aleppo, it was generations before the exiles from Spain after 1492 melded into one community with the city’s native Arabic-speaking Jews.
Working in Israel’s favor in this respect is the fact that Israeli society is strikingly fluid; dramatic and rapid change is possible here as it isn’t in more staid places. The challenge is to stop picking at the scabs of the past and to stop seeing the national project through the lens of old dividing lines: left vs. right, religious vs. secular, Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi. Though the political system and many intellectuals have yet to catch up, most Israelis now exist somewhere in the middle. Instead of ignoring the reality, let alone bemoaning it in light of some imaginary past of khaki shorts and songs around the Palmah campfire, wise statesmen and thinkers should be considering how to forge, from all of our society’s constituent parts, the second phase of Israel’s national existence, the phase that comes after the expiry of the founding generation. Those constituent parts are, of course, a source not only of potential comity but of tension and fractiousness, so it is fair to question whether the necessary trick can be pulled off. Anyone considering what has been achieved over the past 66 years has reasonable grounds for optimism.
In Aleppo, Mizreb’s delicatessen is gone. Rafi’s old school and synagogue are gone. Jewish Aleppo is gone. Now much of the rest of Aleppo is gone as well. The Suttons, however, are alive and well: Rafi and his wife Rina, who hails from another Aleppo family, their three sons, all of whom are in Israel, and their eight grandchildren.
When Rafi and the other Jews of the Islamic world arrived here after 1948, they found themselves in what was still a European project. But if they joined the world of European Jews, the European Jews of Israel simultaneously, and unwittingly, joined theirs. The new identity known as “Israeli” is a product of that meeting. This is what is not noticed by many observers, even the knowledgeable among them—and even the Israelis among them—who, it sometimes appears, see one country out their window and then sit down and write about another country entirely. As a result, they are left with stale ideas and an out-of-date story that is increasingly useless in explaining the country as it exists right now. They miss the lively and potent fuel that drives the place, and they underestimate its resilience.
The construction of the state of Israel, in which Mizrahi Jews have been partners of numeric equality (if not other forms of equality) for over 66 years, provided the stateless Jews of the Middle East with self-determination in their native region and turned them from an endangered minority into half of a majority. Other religious minorities under Muslim rule—the Zoroastrians, Baha’i, and Christians come to mind—are in danger of extinction. Because the Jews have a country, they have been spared that fate and shielded from the savagery now unfolding in places like Aleppo, which would have made them one of its first targets had not an earlier and comparatively milder incarnation of the same savagery driven them out long ago. Whatever its faults, the country they helped build has given them, and the rest of us, a prosperous home, and within two or three generations has catapulted them far beyond the condition of the people they left behind.
The form that the Jewish presence in this region has taken—national sovereignty—is unprecedented. But if we place the story of the Jews of Islamic countries at the center rather than at the margins of our consciousness, we see that Israel represents a continuation of the past as much as it does a break with it. We Israelis are Jews in the Middle East. That we are free, safe from persecution, and in charge of ourselves—these things are new. But that we are here? There is nothing new about that at all.
“What manner of man is the prophet?,” asks Abraham Joshua Heschel, in the opening words of his 1962 masterwork The Prophets. Heschel tells us. The prophet has an acute sensitivity to evil. Acts that others might dismiss with a shrug, or explain away as the dog-eat-dog way of the world, incite the full fury of their indignation at what Heschel calls “the secret obscenity of sheer unfairness.” This the prophet feels fiercely, a sensitivity to evil that is a divine illness. They know that God has placed a burden on their shoulders, and thrust a coal into their mouths. The prophet feels the pathos of God, and becomes its vessel. The prophet is an iconoclast, a breaker of images, a seeker of holiness who has no patience or tolerance for its feigned imitations or facsimiles, an unwelcome guest in the Temple. The prophet decries evil and the pollution of the divine word, but is aware that to castigate only the wicked lets everyone else off the hook, and in Heschel’s famous words, “few are guilty, all are responsible.” All misdemeanors become felonies. But in this refusal to accept gradations of accountability they are insisting on our linked fates, that God is less interested in the fate of individuals than our collectivities, our communities, cities, and nations. Prophets are bringers of both comfort and wrath. And so while prophets are not sentimental, they are compassionate, recognizing human shortcomings and limitations, and that because of this, our shared fate will never eliminate desperation and suffering.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was in the English-speaking world, and in the Jewish world, the most influential writer on the Hebrew prophets of his time. It is probably an occupational hazard of writing about prophets to be considered one. Shortly before Heschel’s death in 1972, in an interview with NBC reporter Carl Stern, he was asked “Well, are you a prophet?” Like all true prophets, he answered in the negative, saying I won’t accept this praise.” What else can a prophet say? If Carl Stern had interviewed Jeremiah or Isaiah, they no doubt would have evaded the question as well. A prophet with too much honor, who is too respected, who is only greeted and treated with reverence is a prophet whose prophetic edge has been dulled and blunted. They can only bring a butter knife to life’s sword fight. A prophet is judged by the enemies they have made.
Let us take Abraham Joshua Heschel at his word. He was not a prophet. But he looked like a prophet, fitting in with the hirsute 60’s with his white mane of hair and flowing wispy beard. And he sounded like a prophet, mixing his war against political and spiritual complacency by speaking of God’s search for humanity and the radical amazement of finding this God, preaching a theology of passion and involvement. And like a prophet, wherever he turned his gaze he found God, and places suffering because of God’s absence. He found God in the Black Freedom Struggle, arms locked with Martin Luther King, Jr in the Selma voting rights march of 1965, which became one of the enduring iconic images of the era. He spoke out in defense of beleaguered Russian Jewry in the Soviet Union and against the American atrocity of the War in Vietnam. And he was a pioneer in interfaith outreach, perhaps most notably in his extended efforts during Vatican II to get the Roman Catholic Church to repudiate its two-thousand-year-old anti-Jewish dogmas. He believed that “no religion is an island” to quote the title of one of his most famous articles. So perhaps he wasn’t a prophet, but as he told Carl Stern, “it is arrogant enough to say that I am a descendant of the prophets, what is called a B’nai Nevi’im.” In the end, I don’t think Heschel cared what he was called. All he wanted was to be listened to, with the arrogance of someone who knew that he had something important to say, and with the humbling knowledge that at the same time, he was too frail, too imperfect, and too befuddled a messenger for God’s message.
It is always a good time to think about, to read, and now to watch Abraham Joshua Heschel. There is even a better reason now. There is a new film, just out from Journey Films, directed and produced by Martin Doblmeier, Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story. It includes interview material with Heschel along with commentary from his daughter, Susannah Heschel, a leading scholar of Judaism in her own right, Michael Lerner, Shai Held, Cornell West and many others. The film tells the story of his remarkable life. Heschel was born in Warsaw in 1907. Both parents were descended from prominent Hasidic rebbes. His immersion in Hasidic culture and learning is one of the keys to understanding Heschel. Perhaps my favorite among his books is A Passion for Truth (1973), a study of two Hasidic rebbes, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and Menahem Mendel of Kotzk (1787–1859), (along with having a substantial detour into the angst-filled religion of the Danish Protestant theologian of existential angst, Søren Kierkegaard [1813–1855]). For Heschel, if the Ba’al Shem Tov preached and practiced a religion of inclusion and of spiritual equality, the Kotzker rebbe and Kierkegaard were practitioners of a religion of nervous intensity and interiority, and despisers of any religion that smacked of self-satisfaction. Kierkegaard and the Kotzker rebbe, who spent the last twenty years of his life in seclusion, raise the question for Heschel of how to handle spiritual truths; whether to restrict them to a small circle of adepts and acolytes, and keep them pristine, or spread them more widely, and risk their adulteration. Like most in the Hasidic tradition, he believed in the latter, while respecting the “passion for truth” that animated difficult, uncompromising religious seekers like the Kotzker rebbe.
Heschel, a Hasidic prodigy, did not follow a traditional Hasidic path, and chose to study in an academic Gymnasium in Vilna, and then went to Berlin in 1927, participating in the remarkable but tragic efflorescence of Jewish studies in Weimar Germany. Heschel shared, with writers such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Rosenzweig, a rejection of both the staid rationality of classic Reform Judaism and the Haskalah, and the legalism of Orthodoxy, and instead focused on the importance of direct religious experience and the search to craft a new religious modernity. In Germany he published several books, the first edition of his study of the prophets, and short biographical studies of Maimonides and Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508). Heschel remained in Germany until 1938, serving the increasingly beleaguered Jewish community there, until he was expelled in 1938, and after a harrowing trip and confinement on the German-Polish border, returned to Warsaw.
However, Heschel, very afraid of the possibility of a German invasion, was eager to get out of Poland. In July 1939, six weeks before the Nazi invasion, he was able to leave for Britain, and then arrived in New York City in March 1940. (His mother and sisters and other family members perished in the Holocaust. He dedicated The Prophets to “the martyrs of 1940–45”.) He spent the war years teaching at Hebrew Union College, which had arranged for him to come to the United States, for which he was forever grateful, but he did not find the religious atmosphere at the Reform seminary particularly congenial, and in 1946 he began teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary in upper Manhattan, the main seminary for the Conservative movement, where he would teach for the remainder of his career. The theological outlook was closer to his own views, but he remained something of an outsider on the faculty, whose leading members focused on detailed “scientific” textual studies of the Talmud, and who often saw him as something of a lightweight, a dispenser of trite sermonic homilies, a writer of accessible books rather than dense articles in obscure scholarly journals. In their dismissal of Heschel’s weightiness, they could not have been more wrong. Anyone reading his Hebrew language Torah min Hashamayim—translated as Heavenly Torah—could have no doubt about his Talmudic chops, but he rightly felt that he needed to write in a different style to reach American Jews (and Americans in general).
After he was settled in New York, his books came out in a torrent. He was one of a number of European emigres who arrived just as the war was breaking out who rapidly mastered a richly idiomatic American English, Jewish theology’s answer to Vladimir Nabokov. It was primarily his books in the late 1940s and 1950s that secured his American reputation; The Earth is the Lord’s (1949), his incredibly moving eulogy to his lost culture of eastern European Jewish culture, The Sabbath (1951), and what are probably his two most important influential books, Man is Not Alone (1951), and God in Search of Man (1955). Heschel’s best writing is aphoristic, a theology of insight and acute observation, approaching God not through definition and theological proposition but a metaphor. Although written at the height of the vogue of existentialism and much talk about the age of anxiety, Heschel’s books have often impressed me with their lack of hand-wringing about God’s distance from humanity. It is rather a celebration, of God, the Jewish people, and people in general, and the “radical amazement” of belief. Heschel does not make God difficult to find and if anything, he has little patience with unbelief. At times he seems to think that since God is so real and present to him, anyone who hasn’t found God just isn’t trying hard enough.
It is a minor paradox of sorts that if you read Heschel’s major works of the 1950s, I don’t think one would have predicted that in the 1960s Heschel would be best known as a social activist. It is not that this dimension of Heschel’s thought is absent in his earlier work, but it was not its focus. Perhaps this is a reflection of the times. The 1950s was a decade in which there much discussion of a religious revival, in which Will Herberg’s triad, Protestant/Catholic/Jew became America’s official trinity. It is perhaps instructive to compare Heschel to a previous rabbinic celebrity, Joshua Loth Liebman (1901–1948), whose 1946 book, Peace of Mind, spent a year as #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. It is a book that can be judged by its title, a call for the finding of a personal and collective postwar calm after the hurly-burly of global combat and catastrophe, its sonorous tones edging into complacency, being at ease in Zion. It is a celebration of the serenity that can come from a deep connection to God, but Heschel offers a prophetic serenity, a confidence in God’s message that leads outward, toward challenging unearned self-satisfaction, a serenity that is closest to God when the messenger is pissing off the right people.
In this, Heschel was hardly alone. He was part of a group of religious thinkers in mid-twentieth-century America, who differed in many ways, but shared a general outlook; liberal or radical in their politics, radical in their insistence on the direct experience of God; inspired by the promise of America, outraged by its failures. For Martin Doblmeier, the head of Journey films, and a longtime director of documentary films on religious subjects, this is the fourth film he has made in recent years on mid-century religious figures. The first film was An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story (2017), followed by Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story (2019), Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story (2020), and now the film on Heschel. (I should note in the interests of full disclosure that I was interviewed for the film on Thurman.) All of the films are available as CDs, and have been broadcast on PBS. The subjects of Doblmeier’s films make for quite a quartet: Two Protestants, one Catholic, one Jew; one African American, one woman; one immigrant; two pacifists; one Cold Warrior.
They were each quite distinct in their lives and their religious thinking, and at the same time, their lives were often entwined, borrowing and sharing insights among them. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was a good friend of both Howard Thurman (1899-1981) and Heschel. Heschel and Thurman were both good friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. Dorothy Day (1898–1980) and Thurman were both pacifists, and worked closely with pacifist organizations and were close to the religious pacifist A.J. Muste (1885–1967), someone else who belongs in this little band of prophets.
The four religious figures of Doblmeier’s films shared a rejection of the liberal theology of the early 20th century, which they felt was often a religion of complacence, both in matters spiritual and political. The oldest among them, Niebuhr, and the only white male Protestant among them, was the first to come to mainstream attention, especially with his blunderbuss of a book, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) which criticized the Social Gospel for its focus on individual redemption as the basis of societal transformation, and for purveying a liberal theology that had forgotten the real meaning of sin. As Heschel, who came to know Niebuhr when they were teaching in adjacent upper West Side seminaries, wrote after Niebuhr’s passing: “He began his teaching at a time when religious thinking in America was shallow, insipid, impotent, bringing life and power to theology, to the understanding of the human situation.” Thurman, born poor and Black in Florida in 1899, by dint of intelligence, luck, and ambition, became a noted mystic and advocate of radical nonviolence. His 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, is the best book on American democracy that most people who write about American democracy have never read, and he was a major influence on King. Thurman and Niebuhr were friends from the mid-1920s on. In 1932, at a commencement ceremony at Thurman’s alma mater, Morehouse College, the historically Black college in Atlanta, Thurman delivered the benediction while Niebuhr delivered the main address, cautioning the graduates against “aping middle-class white life,” urging them to avoid “the rut of bourgeois existence.” He doubted whether “the majority group of white people will ever be unselfish” because “power makes selfishness.” Rather than preaching platitudinous sermons, Black Christians needed to confront white supremacy, not with goodness but a religiously inspired realism about power. Because he thought pacifism was just another high-minded effort by persons of goodwill to evade political reality, Niebuhr was a sharp critic of pacifism, and Niebuhr’s politics by the late 1930s was interventionist, strongly supporting the war effort. On the other hand, in 1936, his good friend Howard Thurman, his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and one other man became the first Black Americans to meet with Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, and famed practitioner of radical nonviolence. Thurman had been a pacifist since the early 1920s. After their meeting, Gandhi gave Thurman and the others a benediction: “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.” In the 1920s, Dorothy Day, the one-time Greenwich Village radical, wearying of the bohemian life, and looking for something more stable and substantial, joined the Catholic Church, and within a few years started the Catholic Worker movement, dedicated to the rights of labor, radical insurgency against capitalism, the practice of poverty, the caring for the poor and outcast, as well as the teachings of the church. During the Cold War and War in Vietnam, Day’s outspokenness won her a number of new admirers.
Martin Doblmeier made these films because he felt that the cause of progressive religion has been neglected and largely forgotten by the mainstream media. As someone who has worked extensively on the life and works of Howard Thurman, I have found that the most common response to the statement: “I am writing a biography of Howard Thurman” is, “who?”
In recent decades the focus on religion in the United States has been almost exclusively about the rise and aggressive exercise of political power by the religious right and evangelical Christianity. Progressive religion is now commonly reduced to an oddity, a contradiction in terms, milquetoast apologists for a religion of inclusion, or just RINOs, religious in name only. They are treated as the losers in the struggle for the soul of America, with the hard, unbending intolerance of the hard right as the smug and contemptuous victors.
This is wrong on so many levels. First, the religious right has to be seen as a reaction against the success of progressive religion and its role in sparking the civil rights movement. As has so often happened in this country, the backlash, the reaction, was stronger than the initial action. And perhaps most importantly, religion is simply too important as a social glue to be abandoned to those who think the only role of religion is to exclude and anathemize, to create an exclusive club with God as the bouncer. Progressive religion, those who seek God’s presence as an inspiration for personal and public lives, is not finished.
On the other hand, the future of progressive religion is uncertain. All four of the subjects of Doblmeier’s films have had their successors, students, and sedulous biographers, but they did not create self-perpetuating movements. (The exception is Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker Movement still publishes the Catholic Worker, and it still runs over two hundred “houses of hospitality” in the United States and elsewhere. And she is the subject of an active, ongoing effort for her canonization, and the only one of the four likely to be declared, at some point, a saint.) The institutions of progressive religion continue to exist, but at times they feel like redoubts in a land controlled by their enemies.
One final comment: It is no doubt unfair on my part, but it seems that in recent decades, that the progressive religious left has produced no one with the stature of a Niebuhr, a Heschel, a Thurman, a Day, or a King. Chalk this up to my ignorance, or my lack of distance and appreciation of the spiritual leaders of our own times. Or perhaps the progressive left has become more suspicious of charisma and charismatic leadership than it was sixty years ago. It is striking that in the fights against global warming, or in the Black Lives Matter movement, no single figure has emerged as a dominant leader, and this is not unintended. Perhaps in our polarized times, we can no longer cross the divide between the secular and the sacred, with the ease of the subjects of Doblmeier’s films. All I can say is that whether or not we are all just epigones, there is much to learn from the glorious history of progressive religion in twentieth-century America, for inspiration, for consolation, and the occasional prophetic kick in the pants.
Anyone needing an introduction, a refresher course on who they were, or to spend some time in conversation with four men and women who spent their lives walking with God, could do much worse than watching the films of Martin Doblmeier. And why not start with his latest release on that rabbi of rabbis, that rebbe of rebbes, Abraham Joshua Heschel.
According to the Talmud, when God handed down the commandments, he handed them down in every language at once.
Last week was Shavuot, and this past Sunday was the Christian holiday of Pentecost that is linked to Shavuot. The word Pentecost, which is often used to denote Shavuot itself, comes from Greek pentecoste, “fiftieth” a reference to the commandment in the book of Leviticus to count seven weeks (shavu’ot) or 49 days from the second day of Passover and hold a “holy convocation” (mikra kodesh) on the 50th day. In Christianity, the 50 days ending with Pentecost are counted from Easter Sunday.
The English word “Pentecostal,” however, does not refer primarily to either the Jewish or the Christian holiday. Rather, it signifies any one of various Christian churches or denominations characterized by highly emotional prayer, ecstatic singing, dancing, and drumming, trance states, and what known as “speaking in tongues”—or to linguists, as “glossolalia” (from Greek glossa, tongue, and laleo, to talk or babble). Speaking in tongues is a practice that goes back to Chapter 2 of the New Testament book of Acts of the Apostles, which tells of the first Pentecost or Shavuot celebrated in Jerusalem by Jesus’ disciples, all Jews and Aramaic-speaking Jews from the Galilee, shortly after their teacher’s death. In the translation of the King James Version:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly, there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing, mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. . . . And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
The English word “Pentecostal,” however, does not refer primarily to either the Jewish or the Christian holiday. Rather, it signifies any one of various Christian churches or denominations characterized by highly emotional prayer, ecstatic singing, dancing, and drumming, trance states, and what known as “speaking in tongues”—or to linguists, as “glossolalia” (from Greek glossa, tongue, and laleo, to talk or babble). Speaking in tongues is a practice that goes back to Chapter 2 of the New Testament book of Acts of the Apostles, which tells of the first Pentecost or Shavuot celebrated in Jerusalem by Jesus’ disciples, all Jews and Aramaic-speaking Jews from the Galilee, shortly after their teacher’s death. In the translation of the King James Version:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly, there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing, mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. . . . And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
The passage then relates how Jesus’ disciples spontaneously broke into comprehensible Persian, Phrygian, Coptic, Berber, Latin, Arabic, and still other languages, even though they themselves did not understand a word of what they were saying. When asked for an explanation of this, the group’s leader, Peter, is said by Acts to have quoted the verse from the prophet Joel, “And it shall come pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dram dreams.” The “last days,” Peter was saying, have arrived.
Yet in having Peter invoke a not terribly relevant biblical verse, Acts was, whether deliberately or not, overlooking the true background of what happened in Jerusalem. This was the rabbinic belief, of which Peter himself, an observant Jew, would surely have been aware, that when the Torah was given at Sinai—which was, according to Jewish tradition, on Shavuot—it was not just given in Hebrew. This belief was based on a midrashic interpretation of the plural noun kolot, “sounds” or “voices,” which, we are told by the book of Exodus, were heard amid the thunder and lightning that accompanied Sinai’s revelation. As stated by the talmudic tractate of P’saḥim:
Every commandment spoken from God’s mouth [mi-pi ha-g’vurah] was divided into 70 languages—so says the school of Rabbi Yishma’el, [who quoted the words of Jeremiah]: ‘As the hammer shatters the rock’—just as a hammer gives off many sparks [when striking a rock], so each commandment spoken by God was given in 70 languages.
“Seventy languages” is a rabbinic way of saying “all the languages of the world.” Clearly, this midrash is what lies behind the apostles’ alleged ability to speak all these languages at their Shavuot gathering (presumably, for holiday prayer) in Jerusalem; no less clearly, too, the “tongues of fire” and “sound from heaven of a rushing, mighty wind” are allusions to the lightning and thunder by which Sinai, according to the account in the book of Exodus, was enveloped. The Shavuot in Jerusalem, in other words, is seen by the New Testament as a symbolic restatement of the theophany at Sinai, one in which the new Christian gospel was revealed to the entire world as the Torah, according to the midrash, was at the time of the exodus.
True, such an interpretation can be challenged on chronological grounds. Acts of the Apostles was written in the 1st century CE, while the passage in P’saḥim dates to the 4th or 5th, and it can be claimed that its exegetical reading of Exodus was unknown hundreds of years earlier. Yet Rabbi Yishma’el, whose students are quoted by P’saḥim, lived in the early 2nd century and could well have been reflecting an even older exegetical tradition. Obviously, there is a connection between the midrash in P’saḥim and the story in Acts, and it is far more plausible to assume that the former influenced the latter than vice versa.
Although there is evidence of glossolalia being practiced in ancient pagan religions as a way of letting the divine speak through human throats, it has been primarily associated in history with Christianity—and not with all Christianity, either, because after early Christian times there is little indication of its existence until the Protestant Reformation, some denominations of which revived it until it became widespread among Pentecostals in the 20th century. In many Pentecostal churches, speaking in tongues or “the gift of tongues,” as it also is called, is considered an ultimate sign of divine grace. Those to whom it is granted are not viewed as engaged in an act of their own volition. They are thought to be possessed by the Spirit of God, which is speaking through them
Linguistic research on glossolalia, of which there has been a fair amount, shows that its involuntary nature is only partial. While those speaking in tongues can emit rapid-fire sequences of sounds that have all the intonations of actual speech and may sound remarkably like it, none has ever been recorded talking in a real language previously unknown to him; all true glossolalia is gibberish. Moreover, its speakers never utter sounds that do not already exist in the languages they do know; in creating what may seem on first hearing to be a genuinely unfamiliar tongue, they are drawing entirely on phonetic options that are familiar. And finally, the latest neuroscience has shown that the “languages” they converse in are not produced in the language centers of the brain but in a part of the left frontal lobe associated with willed activity and multitasking.
This is not to say that speakers in tongues are necessarily faking it, although many may be. Genuine trance states that manifest themselves in glossolalia are real. Yet those subjected to them are stringing together mere sounds that have no discernible vocabulary or grammatical structure. Once, many years ago, my then nine-month-old daughter astonished some dinner guests by delivering a lengthy lecture in baby talk that sounded for all the world as though she were talking in a language all her own. Poetically speaking, she may have been, but it was really just amazingly fluent babble. So no doubt were the Persian, Phrygian, Coptic, Berber, and Arabic spoken by Peter and his fellows in Jerusalem.
Egypt has gone out of its way to help the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after the recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. But the leaders of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas only care about one thing: filling their own coffers with funds earmarked for suffering Palestinians. Pictured: An aid convoy of construction equipment and material provided by Egypt arrives in the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing on June 4, 2021. (Photo by Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)
Last month, Egypt succeeded in its effort to achieve a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Since then, however, Egypt has been unable to secure an agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over the reconstruction of buildings and homes that were destroyed during the 11-day Israel-Hamas conflict.
Egypt has gone out of its way to help the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after the recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
First, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi pledged $500 million to contribute to the reconstruction effort. (Qatar has promised a similar sum to help rebuild the Gaza Strip).
Second, Egypt dispatched the head of its General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, to the Gaza Strip and West Bank for talks with leaders of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority about the reconstruction plan.
Third, Egypt sent dozens of bulldozers, cranes and engineers to the Gaza Strip as part of its effort to assist with the reconstruction.
Fourth, Egypt invited representatives of various Palestinian factions, including the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, to Cairo for talks on ways of helping the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who had lost their homes during the fighting with Israel. Egypt was also doubtless hoping that the faction leaders would finally reach agreement on ending the dispute between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.
On June 10, the Egyptians informed the Palestinian factions of a decision to delay until further notice the meeting of the faction representatives that was supposed to take place in Cairo under the auspices of Egyptian General Intelligence Service officials. The last-minute decision to call off the meeting came after the representatives of the Palestinian factions had already arrived in Cairo.
The Egyptian move, according to reports in various Arab media outlets, came in light of a sharp dispute that erupted between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas over which party would be responsible for the reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Authority says that it should be the only party in charge of the reconstruction and that all funds must be channeled through its government. Hamas, on the other hand, insists that the funds from the international community be sent directly to its coffers.
The Palestinian Authority and Hamas, in short, are saying that they do not trust each other regarding the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been promised by Egypt and other countries to contribute to the reconstruction effort in the Gaza Strip.
“The Palestinian Authority cannot be trusted with the reconstruction funds, and it does not want to help the Gaza Strip,” said Palestinian political analyst Eyad al-Qarra. “The Palestinian Authority exists to suck the blood of the Palestinian people on the economic level, and it wants to benefit and revive its budget at the expense of the suffering of our people.”
Azzam al-Ahmed, a senior Fatah official, said his party had informed the Egyptians that the reconstruction effort must be carried out under the supervision of the Palestinian Authority. Ahmed accused Hamas of waging a “media campaign” against the Palestinian Authority in a way that “harms national unity and ignores the role of the Palestinian Authority” in rebuilding the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have good reason to suspect each other. They have been at war with each other since 2007, when Hamas staged a violent coup against the Palestinian Authority and seized control of the Gaza Strip.
Both parties, in addition, have long been facing accusations (by Palestinians) of financial corruption and mishandling public funds.
The dispute between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas over the reconstruction money drew strong condemnations from several Palestinians and Arabs. They accused the two parties of prioritizing their own interests at the cost of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians and Arabs expressed fear that the controversy would discourage donors from helping the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.
Some Palestinians launched a “popular campaign”, calling on the Gulf states not to give the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, money for the Gaza Strip reconstruction “due to the rampant corruption and looting of donation funds.”
“The sympathizers who are ready to donate are asking who will receive the reconstruction funds,” remarked Emirati political analyst Mohammed Yousef.
“They [the donors] do not trust Hamas, which is immersed in corruption and discrimination against the residents of the Gaza Strip. The residents know that most of the funds will end up in secret [bank] accounts of Hamas and its leaders and for carrying out smuggling activities. The Palestinian Authority, which is very corrupt, wants to be in charge of the reconstruction projects and its leaders want all the money.”
Saudi author Nora Shanar said she was opposed to giving money to the Iranian-backed Palestinian terrorist groups, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in the Gaza Strip. The two groups, she added, “lead [Palestinian] youths to destruction on behalf of Iran.”
“The Palestinians must remove this Iranian occupation in Palestine so that they can live in peace. Muslims will not move to donate their money to them. The terrorist organizations want to deceive the Arabs and Muslims.”
The feud over the reconstruction funds further demonstrates Palestinian leaders’ utter indifference to the well-being of their people. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas leaders care about one thing: filling their own coffers with funds earmarked for suffering Palestinians. The fight also shows that the Biden administration’s renewed talk about a “two-state solution” is an illusion: the Palestinians cannot even agree on holding elections or rebuilding destroyed buildings for their own people.
Judging from the reactions of many Arab and Muslims social media users, it is highly unlikely that the Arab and Islamic countries will be willing to put their money into the hands of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The Palestinians are again paying the price for the incompetence and corruption of their leaders.
The message the Arabs and Muslims are sending to the Biden administration and other Western donors: Stop showering money on corrupt and failed Palestinian leaders whose stock-in-trade is purloining international funds. The Palestinians do not need money as much as they need new leaders whose commitment to the welfare of their people outweighs their interest in their own pockets.
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.
El cuarto conflicto de los últimos doce años entre Israel y Gaza se parece notablemente al primero. ¿Qué sucedió?
En enero de 2009, en el augusto Gaston Hall de la Universidad de Georgetown, subí al escenario para hablar sobre Gaza. Prácticamente los 700 asientos estaban ocupados, muchos de ellos por estudiantes que se oponían a las políticas israelíes, especialmente las relacionadas a la Franja de Gaza. Como Profesor invitado en el Centro de Civilización Judía de Georgetown, había regresado recientemente a Washington después de unas vacaciones de invierno en Israel con mi familia. En cambio, pasé tres semanas sirviendo como oficial de reserva en “Plomo Fundido”, la operación de Israel contra Hamas.
Regresé y encontré el campus alborotado, la entrada al edificio estaba bloqueada por manifestantes postrados con carteles de “Dead Gazan”. Mi conferencia tenía la intención de ser una respuesta a ese clamor, para colocar la cuestión de Gaza en su contexto histórico, militar y diplomático total. El objetivo era exponer a los estudiantes a una perspectiva que nunca podrían recibir por parte de los medios de comunicación o de la mayoría de sus profesores. Por una vez, verían la Franja desde el punto de vista israelí.
Ver el video de esa charla el mes pasado fue una experiencia inquietante, y no solo por el grado en que he envejecido. Mucho más inquietante fue ver lo poco que ha cambiado en los últimos doce años. Aunque la capacidad de Israel para defenderse ha aumentado enormemente con el sistema antimisiles Iron Dome, su derecho a hacerlo se ha cuestionado cada vez más. En ningún lugar de Estados Unidos se ha negado más enérgicamente el caso de Israel o incluso la libertad de hacerlo que en los campus universitarios. Lo más desalentador de todo fue la constatación de que la ignorancia estadounidense sobre Gaza y el régimen terrorista que la gobierna solo se ha profundizado a lo largo de los años, en muchos casos deliberadamente.
Mi propósito ahora es corregir esta ignorancia. Basándome en 40 años de experiencia académica, militar y diplomática con Gaza, tengo la intención de rastrear la compleja y torturada relación de Israel con la Franja, tanto en las primeras décadas del estado, como especialmente en los últimos quince años. Y, así como en Georgetown en 2009, exploraré cómo esa relación podría cambiar en el futuro.
Gaza tiene una historia rica y variada. Situada en la costa mediterránea en el nexo entre continentes, fue tradicionalmente un interfaz entre imperios en competencia, un escenario para la guerra y un mercado para el intercambio cultural y económico. Los arqueólogos han descubierto momias egipcias en Gaza junto con templos romanos y pisos de sinagogas bizantinas. Como soldado que patrullaba Gaza hace muchos años, noté que la parte superior de una antigua columna griega sobresalía de entre un montón de basura. La reliquia más tarde sirvió de ayuda para la enseñanza en mis clases de historia.
El apogeo de Gaza llegó en la Edad Media bajo el dominio árabe, cuando prosperó como empresa comercial en las ventas de especias y textiles. Pero a partir de entonces la fortuna de la zona decayó tanto que, cuando las fuerzas de Napoleón entraron en Gaza después de la invasión francesa de Egipto en 1798, encontraron la Franja inquietantemente sub poblada y plagada de pestilencia y pobreza. (Una parte de la población nativa de Gaza está compuesta por descendientes de egipcios del área del Delta que huyeron de las leyes de reclutamiento establecidas a principios del siglo XIX por Muhammad Ali, el gobernador del Egipto otomano). Después de eso, Gaza fue el escenario de algunos de los combates más duros entre las fuerzas turcas y británicas durante la Primera Guerra Mundial. Los victoriosos británicos trabajaron para que Gaza se incorporara a su mandato en Palestina, no porque veían a Gaza como parte del hogar nacional judío, sino porque Gaza protegía los accesos al norte del Canal de Suez. Sin embargo, los ingenieros británicos vetaron un plan para construir una base militar importante allí, argumentando que el territorio carecía de agua suficiente. Históricamente, los judíos han tenido una relación ambivalente con Gaza. Era el hogar de los filisteos, un lugar donde a un héroe hebreo le arrancaron los ojos y se celebraran las derrotas judías.
Los sionistas, por su parte, no estaban seguros de querer a Gaza en su futuro estado. Las fuentes rabínicas estaban divididas sobre si Gaza se encontraba dentro de las fronteras de la Tierra de Israel. El sionismo internalizó ese cisma. Antes de la creación del estado, solo se estableció un asentamiento judío importante en la franja de Gaza, Kfar Darom, el cual luego fue abandonado en la Guerra de Independencia de Israel. Los líderes sionistas no se opusieron cuando la ONU en 1947 colocó a Gaza dentro de los límites del propuesto estado árabe independiente.
Pero la falta de interés de Israel en Gaza terminó en 1948 con la huida de los refugiados palestinos. En unas semanas, la población de Gaza aumentó de menos de 80,000 a más de 200,000. Ocupada por Egipto, Gaza mantenía a Israel en el lado izquierdo de un tornillo de banco hostil, con Cisjordania, la que pronto sería anexada por Jordania, a la derecha. Consciente de esta amenaza estratégica, el primer ministro David Ben-Gurión en 1951 propuso en secreto comprar Gaza a Egipto y reasentar a los refugiados en el Sinaí. Los egipcios ignoraron su oferta.
Los problemas de Israel con Gaza se multiplicaron a principios de la década de 1950 con la aparición de los fedayines. Estos “abnegados” palestinos, guerrilleros entrenados y armados por Egipto, atacaron profundamente dentro de Israel, matando a civiles y saqueando casas. En respuesta, las FDI organizaron numerosas redadas de represalia, algunas de ellas dirigidas por un polémico joven oficial llamado Ariel Sharon. Este ciclo acelerado de terror y represalias contribuyó al estallido de la segunda guerra árabe-israelí en octubre de 1956.
Este conflicto terminó con las tropas israelíes ocupando Gaza durante cinco meses, después de lo cual fueron reemplazadas por la primera fuerza de paz de la ONU. Su precipitado desalojo por parte del presidente egipcio Gamal Abdul Nasser en mayo de 1967 desencadenó una cadena de acontecimientos que desembocarían en la Guerra de los Seis Días. De hecho, ese conflicto transformador se originó en gran medida en Gaza. El ministro de Defensa, Moshe Dayan, al principio ordenó explícitamente a las FDI que no ingresaran, pero después del fuego proveniente de las fuerzas palestinas irregulares y egipcias, las tropas israelíes no pudieron evitar hacerlo. Así comenzó una ocupación que duraría 38 años.
Poco después de la guerra, a fines de la década de 1960, Gaza se convirtió en una base de poder para la Organización de Liberación de Palestina (OLP). Originalmente creado por Nasser, el grupo terrorista había caído bajo el dominio de la facción Fatah y su presidente, Yaser Arafat. Las fuerzas israelíes dirigidas por Sharon llevaron a la OLP a la clandestinidad en Gaza a principios de la década de 1970, abriendo el camino para el establecimiento de los primeros asentamientos en la Franja.
Pero la antigua ambivalencia israelí hacia Gaza prevaleció. En contraste con Cisjordania, el corazón bíblico de Judea y Samaria, en el que finalmente se establecieron 130 asentamientos y 400,000 israelíes hicieron sus hogares, Gaza albergaba apenas 21 asentamientos y solo 8,000 residentes. De hecho, en las conversaciones de paz entre Israel y Egipto a fines de la década de 1970, el primer ministro Menachem Begin, aunque defensor de los asentamientos, se ofreció a devolver Gaza a Egipto. Anwar Sadat, presidente de Egipto, lo rechazó.
Mientras tanto, la población palestina en Gaza creció, alcanzando casi dos millones en la actualidad. Una tasa de crecimiento similar en los Estados Unidos, en un período de tiempo comparable, habría catapultado a la población a mil millones. La explosión demográfica de Gaza fue facilitada significativamente por el Organismo de Obras Públicas y Socorro de las Naciones Unidas, OOPS. El cual sigue siendo el único organismo de la ONU creado para abordar un problema específico de refugiados y que otorga el estatus de refugiado a los descendientes de los refugiados de hace 70 años. La UNRWA reconoce a los refugiados palestinos que técnicamente viven en lo que ellos mismos llaman Palestina – Gaza y Cisjordania – y sostiene los campos de refugiados que mantienen vivo el problema palestino.
Como oficial de las FDI a principios de la década de 1980, participé en un esfuerzo para animar a los residentes de estos campamentos a que se mudaran a proyectos de vivienda de nueva creación. Los pocos refugiados que expresaron interés en reubicarse fueron rápidamente amenazados por la OLP y rescindieron. Los proyectos quedaron vacantes.
Aunque decenas de miles de habitantes de Gaza cruzaban a Israel para trabajar todos los días y la economía local crecía, una combinación de incitación por parte de la OLP y el hacinamiento creó un polvorín. Se incendió en diciembre de 1987, en la forma de la primera —como la llamamos más tarde— intifada. Miles de jóvenes palestinos tomaron las calles, arrojando piedras y cócteles molotov a las tropas israelíes en un levantamiento que también se extendió rápidamente a Cisjordania. Serví como reservista con los paracaidistas en Gaza durante esos años. Esquivé una gran cantidad de rocas e incluso algunas bombas incendiarias. Al patrullar esas fétidas calles, nunca me quedó claro qué negocio tenía Israel en Gaza más allá del negarles a los palestinos la victoria de poder echarnos. Los campos de refugiados eran laberintos en los que cada callejón estaba controlado por un grupo terrorista diferente, con sus nombres garabateados en las paredes. Uno de los garabatos me resultaba desconocido. Decía “Hamas”.
Hamas, cuyo nombre es un acrónimo árabe de “movimiento de resistencia islámico“, estaba encabezado por un jeque ciego en silla de ruedas, Ahmed Yassin, y un pediatra, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi. Al igual que su organización matriz, la Hermandad Musulmana Egipcia, Hamas en ese entonces gastó la mayor parte de su presupuesto en servicios sociales, pero también tenía un estatuto que culpaba a los judíos por el estallido de ambas guerras mundiales y pedía la destrucción de Israel. Israel estaba entonces apoyando silenciosamente a Hamas como contrapeso a la OLP secular. (Desde el momento en que Estados Unidos apoyó a los talibanes en su lucha contra la Unión Soviética, ninguna otra política ha sido tan miope). Sin embargo, el apoyo de Israel a Hamas no duró mucho. A principios de la década de 1990, Hamas estaba organizando ataques contra los israelíes, a los que el primer ministro Yitzḥak Rabin respondió, sin éxito, tratando de desterrar a 400 activistas de Hamas al Líbano.
El aumento en poder de Hamas acercó a Israel y al antiguo liderazgo de la OLP. La primera intifada convenció a un gran segmento de la población israelí de que la ocupación ya no era viable, mientras que la revuelta de los jóvenes palestinos que no estaban bajo su mando asustó a Arafat y le hizo pensar que podría perder por completo el control de los territorios. El resultado se produjo en septiembre de 1993 sobre el césped de la Casa Blanca, donde Rabin y Arafat se unieron al presidente Bill Clinton para firmar los Acuerdos de Oslo.
Bajo el llamado enfoque de “Gaza primero”, la Franja iba a servir como una prueba de fuego para el proyecto más amplio de Oslo, y fue a Gaza donde Arafat hizo su regreso triunfal a los territorios en junio. Yo estaba en una posición casi oficial en ese entonces y vi como Arafat pasaba de contrabando terroristas, literalmente buscados debajo del asiento de su automóvil. En respuesta, Rabin consideró congelar el proceso de paz, pero finalmente se detuvo. De esta manera Arafat se enteró que podía violar los acuerdos sin pagar un precio, lo que a partir de ese momento haría con impunidad. Posteriormente se sintió libre de jugar un doble juego en Gaza, reprimiendo a Hamas cuando lo necesitaba mientras se hacía de la vista gorda a sus ataques terroristas contra israelíes.
No hace falta decir que el enfoque de “Gaza primero” fracasó. En el transcurso de la próxima década, Hamas organizaría un total de 70 atentados suicidas contra Israel, matando a 483 israelíes, incluyendo no solo a mi cuñada (una maestra de Connecticut que estudiaba en la Universidad Hebrea) sino también a varios compañeros de clase de mis hijos, así como a siete clientes en el Café Hillel ubicado directamente debajo de mi oficina en Jerusalén. Los israelíes se sintieron impotentes ante este flagelo. “Abba, he estado en más funerales de mis amigos que en bar mitzvah”, se quejó mi hijo mayor, Yoav. Luego, [Yoav] actuando como soldado de las fuerzas especiales, un terrorista de Hamas disparó utilizando a sus propios hijos como escudo, heriéndolo. Aun Benjamin Netanyahu, elegido en 1996 en parte gracias a su enfoque de línea dura contra Hamas, se vio obligado bajo la presión estadounidense a cambiar a Yassin (a quien Israel había sido logrado arrestar en 1989), por dos agentes del Mossad después de un fallido intento de asesinato contra el líder de Hamas, Khaled Mashal.
Mientras tanto, otras milicias palestinas comenzaron a competir con Hamas en los bombardeos. El terror culminó en la segunda intifada que comenzó en septiembre de 2000. Una vez más, siendo llamado al servicio de reserva, vi cómo el ejército estaba completamente desprevenido. Las unidades fueron enviadas frenéticamente, la mía a Naplusa, sin ninguna estrategia clara para contraatacar o incluso carentes del armamento adecuado. Entre las sorpresas que nos lanzó Hamas ese año estaba el cohete Qassam, hecho generalmente con tuberías de irrigación traídas de contrabando desde Israel y un propelente mezclado con productos químicos domésticos. Los proyectiles tenían un alcance máximo de solo quince kilómetros y eran notoriamente imprecisos, pero cuando impactaban eran mortales. Veintiocho israelíes murieron y mil resultaron heridos. La parte sur del país quedó paralizada.
Sin embargo, Israel siguió tratando de mantener una distinción ficticia entre las alas política y militar de Hamas, permitiendo que la primera funcione mientras busca la destrucción de la segunda. Después de cada atentado suicida en Tel Aviv y Jerusalén, la prensa israelí se apresuraba a entrevistar a Yassin y Rantisi y les preguntaba si lo aprobaban, lo que por supuesto hicieron. Fue un momento surrealista.
El mes de marzo de 2002 fue el más sangriento de todos los meses entre todas las intifadas, hubo 130 israelíes muertos. Un nuevo gobierno de Ariel Sharon lanzó una operación importante, Escudo Defensivo, para retomar las ciudades palestinas y aplastar las células terroristas. Para 2004, Rantisi y Yassin estaban muertos y la intifada, una de las amenazas más espantosas en la historia de Israel fue derrotada. Una combinación de robustas medidas militares (puestos de control, barreras defensivas, estrecha cooperación entre las unidades de combate y de inteligencia) puso fin de manera efectiva a los atentados suicidas. Para entonces, Arafat también había muerto, lo que significaba que Sharon, quien defendía los asentamientos al igual que Menachem Begin antes que él, quedaba libre para hacer lo que quisiera en ese punto de Gaza. Lo que eligió hacer sorprendió a muchos israelíes.
Sharon creía que el país estaba cansado de defender los asentamientos de Gaza y la Ruta Filadelfia de catorce kilómetros de largo, que corre a lo largo de la frontera entre Egipto y Gaza, en la que los soldados israelíes eran constantemente atacados. Israel, concluyó Sharon, ya no podía pedir a los padres que sacrificaran a sus hijos por un área que tenía poco valor para ellos. Lo que estaba en juego era el delicado consenso que vinculaba a la sociedad de Israel con su ejército.
Así, en agosto de 2005 me encontré de nuevo en uniforme, era uno de los 55,000 soldados israelíes llamados para sacar a 8,000 de nuestros conciudadanos de Gaza. Fue la mayor operación militar israelí desde la Guerra de Yom Kippur de 1973. Aunque yo, como la gran mayoría de los israelíes, apoyé la retirada, nada podría prepararme para el trauma producto de su implementación. Nada de lo que había experimentado en la guerra fue tan desgarrador como tener que arrastrar de sus sinagogas y hogares a israelíes que rezaban y lloraban.
La retirada de Gaza fue una apuesta tremenda para Sharon y para Israel. Todos sabíamos que las organizaciones terroristas palestinas, Hamás en particular, declararían la victoria. Sin embargo, esperábamos que el pueblo palestino aprovechara esta oportunidad histórica de construir un mini estado independiente. La apuesta fracasó. Tan pronto como el último israelí salió de la Franja, los palestinos desmantelaron la infraestructura agrícola que se les dejó para ayudarles en su economía, en gran parte pagada por filántropos judíos estadounidenses. Durante los siguientes seis meses, grupos terroristas dispararon unos 1,000 cohetes y granadas de mortero contra Israel.
En este punto, Israel enfrentó un dilema que lo acosaría durante los próximos quince años y probablemente lo acosará por muchos más. Disparar a Hamas aumentó el prestigio de Hamas a los ojos del pueblo palestino — demostró que estaban resistiendo a Israel y se sacrificaron por la causa — pero no disparar contra Hamas también mejoró su prestigio al mostrar que Israel estaba asustado. Más inquietante para Israel, es que también atrajo la atención de Teherán.Con el tiempo, Irán se convertiría en el principal patrocinador de Hamas. Rechazar a Hamas mejoró el prestigio de Hamas a los ojos del pueblo palestino, pero no dispararles también aumentó su prestigio.
Israel respondió montando un bloqueo naval y aéreo de Gaza. Las acciones no lograron reducir significativamente el lanzamiento de cohetes, pero fortalecieron la justificación de Hamas contra Israel. Sharon se negó a considerar la reconquista de la Franja y en su lugar contempló una retirada unilateral de partes de Cisjordania también. Él y su nuevo partido, Kadima, estaban preparados para implementar esa misma política en enero de 2006 cuando cayó en un coma del que nunca se recuperaría. Su reemplazo fue el ex alcalde de Jerusalén, Ehud Olmert.
Mientras tanto, se llevaron a cabo elecciones en los territorios palestinos. Según recuerdo, los israelíes vieron con horror el anuncio de campaña de la candidata de Hamas Maryam Farhat, también conocida como Umm Nidal. Invitó a los espectadores a su casa y les mostró una fotografía enmarcada en oro de un joven con un traje militar de Hamas. “Este es mi hijo mayor que se martirizó a sí mismo haciéndose estallar en un autobús judío y mató a ocho judíos”, se regocijó. “Fue el día más feliz de mi vida”. Luego mostró otra foto de un joven terrorista de Hamas. “Este es mi segundo hijo que se inmoló atacando a soldados judíos”, afirmó. “Fue el día más feliz de mi vida”. Finalmente, Umm Nidal presentó a su hijo de diecisiete años, también uniformado y portando una M-16. “Él está a punto de salir a ser mártir ahora, y este es el día más feliz de mi vida”, declaró mientras lo besaba. Luego salió, y al intentar un ataque terrorista, fue asesinado por soldados israelíes. (Las afirmaciones sobre sus dos primeros hijos parecen ser inexactas. El primero no se suicidó haciéndose estallar, sino con pistolas y granadas, y el segundo fue asesinado antes de que pudiera cumplir su misión).
Umm Nidal, ganó. La madre de tres hijos martirizados se unió a docenas de representantes de Hamas elegidos para el parlamento palestino en una victoria aplastante sobre Fatah.
Como era de esperar, Hamás celebró su triunfo con cohetes. Violentó un alto al fuego mediado por Egipto para cavar un túnel de 400 metros de largo de la frontera. El 25 de junio de 2006, terroristas se infiltraron por el túnel y atacaron una posición israelí, mataron a dos soldados y secuestraron a un tercero, el cabo Gilad Shalit, de diecinueve años. Los intentos de las FDI de responder a este ataque mediante la explosión de los numerosos túneles que Hamas había cavado bajo la Ruta de Filadelfia terminó con los soldados israelíes rastreando la arena en busca de las partes de los cuerpos de sus compañeros.
Con la esperanza de evitar una guerra total, varios estados europeos se ofrecieron como voluntarios para supervisar los cruces fronterizos entre Gaza e Israel. Los monitores llegaron pronto, pero huyeron en el momento en que Hamás los amenazó. Miles de toneladas de municiones, rifles, granadas y cohetes pasaron a Gaza desde Egipto. Fue en esta deprimente coyuntura cuando Hezbollah, el representante terrorista de Irán en el Líbano, desencadenó una guerra con Israel.
Al igual que Hamas, Hezbollah también se había envalentonado por la retirada israelí de Gaza y del sur del Líbano cinco años antes. Aunque técnicamente era un aliado de Hamas, Hezbollah también era su competidor. Tras las victorias de Hamas, Hezbollah apenas podía sentarse y dejar que su rival se llevara toda la gloria. El 12 de julio de 2006, sus pistoleros tendieron una emboscada a una patrulla fronteriza israelí, mataron a diez y tomaron dos de los cuerpos para pedir rescate. Israel respondió y comenzó la Segunda Guerra del Líbano.
Aunque las FDI mataron hasta una cuarta parte de todas las fuerzas de Hezbollah y destruyeron una gran parte de su infraestructura, Hezbollah siguió lanzando cohetes contra ciudades israelíes. También reclamó una gran victoria. Vilipendiado por los medios de comunicación por actuar de manera desproporcionada y cada vez más presionado por la comunidad internacional, Israel se vio obligado a aceptar un alto el fuego de la ONU. A Hezbollah se le permitió rearmarse.
Muchos israelíes relacionaron la retirada de Gaza con la decepcionante Segunda Guerra del Líbano. Serví en el ejército durante ese conflicto y, en su último día, me encontré a lo largo de la frontera. Allí me encontré con Natan Sharansky, entonces ministro del gobierno. “Natan, Natan, es tan bueno verte”, lo saludé. Pero él simplemente me sonrió y preguntó: “¿Todavía crees que la desconexión fue una buena idea?”
Ciertamente no era una buena idea dejar de responder inmediata y masivamente a los ataques con cohetes de Hamas, para señalar en cambio que Israel soportaría pasivamente la violencia perpetrada contra él y proyectar una imagen de debilidad. Mis sentimientos como soldado se fusionaron con mi perspectiva como historiador y mis instintos como ciudadano, es decir, que Israel estaba perdiendo poder disuasorio, dejando en claro nuestro temor a pérdidas militares y civiles, en general, volviéndose predecible. Temía que nuestra incapacidad de infligir un castigo verdaderamente prohibitivo a nuestros enemigos y de resistir la presión internacional sólo conduciría a más rondas de derramamiento de sangre y a una erosión más rápida de la legitimidad de Israel.
De hecho, la renuencia de Israel a enfrentarse a Hamas, y el consiguiente aumento del prestigio de este último pueden haber envalentonado a los terroristas para montar un sangriento golpe contra Fatah en Gaza. En junio de 2007, dominando rápidamente a las fuerzas de la Autoridad Palestina entrenadas por Estados Unidos, Hamas procedió a ejecutar a 350 prisioneros y desterrar a otros cientos. Muchos encontraron asilo en Israel.
Israel reaccionó imponiendo su bloqueo parcial de los cruces fronterizos de Gaza, pero la política resultó problemática. Aunque Estados Unidos y la Unión Europea reconocieron a Hamas como una organización terrorista y en general apoyaron el bloqueo, Israel fue censurado internacionalmente por cortar suministros vitales. De manera clásica, Hamas bombardeó las estaciones de servicio que proporcionaban combustible a Gaza y luego culpó a Israel de crear una crisis humanitaria. Se reanudaron los envíos de gas, solo para ser utilizado como propulsor de los cohetes Qassam.
El bloqueo, una vez más, proporcionó a Hamas un pretexto para intensificar los ataques con cohetes y morteros. Cayeron miles de cohetes y los ciudadanos del sur de Israel se sintieron traicionados por su estado. Aún así, el gobierno vaciló. El ejército aún no se había recuperado de la guerra del Líbano y Olmert enfrentaba varios cargos de corrupción. Pero igualmente paralizante, de nuevo, era el temor al precio que Hamás exigiría a las FDI y la posibilidad de que Hezbollah se uniera nuevamente a la refriega.
Se arregló otro alto el fuego negociado por Egipto. Israel reabriría los cruces y Hamas dejaría de disparar. Pero Hamás nunca cumplió realmente. Un tiftuf constante —en hebreo significa llovizna— de dos o tres cohetes semanales mantuvo aterrorizados a millones de israelíes. Olmert apareció en la televisión árabe pidiendo moderación a Hamas. La ministra de Relaciones Exteriores, Tzipi Livni, hizo lo mismo en una visita de última hora a El Cairo. Pero los disparos solo aumentaron.
Hamas ahora experimentaría lo que Dwight Eisenhower llamó la furia de una democracia despertada. Más del 90 por ciento de los israelíes dijeron que estaban listos para enfrentarse militarmente a los terroristas. De alguna manera, más del 100 por ciento de los llamados a filas se reportaron para el servicio de reserva, yo entre ellos. El 27 de diciembre de 2008 comenzó el contraataque.
Operación Plomo Fundido, se llamaba, una referencia a Hanukkah y a un poema de las fiestas del pionero poeta sionista Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik. En un escenario que se repetiría tres veces más durante los próximos doce años, Israel respondió a los ataques con cohetes de Hamas con intensos ataques aéreos. Ochenta aviones alcanzaron 100 objetivos en menos de cuatro minutos. Doscientos guardias de Hamas, convencidos de que los israelíes nunca les harían daño, salieron a desfilar ese día. Murieron instantáneamente. En el transcurso de los próximos seis días, las FDI realizarían 2,000 salidas, destruyendo docenas de puestos de mando de Hamas, depósitos de armas, lanzacohetes así como 300 de los 500 túneles que se estiman que se hay bajo la ruta de Filadelfia. Esta vez, no hubo distinción entre objetivos militares y políticos de Hamas. Las casas de los líderes de Hamas, las mezquitas utilizadas como depósitos de armas e incluso la universidad islámica, que según Israel se estaba utilizando como laboratorio de bombas, fueron arrasadas.
Pero en otra característica de la guerra (que reaparecería en el futuro), Israel sacrificó el elemento sorpresa al distribuir panfletos en las áreas que eran blanco de los ataques y advertir a la población civil que huyera. Se enviaron mensajes de texto a miles de propietarios de teléfonos también advirtiéndoles de ataques inminentes. Hamas envió civiles a los techos de los edificios seleccionados, obligando a los pilotos israelíes a desviar misiles incluso después de haberlos disparado. En respuesta, la Fuerza Aérea de Israel intentaría despejar los techos de civiles disparando una forma de arma de destello no letal antes de lanzar rondas explosivas. El método no siempre funcionó. Nizar Rayan, el tercero al mando de Hamas, se negó a permitir que su familia y sus hijos salieran del edificio después de que se les advirtió que lo hicieran. Sus cuatro esposas y hasta once de sus hijos murieron.
Los cohetes siguieron cayendo, con un promedio de 70 por día, y finalmente un total de 800. Ya no siendo un soldado de combate sino un portavoz de las FDI en ese momento, sin embargo permanecí bajo fuego y más de una vez tuve que correr, con micrófonos y cámaras en mano en busca de refugio. Apenas catorce segundos y medio separaron el lanzamiento de los Qassam de su impacto. Junto con los reporteros árabes y europeos, me agaché y escuché mientras varios residentes de Sderot, afectados por el trastorno de estrés postraumático crónico, gritaban.
Aunque el número de cohetes y morteros de Hamas disparados en ese momento era pequeño en comparación con el de los conflictos posteriores, sin embargo produjeron en Israel un daño significativo porque el sistema antimisiles Iron Dome que más tarde resultaría tan exitoso aún no se había desarrollado. Los cohetes de Hamas también tenían un alcance más largo que antes, extendiéndose de quince a cuarenta kilómetros y poniendo en peligro a un millón de israelíes. Uno de ellos era nuestra hija, Lia, estudiante de la Universidad Ben-Gurion en Be’er Sheva. Cuando comenzaron las sirenas, abandonó su automóvil en una intersección y corrió frenéticamente hacia un refugio antiaéreo, no pudo encontrar uno y golpeó varias puertas pidiendo refugio. Afortunadamente, una amable anciana la dejó entrar, le dio el almuerzo y quiso que se quedara, pero Lia tuvo que negarse. El coche seguía encendido en la intersección.
Aprendiendo de las lecciones de la guerra más reciente con el Líbano, en la que se había declarado públicamente acerca de objetivos específicos que no se podían lograr, tal como la eliminación de Hezbollah del sur del Líbano, Israel mantuvo sus objetivos amplios y alcanzables: perjudicar la capacidad de Hamás para bombardear a Israel y restaurar la seguridad al sur de Israel y mejorar la situación de seguridad en Gaza.
Y dado que Israel también había aprendido otra lección del Líbano —que los aviones de combate por sí solos no pueden eliminar el lanzamiento de cohetes— el 3 de enero de 2009, 10,000 soldados israelíes avanzaron hacia Gaza. Dividieron la Franja en tres partes, lo que obstaculizó la capacidad de Hamás para transportar hombres y municiones. Los comandos israelíes aterrizaron en el mar, lo que empujó aún más a los combatientes de Hamas hacia las áreas urbanas. Huyeron, rara vez pelearon, y sus líderes se escondieron debajo de los hospitales. Los civiles a quienes Hamas usó como escudos humanos quedaron para llevar la peor parte del avance. Las FDI nuevamente tomaron precauciones para limitar las bajas civiles, pero la tasa de bajas, no obstante, aumentó. Los esfuerzos para detener las ambulancias de la Media Luna Roja que en realidad servían para transportar a los terroristas de Hamas fueron duramente condenados por la Cruz Roja Internacional, que por supuesto, no se quejó públicamente del abuso de las ambulancias por parte de Hamas.
Durante los combates, las FDI tomaron medidas extraordinarias para aliviar la crisis humanitaria de Gaza. Se entregaron en la Franja unas 27,000 toneladas de alimentos y suministros médicos y 240 toneladas de combustible. Se abrió un corredor para los camiones de socorro y se declaró una tregua diaria de tres horas para que los habitantes de Gaza pudieran abastecerse de suministros. Pero Hamas violaba regularmente esa tregua. Se apoderó de los cargamentos de harina de los camiones de socorro y los vendió con fines de lucro. Mi unidad descubrió que uno de estos camiones de ayuda no transportaba alimentos, como se indica en la etiqueta, sino uniformes militares de Hamas.
Las bajas civiles se convirtieron rápidamente en foco internacional. Las FDI concluyeron que no más del 25 por ciento de todas las víctimas palestinas eran civiles. La ONU situó el número en el 40 por ciento y el propio Hamas en 50 por ciento. Sin embargo, incluso ese número indudablemente inflado compara favorablemente con el de la intervención de la OTAN en 1999 en los Balcanes, donde murieron 150 combatientes frente a 527 civiles. En el transcurso de las guerras en Irak y Afganistán, las fuerzas de la coalición mataron a unos 250,000 civiles. La Operación Plomo Fundido puede haber tenido la menor proporción de bajas entre civiles y soldados de cualquier combate urbano en la historia reciente.
Existía una asimetría similar en el daño físico que Israel infligió a Gaza. Fuentes palestinas afirmaron que 4,000 hogares fueron destruidos y 100,000 personas quedaron sin hogar. Eso fue una tragedia. También debe verse en contexto. Una sola batalla en Faluya durante la segunda guerra de Estados Unidos en Irak desplazó a 300,000. Y muchas de las casas de Gaza fueron devastadas no por Israel sino por las trampas explosivas colocadas por Hamas.
Ninguno de estos hechos tuvo mucho efecto en los medios de comunicación, quienes describieron a Gaza como la zona más densamente poblada del mundo; no lo es; Tel Aviv está más densamente poblada, al igual que muchos otros lugares, y que las fuerzas israelíes disparaban indiscriminadamente. Se distribuyeron informes de atrocidades. En un incidente típico, la prensa francesa, citando fuentes palestinas, afirmó que las fuerzas israelíes habían bombardeado una escuela de la ONU, matando a 21 niños. La historia saltó rápidamente a los servicios de cable internacionales, que solo citaron a los franceses y omitieron las fuentes palestinas, e inflaron el número de niños asesinados a 53. La anémica respuesta de Israel fue “Iniciaremos una investigación”. Eso tomó tres semanas y descubrió que la bomba de las FDI de hecho había caído fuera de la escuela, donde había matado a nueve o diez terroristas de Hamas y dos civiles, ninguno de ellos un niño. Sin embargo, mientras tanto, el daño a la imagen de Israel fue irreparable.
Gran parte del mundo occidental se estaba uniendo contra Israel por Gaza, pero Oriente Medio se estaba dividiendo. A pesar de los intentos de la Autoridad Palestina de presentar a los israelíes como agresores y de los esfuerzos de Hamas por iniciar una tercera intifada, la Ribera Occidental permaneció en general en silencio. También lo hizo gran parte del mundo árabe, especialmente los sunitas. Si, durante sus guerras anteriores, Israel se preocupaba por el impacto en la “calle árabe”, esa calle se había trasladado a Londres y París, que eran entonces el escenario de violentas protestas, mientras que el propio Medio Oriente permanecía en gran parte en silencio. Después de interrogarme durante minutos sobre presuntos crímenes de guerra israelíes, un reportero palestino de una estación en árabe me llevó a un lado y me susurró: “Hagas lo que hagas, no te detengas hasta que hayas aniquilado a Hamas”. Pero mientras los sunitas como él no expresaron casi ningún apoyo a Hamas, Irán y su satélite sirio apoyaron su poder con virulencia, y acusaron a Israel de hacer a los palestinos lo que negaron que los nazis hubieran hecho a los judíos.
Al final de la tercera semana de combates, muchos en Israel tenían claro que la operación tenía que terminar. Barack Obama estaba a punto de tomar posesión y lo último que alguien quería era que el nuevo presidente de los Estados Unidos tuviera que pasar directamente de la ceremonia de juramento a la sala de situación de la Casa Blanca y ocuparse de nuestra crisis. Israel ya había demostrado su determinación de defenderse. El fuego de cohetes había disminuido. Veintidós días después de que comenzara la operación, con sus tropas acercándose al centro de la ciudad de Gaza, Israel declaró un alto el fuego unilateral. Hamás hizo lo mismo al día siguiente. El último soldado de las FDI se retiró de Gaza un día antes de la toma de posesión del presidente Obama.
Unos meses más tarde, fui nombrado embajador de Israel en Estados Unidos. Por suerte, mi primera reunión en la Oficina Oval trató casi exclusivamente de Gaza. El presidente Obama insistió en que Israel permita los envíos de hormigón a la Franja para ayudar a restaurar las estructuras dañadas. Las primeras palabras que le dirigí fueron sobre el número de túneles bajo la ruta de Filadelfia. “Pensamos que había 200, pero resultó que había 500”, dije, y el presidente pareció realmente sorprendido. Además, agregué, “Cada bolsa de concreto se utilizará para construir búnkeres y túneles”. Pero Obama simplemente asintió, claramente no convencido. Israel finalmente cedió a su presión y permitió que miles de bolsas de concreto ingresaran a Gaza, donde rápidamente se utilizaron para construir búnkeres y túneles. Pasaron años antes de que Dennis Ross, el emisario estadounidense en Israel que también estuvo presente en la reunión, admitiera que la advertencia había sido correcta.
Gaza resultó ser el leitmotiv de mi mandato como embajador. Desde el infortunado esfuerzo de los comandos de las FDI para desviar una flotilla de radicales islámicos de llegar a Gaza en mayo de 2010 hasta la liberación por parte de Israel, en octubre de 2011, de casi mil terroristas encarcelados a cambio del cabo capturado Gilad Shalit, la cuestión ocupó grandes áreas de mi tiempo. Si bien en general apoya el derecho de Israel a defenderse contra Hamas, la administración insistió en que Israel se sometiera a una investigación de la ONU sobre el incidente de la flotilla y criticó a Israel por el acuerdo de Shalit que, según la Casa Blanca, fortaleció a Hamas a expensas de la Autoridad Palestina. Mientras tanto, los esfuerzos de J Street y las organizaciones pro palestinas para promover el informe Goldstone de la ONU, acusándonos de crímenes de guerra, mantuvieron a Israel perennemente a la defensiva.
El torbellino que rodea a Gaza culminó en noviembre de 2012 con la Operación Pilar de Defensa. Con una duración de ocho días, esta fue una recreación en miniatura de Plomo Fundido, con Hamas y la Jihad Islámica disparando unos 1,500 cohetes contra Israel y, por primera vez, golpeando Tel Aviv y casi llegando a Jerusalén. Israel respondió nuevamente con ataques aéreos y nuevamente fue atacado por actuar de manera desproporcionada. La acusación fue reforzada, perversamente, por el sistema de misiles antibalísticos Iron Dome recientemente desplegado, que redujo en gran medida las bajas israelíes, mientras que las de los palestinos se multiplicaron. Estaba orgulloso de mi papel para ayudar a asegurar la financiación de Iron Dome de Estados Unidos, incluso cuando sabía que, en términos de la imagen de Israel, era un arma de doble filo. La presión estadounidense e internacional nuevamente obligó a Israel a aceptar un alto el fuego.
El siguiente enfrentamiento con Hamas, la Operación Margen Protector de 2014, fue la repetición más grande y más larga de 2008 y 2012. Duró 26 días, durante los cuales Hamas disparó casi 4,000 cohetes contra Israel. Israel respondió masivamente, primero desde el aire como siempre y luego desde el terreno. Más de 2,000 palestinos murieron, la mayoría de ellos terroristas pero también un porcentaje significativo de civiles. Las pérdidas israelíes, militares y civiles fueron 73.
Los patrones establecidos durante las dos rondas anteriores de lucha en Gaza resurgieron, solo que de manera más rápida y amarga. Israel fue nuevamente acusado de atacar deliberadamente a civiles o al menos de ser criminalmente negligente. Iron Dome defendió a Israel y, por lo tanto, dio crédito a la afirmación de desproporcionalidad. Se demostró una vez más que Hamás tenía una táctica militar que servía como estrategia mediática, diplomática y legal diseñada para negar a Israel el derecho a defenderse o incluso a existir como un estado judío independiente. Hamás sabía que nunca podría destruir a Israel con sus cohetes, pero que, al hacer que Israel contraatacara y matara a civiles inocentes, podría reducir la legitimidad internacional de Israel. Si bien los israelíes seguían creyendo que Gaza era el principal campo de batalla, Hamás sabía que no estaba en la Franja, sino en la televisión y las pantallas de las computadoras de todo el mundo, en la ONU y, en última instancia, en la Corte Penal Internacional, donde Israel sería sancionado por crímenes de guerra.
La Operación Margen Protector me encontró fuera de mi cargo pero todavía defendiendo a Israel en la prensa. “¿Cuántas mujeres y niños palestinos tendrá que matar Israel hasta que esté satisfecho?” Ronan Farrow de MSNBC comenzó su entrevista conmigo, haciendo una pregunta no infrecuente. Gaza fue nuevamente descrita falsamente como el área más densamente poblada de la tierra y las fuerzas israelíes fueron descritas como disparando al azar. Hamas impidió a los reporteros en Gaza fotografiar tripulaciones de cohetes o incluso terroristas que portaban armas y, en cambio, fueron confinados a hospitales y escenas de niños heridos. En Internet, Hamas publicó imágenes de cuerpos desmembrados por el bombardeo israelí; las imágenes en realidad fueron tomadas de películas de terror.
Indignada por estas imágenes, la opinión internacional se volvió rápidamente contra Israel. La administración Obama dejó en claro que Israel podía defenderse de Hamas, pero solo de forma pasiva, utilizando la Cúpula de Hierro, no enviando tropas a Gaza. La Casa Blanca retrasó el reabastecimiento de municiones vitales a las FDI. El secretario de Estado John Kerry intentó mediar, solicitando la ayuda de Turquía y Qatar, que apoyaban a Hamas, solo para ser rechazado tanto por Israel como por Egipto. Finalmente, Israel descubrió que no podía mantener el espacio diplomático y el tiempo que necesitaba para seguir luchando y finalmente acordó un alto el fuego. Gaza fue devastada una vez más, pero Hamás todavía estaba en pie y en libertad para rearmarse una vez más.
La presunción de culpabilidad israelí por parte de los medios de comunicación y su promoción de la narrativa de Hamas, así como su dependencia de las estadísticas y el cumplimiento de las restricciones de Hamas a la prensa, se intensificó durante una ronda de protestas en la frontera de Gaza en 2018 y 2019. La multitud de niños/as que Hamás llevó hacia las vallas fronterizas eran incluso mejores que los cohetes-reutilizables- y dado que no causaron bajas israelíes, se convirtió en prueba irrefutable de desproporcionalidad hasta ahora. “Hamas quiere que nos condenen”, le dije a un entrevistador de la BBC. “Hamas quiere que lo aplaudan por enviar a sus hijos a morir. Y cuanto más de ellos lo hagan, su sangre estará en tus manos “.
Sin embargo, toda mi familiaridad con Gaza palideció en comparación con los conocimiento que adquiriría como miembro de la Knesset donde presidía un comité clasificado sobre el tema y que, como viceministro en la oficina del primer ministro, tenía la asignación de encontrar nuevas formas para hacer frente a la amenaza. En el comité, por ejemplo, escuché que el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y el poder judicial de las FDI carecían de personal y estaban mal preparados para defender a Israel de los cargos de crímenes de guerra en la Corte Penal Internacional. En la oficina del primer ministro, exploré formas para mejorar el nivel de vida de los habitantes de Gaza proporcionándoles más de sus acostumbradas cuatro horas diarias de electricidad y un simple 4 por ciento de agua potable. Al darles algo que podían perder en una guerra, esperaba que los habitantes de Gaza pudieran resistir los esfuerzos de Hamas para desencadenar una. Pero el gobierno israelí, reflejando el sentimiento público en general, creía que “lo que es malo para Gaza es bueno para Israel”, y rechazó la idea. Hamas habría estado complacido. Sobre todo aprendí una cosa de ese momento: Hamas quiere que los habitantes de Gaza sufran.
De Hamas aprendí que no le importa nada el bienestar de los civiles palestinos. Si bien Israel está más que dispuesto a facilitar la transferencia de todos los alimentos y medicamentos que necesita Gaza, contrario a la opinión internacional, Israel no mantiene un bloqueo total de Gaza, sino que prohíbe solo la importación de artículos de doble uso, como el hormigón, que Hamas utilizará para cohetes y búnkeres: Hamas detiene los camiones e incluso hace explotar las terminales receptores para crear una crisis humanitaria de la que luego puede culpar a Israel. Me enteré que Hamás obliga a miles de niños a cavar sus túneles y cientos de ellos mueren en el proceso. Mientras tanto, la Autoridad Palestina corta la ayuda a los habitantes de Gaza que reciben tratamiento médico en Israel y congela las pensiones de los trabajadores de Gaza, todo para presionar a Hamas y obligarlo a iniciar otra guerra. Aprendí que la Autoridad Palestina está dispuesta a luchar contra Hamas hasta el último israelí, mientras denuncia a Israel por crímenes de guerra.
Sin embargo, Hamás, todavía de alguna manera menos corrupta que la Autoridad Palestina y como abanderado de la resistencia de inflexión religiosa, sigue siendo abrumadoramente popular en Cisjordania y en Gaza. Y a pesar de su paliza en sucesivas rondas militares con Israel, Hamás cree que está ganando.
“¿Es esta una imagen de victoria o derrota?”, me preguntó Meir Ben Shabbat, actualmente asesor de seguridad nacional de Israel, en aquel momento jefe del comando sur de Seguridad Interna. Proyectada en la pared había una foto del líder de Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, estaba de pie sobre un montón de escombros y haciendo la señal de “V”. “Obviamente, es una derrota”, dije, solo para ser corregido por Meir. “No. Haniyeh está orgulloso de la destrucción. Todavía está de pie. Eso, para Hamas, es la victoria “.
La Operación Guardianes del Muro del mes pasado fue otra repetición de los conflictos de 2008, 2012 y 2014. Comenzó con misiles de Hamas, disparados no al sur, para variar, sino a Jerusalén, seguidos de una respuesta aérea israelí. Las FDI lograron volar unas 60 millas de túneles de Hamas y eliminar a muchos comandantes terroristas. La precisión de los ataques aéreos israelíes, aprovechando la inteligencia artificial estrechamente coordinada con la inteligencia israelí, no tuvo precedentes.
Sin embargo, en términos de diplomacia pública, la operación fracasó. Al destacar la decisión de un tribunal israelí de desalojar a los residentes palestinos de una propiedad judía en el barrio Sheikh Jarrah de Jerusalén, y una redada realizada por la policía israelí contra manifestantes palestinos que arrojaban piedras en la mezquita de al-Aqsa, gran parte de los medios culparon a Israel de estar provocando la violencia. Israel respondió con los mismos mensajes que había utilizado durante los últimos quince años: “Hamas comete un doble crimen de guerra, disparando contra civiles mientras se esconde detrás de civiles”, pero el mundo ya no escucha. Los sentimientos, no los hechos, dominaron los medios de comunicación, especialmente aquellos que etiquetaron a los israelíes como criminales de guerra y nos atacaron por actuar de manera desproporcionada. “¿Por qué Israel no proporciona la Cúpula de Hierro a los palestinos?” me preguntó un entrevistador de CNN con toda sinceridad.
Hamás también tenía otras razones para regocijarse. Con cada guerra que pasa, el alcance y la velocidad de sus cohetes han aumentado considerablemente. Esta vez, utilizando solo un tercio de su arsenal, Hamas atacó tanto a Jerusalén como a Tel Aviv. En once días lanzó más cohetes que en las cuatro semanas del conflicto de 2014. Inexplicablemente reviviendo la política de distinguir entre las alas política y militar de Hamas, Israel atacó a varios comandantes terroristas pero, por lo demás, dejó ilesos a los líderes civiles de Hamas. Los llamamientos internacionales para un alto el fuego le dieron a Israel aún menos tiempo para luchar, y Hamas emergió con su prestigio mejorado, especialmente entre los palestinos en Jerusalén y Cisjordania. Los cuerpos del teniente Hadar Goldin y del sargento Oron Shaul, ambos asesinados en 2014, permanecen en Gaza, al igual que los dos civiles israelíes actualmente en cautiverio de Hamas. Hamás, en otras palabras, sigue en pie.
No se podría decir lo mismo de mí si intentara dar hoy una conferencia como la que pronuncié en Georgetown en 2009. La necesidad de Israel de defenderse contra un enemigo genocida permanece inalterada; no así la disposición de muchas audiencias estadounidenses a escucharlo. En aquel entonces, recién salido del campo de batalla, pude dar una conferencia de una hora, sin ningún tipo de rubor a favor de Israel, frente a una audiencia universitaria que no me interrumpió ni una sola vez. ¿Podría darse una charla así en cualquier campus líder hoy en día? En lugar de ser recibido y escuchado con respeto, es probable que ahora me interrumpan los gritos de “apartheid” y “asesino de bebés”. Quizás no me inviten a hablar en absoluto.
La situación es aún más grave dada la casi inevitabilidad de otra ronda de combates con Hamas, con más y más mortíferos cohetes cayendo en Israel y, como resultado, una mayor devastación inevitable en Gaza. Concluí mi charla de 2009 afirmando que Israel había restaurado su poder de disuasión sobre Hamas y que, aunque no fue un triunfo icónico, “esa fue una victoria suficiente para mí”. Por desgracia, hablé demasiado pronto.
Aparte de reconquistarla y volver a ocuparla a un costo diplomático, económico y humano incalculable, no hay solución para Gaza. A Irán, que está dispuesto a luchar contra Israel hasta el último palestino, nada le gustaría más que ver a Israel empantanado y desangrado indefinidamente. ¿Y quién se haría responsable de la Franja, una Autoridad Palestina ampliamente despreciada que solo podía instalarse y mantenerse allí a punta de bayoneta israelí?
Israel debe, por tanto, prepararse militar, política y emocionalmente. Casi el 80 por ciento de los israelíes que se opusieron al alto el fuego en mayo estarán dispuestos a seguir luchando siempre que su gobierno pueda resistir la presión internacional. Tal resistencia solo podrá asegurarse una vez que Israel acepte el hecho de que el principal campo de batalla no es Gaza, sino el tribunal de la opinión mundial. Israel, en consecuencia, debe invertir recursos sin precedentes para dar forma a esa opinión y generar una comprensión más profunda de lo que Hamás realmente es y aspira a lograr. Publicar en Internet un recorrido en tres dimensiones por el sistema de túneles de Hamas, por ejemplo, resultaría útil, al igual que las imágenes de terroristas de Hamas disparando desde vecindarios civiles. Invitar a John Oliver, Trevor Noah y otros artistas que criticaron a Israel a visitar Sderot y otras ciudades fronterizas de Gaza también podría alterar su narrativa.
En última instancia, Israel tiene pocas opciones más allá de prepararse para una quinta y probablemente no menos decisiva ronda de conflicto en Gaza. Si bien un proceso de paz renovado podría mitigar algunas de las consecuencias de las relaciones públicas del último conflicto, seguramente también hará que Hamas esté más decidido a distinguirse de la Autoridad Palestina “traidora”, para demostrar su compromiso de resistir, en lugar de negociar con los sionistas.
Israel también debe prepararse para un conflicto a una escala mucho mayor, uno que vea no solo misiles de Hamas más poderosos y precisos, sino también ataques con cohetes de Hezbollah y otros terroristas respaldados por Irán en Irak, Siria y Yemen. Tal ataque abrumaría rápidamente el sistema Iron Dome y obligaría a las FDI a montar una importante ofensiva aérea y terrestre en múltiples frentes.
Más importante aún, Israel debe determinar sus objetivos en Gaza, ya sea simplemente reduciendo las capacidades de Hamas o desmilitarizando completamente la Franja. Debe manifestar su intención de eliminar a todos los dirigentes de Hamas, tanto militares como políticos. Se debe informar a la comunidad internacional de esos objetivos y advertirle sobre su costo. Y nuestros líderes deben hablar con franqueza a los israelíes sobre el precio que tendrán que pagar a favor de un período de tranquilidad más prolongado. Al actuar responsablemente ahora, es posible que Israel pueda lograr más en términos de disuadir a Hamas. Los terroristas serán sometidos temporalmente, quizás durante una década o más. Y cuando se asiente el polvo de esa terrible y necesaria defensa, como en los últimos enfrentamientos y de nuevo en el próximo, serán los israelíes los que seguirán en pie.
Sobre el Autor
Michael Oren, ex embajador de Israel en los Estados Unidos, miembro de la Knesset y viceministro en la oficina del primer ministro, es el autor de, To All Who Call in Truth (Wicked Son, 2021).
The fourth conflict in the last twelve years between Israel and Gaza looks remarkablylike the first. What happened?
In January 2009, in Georgetown University’s august Gaston Hall, I took to the stage to speak about Gaza. Virtually all 700 seats were occupied, many by students who opposed Israeli policies, especially those concerning the Gaza Strip. A visiting professor at Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization, I had recently returned to Washington from a winter break back in Israel where I’d hoped to vacation with my family. Instead, I spent three weeks serving as a reserve officer in Cast Lead, Israel’s operation against Hamas.
I returned to find the campus in an uproar, the entrance to my building blocked by prostrate protestors holding “Dead Gazan” signs. My lecture was intended as a response to that outcry, to place the Gaza issue in its full historical, military, and diplomatic context. The goal was to expose students to a perspective that they could never receive from the media or most of their professors. For once, they would see the Strip from an Israeli point of view.
Watching the video of that talk last month was an unsettling experience, and not only because of the degree to which I’ve aged. Far more disturbing was seeing how little has changed in the last twelve years. Though Israel’s ability to defend itself has been vastly augmented by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, its right to do so has been increasingly impugned. And nowhere in America has Israel’s case or even the freedom to make it been more strenuously denied than on college campuses. Most dismaying of all was the realization that American ignorance about Gaza and the terrorist regime that ruled it has only deepened over the years, in many cases willfully.
My purpose now is to redress that ignorance. Drawing on 40 years of academic, military, and diplomatic experience with Gaza, I intend to trace Israel’s complex and tortured relationship with the Strip, both in the earlier decades of the state and then especially in the last fifteen years. And, as at Georgetown in 2009, I’ll explore how that relationship might change in the future.
Gaza has a rich and varied history. Situated on the Mediterranean coast in the nexus between continents, it was traditionally an interface between competing empires, an arena for war as well as a marketplace for cultural and economic exchange. Archaeologists have uncovered Egyptian mummies in Gaza along with Roman temples and Byzantine synagogue floors. As a soldier patrolling Gaza many years ago, I noticed the top of an ancient Greek column protruding from a garbage heap. The relic later served as a teaching aid in my history classes.
Gaza’s heyday came in the Middle Ages under Arab rule when it thrived as an entrepôt in the spice and textile trade. (The English word gauze may derive from its name.) But thereafter the area’s fortunes waned so much that, by the time Napoleon’s forces entered Gaza after the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, they found the Strip eerily under-populated and rife with pestilence and poverty. (A portion of Gaza’s native population is made up of the descendants of Egyptians from the Delta area who fled conscription laws put in place in the early 19th century by Muhammad Ali, the governor of Ottoman Egypt.) After that, Gaza was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between Turkish and British forces during World War I. The victorious British worked to have Gaza incorporated into their mandate in Palestine, not because they saw Gaza as part of the Jewish national home but because Gaza guarded the northern approaches to the Suez Canal. British engineers nevertheless vetoed a plan to build a major military base there, arguing that the territory lacked sufficient water.Historically, Jews have had an ambivalent relationship with Gaza. It was home to the Philistines, a place where a Hebrew hero was liable to get his eyes plucked out.
The Zionists, for their part, were uncertain they wanted Gaza in their future state. Historically, Jews have had an ambivalent relationship with Gaza. It was home to the Philistines, a place where a Hebrew hero was liable to get his eyes plucked out and where Jewish defeats were celebrated. Rabbinic sources were divided over whether Gaza fell within the borders of the Land of Israel. Zionism internalized that schism. Before the creation of the state, only one major Jewish settlement was established in the Gaza strip, Kfar Darom, later to be abandoned in Israel’s War of Independence. Zionist leaders did not object when the UN in 1947 placed Gaza within the confines of the proposed independent Arab state.
But Israel’s lack of interest in Gaza ended in 1948 with the flight of Palestinian refugees. Within weeks, Gaza’s population swelled from less than 80,000 to more than 200,000. Occupied by Egypt, Gaza held Israel on the left side of a hostile vise, with the West Bank, soon to be annexed by Jordan, holding the right. Cognizant of this strategic threat, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1951 secretly proposed purchasing Gaza from Egypt and resettling the refugees in Sinai. The Egyptians ignored his offer.
Israel’s problems with Gaza multiplied in the early 1950s with the emergence of the fedayeen. These Palestinian “self-sacrificers,” guerrilla fighters trained and armed by Egypt, struck deep within Israel, killing civilians and ransacking houses. In response, the IDF mounted numerous retaliation raids, some of them led by a controversial young officer named Ariel Sharon. This accelerating cycle of terror and reprisal contributed to the outbreak of the second Arab-Israeli war in October 1956.
That conflict ended with Israeli troops occupying Gaza for five months, after which they were replaced by the first-ever UN peacekeeping force. Its precipitous eviction by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser in May 1967 set off a chain of events that would lead to the Six-Day War. Indeed, that transformative conflict originated to a significant degree in Gaza. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan at first explicitly ordered the IDF not to enter it, but after fire from Palestinian irregular and Egyptian forces, Israeli troops couldn’t help but do so. Thus began an occupation that would last for 38 years.
Shortly after the war, in the late 1960s, Gaza became a power base for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Originally created by Nasser, the terrorist group had come under the domination of the Fatah faction and its chairman, Yasir Arafat. Israeli forces led by Sharon drove the PLO underground in Gaza in the early 1970s, opening the way for the establishment of the first settlements in the Strip.
But the old Israeli ambivalence toward Gaza remained. In contrast to the West Bank, the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, in which 130 settlements were eventually established and 400,000 Israelis made their homes, Gaza hosted a mere 21 settlements and only 8,000 residents. Indeed, in the peace talks between Israel and Egypt in the late 1970s, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, though a champion of settlement, offered to give Gaza back to Egypt. Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president, turned him down.
The Palestinian population of Gaza meanwhile burgeoned, growing to nearly two million today. A similar growth rate in the United States would, in a comparable timespan, have catapulted the population to one billion. Gaza’s demographic explosion was significantly enabled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA. It remains the only UN body created to deal with a specific refugee problem, and which bestows refugee status on the descendants of the refugees from 70 years ago. UNRWA recognizes Palestinian refugees who are technically living in what they themselves call Palestine—in Gaza and the West Bank—and sustains the refugee camps that keep the Palestinian issue alive.
As an IDF officer in the early 1980s, I was involved in an effort to encourage residents of those camps to move to newly created housing projects. The few refugees who did express an interest in relocating were quickly threatened by the PLO, and they rescinded. The projects remained vacant.
Though tens of thousands of Gazans crossed into Israel to work each day and the local economy grew, a combination of PLO incitement and overcrowding created a powder keg. It ignited in December 1987, in the form of the first—as we later called it—intifada. Thousands of Palestinian youths took to the streets, pelting Israeli troops with rocks and Molotov cocktails in an uprising that rapidly spread to the West Bank as well. I served as a reservist with the paratroopers in Gaza during those years. I dodged a great number of rocks and even a few firebombs. Patrolling those fetid streets, it was never clear to me what business Israel had being in Gaza other than to deny the Palestinians the victory of kicking us out. The refugee camps were labyrinths in which each alley was controlled by a different terrorist group, their names scrawled on the walls. One of the scrawlings was unfamiliar to me. It read “Hamas.”
Its name an Arabic acronym for “Islamic resistance movement,” Hamas was then headed by a blind wheelchair-bound sheikh, Ahmed Yassin, and a pediatrician, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi. Like its parent organization, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas back then spent the bulk of its budget on social services, but it also had a charter that blamed the Jews for outbreak of both world wars and called for Israel’s destruction. Israel was then quietly supporting Hamas as a counterweight to the secular PLO. (Not since the United States backed the Taliban in their struggle against the Soviet Union has a policy been so short-sighted.) Israel’s support for Hamas didn’t last long, though. By the early 1990s, Hamas was mounting attacks against Israelis, to which Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin responded—unsuccessfully—by trying to banish 400 Hamas activists to Lebanon.
The rising prominence of Hamas pushed Israel and the old PLO leadership nearer to each other. The first intifada had convinced a large segment of the Israeli population that the occupation was no longer viable, while the revolt of young Palestinians not under his command frightened Arafat into thinking that he might lose control of the territories entirely. The result came in September 1993 on the White House lawn, where Rabin and Arafat joined President Bill Clinton in signing the Oslo Accords.
Under the so-called Gaza-first approach, the Strip was to serve as a litmus test for the broader Oslo project, and it was to Gaza that Arafat made his triumphant return to the territories that June. I was in a quasi-official position back then and watched as Arafat smuggled wanted terrorists literally under the seat of his car. In response, Rabin considered freezing the peace process but ultimately demurred. Arafat thus learned that he could violate the accords without paying a price, which he would from then on do with impunity. He subsequently felt free to play a double game in Gaza, clamping down on Hamas when he needed to while turning a blind eye to its terrorist attacks against Israelis.
Needless to say, the Gaza-first approach failed. Over the course of the next decade, Hamas would mount a total of 70 suicide bombings against Israel, killing 483 Israelis, including not only my sister-in-law (a teacher from Connecticut studying at Hebrew University) but several of my children’s classmates too, as well seven customers at the Cafe Hillel located directly under my Jerusalem office. Israelis felt helpless in the face of this scourge. “Abba, I’ve been to more of my friends’ funerals than bar mitzvahs,” my eldest son, Yoav, complained. Later, as a special-forces soldier, he would be shot and wounded by a Hamas terrorist who was firing from behind his own children. Even Benjamin Netanyahu, elected in 1996 in part thanks to his hardline approach to Hamas, was forced under American pressure to trade Yassin, who had been arrested by Israel in 1989, for two Mossad agents after a botched assassination attempt against Hamas leader Khaled Mashal.
Meanwhile, other Palestinian militias started to compete with Hamas in the bombings. The terror climaxed in the second intifada, beginning in September 2000. Once again called up for reserve duty, I saw how completely the army was caught off guard. Units were sent off frantically—mine to Nablus—without any clear strategy for fighting back or even the proper armaments. Among the surprises that Hamas sprung on us that year was the Qassam rocket, made usually out of irrigation pipes smuggled from Israel and propellant mixed from household chemicals. The projectiles had a maximum range of only fifteen kilometers and were notoriously inaccurate, but when they hit they were deadly. Twenty-eight Israelis were killed and a thousand were wounded. The southern part of the country was paralyzed.
And yet Israel kept trying to maintain a fictive distinction between the political and military wings of Hamas, permitting the former to function while seeking the latter’s destruction. After every suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Israeli press would rush to interview Yassin and Rantisi and ask whether they approved, which of course they did. It was surreal.
The month of March 2002 was the bloodiest of all the months of all the intifadas, with 130 Israelis killed. A new government under Ariel Sharon launched a major operation, Defensive Shield, to retake Palestinian cities and crush the terrorist cells. By 2004, Rantisi and Yassin were dead and the intifada, one of the direst threats to Israel in its history, defeated. A combination of robust military measures—checkpoints, defensive barriers, close cooperation between combat and intelligence units—effectively ended the suicide bombings. By then Arafat had died as well, which meant that Sharon, no less a champion of settlements than Menachem Begin before him, was free to do as he chose at that point in Gaza. What he chose shocked many Israelis.
Sharon believed the country was tired of defending the Gaza settlements and the fourteen-kilometer-long Philadelphi Route, running along the border between Egypt and Gaza, on which Israel soldiers were constantly attacked. Israel, Sharon concluded, could no longer ask parents to sacrifice their children for an area that held little value for them. At stake was the delicate consensus binding Israel’s society to its army.
Thus in August 2005 I found myself back in uniform, one of the 55,000 Israeli soldiers called up to remove 8,000 of our fellow citizens from Gaza. It was the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Though I, like the large majority of Israelis, supported the disengagement, nothing could prepare me for the trauma of implementing it. Nothing I had experienced in war was as harrowing as having to drag Israelis, praying and wailing, from their synagogues and homes.
The Gaza disengagement was a tremendous gamble for Sharon and for Israel. We all knew that the Palestinian terror organizations, Hamas in particular, would declare victory. Yet we hoped that the Palestinian people would seize this historic opportunity to build an independent mini-state. The gamble failed. No sooner had the last Israeli exited the Strip when the Palestinians dismantled the agricultural infrastructure left behind to aid their economy, much of it paid for by American Jewish philanthropists. Over the next six months, terrorist groups fired some 1,000 rockets and mortar shells into Israel.
At this point Israel faced a dilemma that would hound it for the next fifteen years and will likely plague it for many more. Shooting back at Hamas enhanced Hamas’s prestige in the eyes of the Palestinian people—it proved they were resisting Israel and sacrificing themselves for the cause—but not firing back at Hamas enhanced its prestige as well by showing that Israel was scared. More ominously for Israel, this heightened stature also attracted the attention of Tehran. In time, Iran would become Hamas’s primary backer.Shooting back at Hamas enhanced Hamas’s prestige in the eyes of the Palestinian people, but not shooting back enhanced its prestige too.
Israel responded with a naval and air blockade of Gaza. The actions failed to reduce significantly the rocket fire, but they did strengthen Hamas’s casus belli against Israel. Sharon refused to consider reconquering the Strip and instead contemplated a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank as well. He and his new party, Kadima, were poised to implement that very policy in January 2006 when he fell into a coma from which he would never recover. His replacement was former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert.
Elections, meanwhile, were held in the Palestinian territories. As I recall it, Israelis watched with horror the campaign ad of Hamas candidate Maryam Farhat, also known as Umm Nidal. She invited viewers into her home and showed them a gold-framed photograph of a young man in a Hamas military outfit. “This is my eldest son who martyred himself by blowing himself up on a Jewish bus and killed eight Jews,” she exulted. “It was the happiest day of my life.” She then displayed another photo of a young Hamas terrorist. “This is my second son who blew himself up attacking Jewish soldiers,” she claimed. “It was the happiest day of my life.” Finally, Umm Nidal introduced her seventeen-year-old son, also uniformed and bearing an M-16. “He’s about to go out to martyr himself now, and this is the happiest day of my life,” she declared while kissing him. He then went out and, attempting a terror attack, was killed by Israeli soldiers. (The claims about her first two sons appear to be inaccurate. The first didn’t murder by blowing himself up but rather by guns and grenades, and the second was killed before he could accomplish his mission.)
Umm Nidal won. The mother of three martyred sons joined dozens of Hamas representatives elected to the Palestinian parliament in a landslide victory over Fatah.
Predictably, Hamas celebrated its triumph with rockets. It exploited an Egypt-mediated ceasefire to dig a 400-meter-long tunnel under the border. On June 25, 2006, terrorists snuck through the tunnel and attacked an Israeli position, killing two soldiers and kidnapping a third, the nineteen-year-old corporal Gilad Shalit. The IDF’s attempts to respond to this attack by blowing up the many tunnels that Hamas had dug under the Philadelphi Route ended with Israeli soldiers scouring the sand for the body parts of their comrades.
Hoping to avoid all-out war, several European states volunteered to supervise the border crossings between Gaza and Israel. The monitors soon arrived but fled the minute Hamas threatened them. Thousands of tons of munitions, rifles, grenades, and rockets passed into Gaza from Egypt. It was at this depressing juncture that Hizballah, Iran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon, triggered a war with Israel.
Like Hamas, Hizballah had also been emboldened by the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and from southern Lebanon five years earlier. Though technically Hamas’s ally, Hizballah was also its competitor. In the wake of Hamas’s victories, Hizballah could scarcely sit by and let its rival take all the glory. On July 12, 2006, its gunmen ambushed an Israeli border patrol, killing ten and taking two of the bodies for ransom. Israel responded, and the Second Lebanon War began.
Though the IDF killed as much as a quarter of all of Hizballah’s forces and destroyed a large part of its infrastructure, Hizballah nevertheless continued to rocket Israeli cities. It, too, claimed a great victory. Vilified in the media for acting disproportionately, and increasingly pressured by the international community, Israel was compelled to accept a UN ceasefire. Hizballah was allowed to rearm.
Many Israelis linked the Gaza disengagement to the disappointing Second Lebanon War. I served in the army throughout that conflict and, on its last day, found myself along the border. There I encountered Natan Sharansky, then a government minister. “Natan, Natan, it’s so good to see you,” I greeted him. But he merely grinned at me and asked, “Do you still think the disengagement was a good idea?”
It was certainly not a good idea to fail to respond immediately and massively to the Hamas rocket attacks, to signal instead that Israel would passively bear violence perpetrated against it, and to project an image of weakness. My feelings as a soldier merged with my perspective as an historian and my instincts as a citizen—namely, that Israel was hemorrhaging deterrent power, making clear our fear of military and civilian losses, and generally becoming predictable. Our failure to inflict truly prohibitive punishment on our enemies, and to withstand international pressure, would, I feared, lead to only further rounds of bloodshed and a faster erosion of Israel’s legitimacy.
Indeed, Israel’s reluctance to confront Hamas and the consequent boost to the latter’s prestige may have emboldened the terrorists to mount a bloody coup against Fatah in Gaza. Swiftly overpowering U.S.-trained Palestinian Authority forces in June 2007, Hamas proceeded to execute 350 prisoners and banish hundreds of others. Many found asylum in Israel.
Israel reacted by imposing its partial blockade of the Gaza border crossings, but the policy proved problematic. Though the United States and the European Union all recognized Hamas as a terrorist organization and generally supported the blockade, Israel was internationally censured for cutting off vital supplies. In a classic fashion, Hamas shelled the gas stations providing fuel to Gaza and then blamed Israel for creating a humanitarian crisis. Gas shipments resumed, only to be used as a propellant for Qassam rockets.
The blockade, once again, furnished Hamas with a pretext for intensifying rocket and mortar attacks. Thousands of rockets fell, and citizens of southern Israel felt betrayed by their state. Still the government hesitated. The army had yet to recover from the Lebanon war and Olmert was facing several corruption charges. But equally paralyzing—again—was fear of the price Hamas would exact from the IDF and the possibility that Hizballah would again join the fray.
Another Egyptian-brokered ceasefire was arranged. Israel would reopen the crossings and Hamas stopped firing. But Hamas never really complied. A steady tiftuf—Hebrew for drizzle—of two or three rockets weekly kept millions of Israelis terrorized. Olmert appeared on Arabic television appealing to Hamas for restraint. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni did the same in a last-minute visit to Cairo. But the salvos only increased.
Hamas would now experience what Dwight Eisenhower called the fury of an aroused democracy. More than 90 percent of Israelis said they were ready to take on the terrorists militarily. Somehow, more than 100 percent of those called up reported for reserve duty, I among them. On December 27, 2008, the counterattack began.
Operation Cast Lead, it was called, a reference to Hanukkah and a holiday poem by the pioneering Zionist poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik. In a scenario that would repeat itself three more times over the next twelve years, Israel responded to Hamas rocket attacks with intensive aerial strikes. Eighty aircraft hit 100 targets in less than four minutes. Two hundred Hamas guards, convinced that Israelis would never harm them, were out on parade that day. They died instantly. Over the course of the next six days, the IDF would fly 2,000 sorties, destroying dozens of Hamas command posts, arms caches, rocket launchers, and 300 of the estimated 500 tunnels running under the Philadelphi route. This time, there was no distinguishing between Hamas military and political targets. The homes of Hamas leaders, mosques used as arms depots, even the Islamic university, which Israel claimed was being used as a bomb laboratory, were leveled.
But, in another feature of the war that would reappear in the future, Israel sacrificed the element of surprise by leafleting areas that were targeted for strikes and warning the civilian population to flee. Text messages were sent to thousands of phone owners also warning them of impending attacks. Hamas sent civilians up on the roofs of targeted buildings, compelling Israeli pilots to divert missiles even after they had been fired. In response, the Israeli Air Force would try to clear the roofs of civilians by firing a form of non-lethal flash weapon before launching any explosive rounds. The method did not always work. Nizar Rayan, the third in command in Hamas, refused to let his family and his children leave the building after they were warned to do so. All four of his wives and as many as eleven of his children were killed.
The rockets kept falling, averaging 70 per day, ultimately totaling 800. No longer a combat soldier but an IDF spokesman by that point, I nevertheless remained under fire and more than once had to run, microphones and even cameras in tow, for shelter. A mere fourteen-and-a-half seconds separated the launching of the Qassams from their impact. Together with Arab and European reporters, I crouched and listened while several Sderot residents, stricken with chronic PTSD, screamed.A mere 14.5 seconds separated the launching of the rockets from their impact. Together with Arab and European reporters, I crouched and listened while several Sderot residents, stricken with chronic PTSD, screamed.
Though the number of Hamas rockets and mortars fired then was small compared to that of subsequent conflicts, they nevertheless produced in Israel significant damage because the Iron Dome anti-missile system that would later prove so successful had not yet been developed. The Hamas rockets also had a longer range than they had before, extending from fifteen to forty kilometers and endangering a million Israelis. One of them was our daughter, Lia, a student at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. When the sirens began, she abandoned her car at an intersection and ran frantically for a bomb shelter, couldn’t find one, and went banging on various doors asking for shelter. Luckily, a nice old lady let her in, gave her lunch, and wanted her to stay, but Lia had to refuse. The car was still idling in the intersection.
Learning its lessons from the most recent Lebanon war, in which it had publicly declared specific goals it couldn’t meet, like the elimination of Hizballah from southern Lebanon, Israel kept its objectives broad and achievable: impair Hamas’s ability to shell Israel, restore security to southern Israel, and improve the security situation in Gaza.
And since Israel had learned another lesson from Lebanon, too—that warplanes alone cannot eliminate rocket fire—on January 3, 2009, 10,000 Israeli troops soldiers advanced into Gaza. They divided the Strip into three parts, hampering Hamas’s ability to transport men and munitions. Israeli commandos landed on the sea, further driving Hamas fighters inward into urban areas. They fled, rarely fighting, and their leaders hid under hospitals. Left to take the brunt of the advance were the civilians whom Hamas used as human shields. The IDF again took precautions to limit civilian casualties, but the casualty rate nevertheless rose. Efforts to stop Red Crescent ambulances that actually served to transport Hamas terrorists were harshly condemned by the International Red Cross—which, of course, didn’t complain publicly about Hamas’s abuse of the ambulances.
Throughout the fighting, the IDF took extraordinary measures to relieve Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. Some 27,000 tons of food and medical supplies and 240 tons of fuel were delivered to the Strip. A corridor was opened for relief trucks and a three-hour daily truce declared so that Gazans could stock up on supplies. But Hamas regularly violated that truce. It seized flour shipments from relief trucks and sold them for profit. My unit discovered that one of these aid trucks was transporting not food, as labeled, but Hamas military uniforms.
Civilian casualties quickly became an international focus. The IDF concluded that no more than 25 percent of all Palestinian casualties were civilian. The UN put the number at 40 percent and Hamas itself at 50 percent. Yet even that undoubtedly inflated number compares favorably to that of NATO’s 1999 intervention in the Balkans, where 150 fighters were killed versus 527 civilians. Over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coalition forces killed an estimated 250,000 civilians. Operation Cast Lead may have had the lowest civilian-to-soldier casualty ratio of any urban combat in recent history.
A similar asymmetry existed in the physical damage Israel inflicted on Gaza. Palestinian sources claimed that 4,000 homes were destroyed and 100,000 people left homeless. That was a tragedy. It must also be seen in context. A single battle in Fallujah during the second U.S. war in Iraq displaced 300,000. And many of the Gazan homes were devastated not by Israel but by Hamas booby traps.
None of these facts had much effect on the media, which described Gaza as the most densely populated area on earth—it isn’t; Tel Aviv is more densely populated, as are many other places—and that Israeli forces were firing indiscriminately. Reports of atrocities circulated. In a typical incident, the French press, quoting Palestinian sources, claimed that Israeli forces had bombed a UN school, killing 21 children. The story quickly leapt onto the international wire services, which cited only the French and left out the Palestinian sources, and inflated the number of children killed to 53. Israel’s anemic response was “We will launch an investigation.” That took three weeks and found that the IDF bomb had in fact fallen outside the school, where it had killed nine or ten Hamas terrorists and two civilians, neither of them a child. The damage to Israel’s image in the meantime, however, was irreparable.
Much of the Western world was uniting against Israel over Gaza, but the Middle East was becoming divided. Despite the Palestinian Authority’s attempts to portray Israelis as the aggressors, and Hamas’s efforts to ignite a third intifada, the West Bank remained generally quiet. So, too, did much of the Arab world, especially the Sunnis. If, during its previous wars, Israel would worry over the impact on the “Arab street,” that street had moved to London and Paris, which were then the scenes of violent protests, while the Middle East itself remained largely silent. After grilling me for minutes about alleged Israeli war crimes, a Palestinian reporter for an Arabic-language station pulled me aside and whispered, “Whatever you do, don’t stop until you’ve annihilated Hamas.” But while Sunnis like him expressed next to no support for Hamas, Iran and its Syrian satellite did support their proxy virulently, and accused Israel of doing to the Palestinians what they denied the Nazis ever did to the Jews.
By the end of the third week of fighting, it was clear to many in Israel that the operation had to end. Barack Obama was about to be inaugurated and the last thing anybody wanted was for the new president of the United States to have to proceed directly from the swearing-in ceremony to the White House situation room and deal with our crisis. Israel had already demonstrated its determination to defend itself. Rocket fire had dwindled. Twenty-two days after the operation began, with its troops nearing the center of Gaza City, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire. Hamas followed suit the next day. The last IDF soldier withdrew from Gaza a day before President Obama’s inauguration.
A few months later, I was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Portentously, my first meeting in the Oval Office dealt almost exclusively with Gaza. President Obama insisted that Israel allow shipments of concrete into the Strip to help restore damaged structures. My first words spoken to him were about the number of tunnels under the Philadelphi route. “We thought there were 200, but it turned out there were 500,” I said, and the president seemed genuinely surprised. Also, I added, “Every bag of concrete will be used for building bunkers and tunnels.” But Obama merely nodded, clearly unconvinced. Israel eventually relented to his pressure and allowed thousands of bags of concrete to enter Gaza, where they were promptly put to use building bunkers and tunnels. It took years before Dennis Ross, the American emissary to Israel who was also present at the meeting, admitted that the warning had been right.
Gaza proved to be the leitmotif of my term as ambassador. From the ill-fated effort by IDF commandos to divert a flotilla of Islamic radicals from reaching Gaza in May 2010 to Israel’s release, in October 2011, of nearly a thousand jailed terrorists in exchange for captured corporal Gilad Shalit, the issue took up great swaths of my time. While generally supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, the administration insisted that Israel submit to a UN investigation of the flotilla incident and criticized Israel for the Shalit deal which, the White House claimed, strengthened Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, efforts by J Street and pro-Palestinian organizations to promote the UN’s Goldstone report, accusing us of war crimes, kept Israel perennially on the defensive.
The whirlwind surrounding Gaza climaxed in November 2012 with Operation Pillar of Defense. Lasting eight days, this was a miniature re-enactment of Cast Lead, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad firing some 1,500 rockets at Israel and, for the first time, hitting Tel Aviv and nearly reaching Jerusalem. Israel again responded with airstrikes and was again assailed for acting disproportionally. The charge was strengthened—perversely—by the newly-deployed Iron Dome anti-ballistic-missile system, which greatly reduced Israeli casualties, while those among the Palestinians multiplied. I was proud of my role in helping to secure funding for Iron Dome from the U.S. even as I was aware that, in terms of Israel’s image, it was a double-edged sword. U.S. and international pressure again compelled Israel to accept a ceasefire.
The next clash with Hamas, 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, was the largest and longest rerun of 2008 and 2012. It lasted 26 days, during which Hamas fired nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel and Israel responded massively, first from the air as always and then on the ground. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, most of them terrorists but also a significant percentage of civilians. Israeli losses, military and civilian, were 73.
The patterns established during the previous two rounds of Gaza fighting resurfaced, only more swiftly and acrimoniously. Israel was again accused of deliberately targeting civilians or at least of being criminally negligent. Iron Dome defended Israel and thereby lent credence to the claim of disproportionality. Hamas was once again shown to have had a military tactic that served a media, diplomatic, and legal strategy designed to deny Israel the right to defend itself or even exist as an independent Jewish state. Hamas knew that it could never destroy Israel with its rockets, but that, by getting Israel to fire back and kill innocent civilians, it could whittle away at Israel’s international legitimacy. While Israelis continued to believe that Gaza was the main battlefield, Hamas knew that it was not in the Strip but on television and computer screens around the world, at the UN, and ultimately at the International Criminal Court, where Israel would be sanctioned for war crimes.
Sadly, it worked.
Operation Protective Edge found me out of office but still defending Israel in the press. “How many Palestinian women and children will Israel have to kill until it’s satisfied?” MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow began his interview with me, asking a not-uncommon question. Gaza was again falsely described as the most densely populated area on earth and Israeli forces were described as firing randomly. Reporters in Gaza were prevented by Hamas from photographing rocket crews or even terrorists carrying guns and were instead confined to hospitals and scenes of wounded children. On the Internet, Hamas posted images of bodies dismembered by Israeli bombing; the images were actually taken from horror movies.
Incensed by these images, international opinion swiftly turned against Israel. The Obama administration made it clear that Israel could defend itself against Hamas—but only passively, by using Iron Dome, not by sending troops into Gaza. The White House held up the resupply of vital munitions to the IDF. Secretary of State John Kerry tried to mediate, enlisting the help of Hamas-supporting Turkey and Qatar, only to be rebuffed by both Israel and Egypt. Eventually, Israel found that it could not maintain the diplomatic space and time it needed to keep fighting and eventually agreed to a ceasefire. Gaza was once again devastated, but Hamas was still standing and free to once again rearm.
The media’s assumption of Israeli guilt and its promotion of Hamas’s narrative, its reliance on Hamas’s statistics and its compliance with Hamas’s restrictions on the press, only intensified during a round of Gaza border protests in 2018 and 2019. The many children whom Hamas herded toward the border fence were even better than rockets—reusable and, since they didn’t cause any Israeli casualties, the most irrefutable proof yet of disproportionality. “Hamas wants you to condemn us,” I told a BBC interviewer. “Hamas wants you to applaud it for sending their children out to die. And when more of them do, their blood will be on your hands.”
All of my familiarity with Gaza, though, paled beside the knowledge I would acquire as a member of the Knesset who chaired a classified committee on the subject, and who, as a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, was assigned to find new ways to address the threat. In the committee, for example, I heard how the foreign ministry and the IDF’s judicial branch were understaffed and ill-prepared to defend Israel against charges of war crimes in the International Criminal Court. In the prime minister’s office, I explored ways to improve the standard of living for ordinary Gazans, providing them with more than their usual four hours daily of electricity and a mere 4 percent of their potable water. By giving them something to lose in a war, I hoped, Gazans might resist Hamas’s efforts to trigger one. But the Israeli government, reflecting public sentiment generally, believed that “What is bad for Gaza is good for Israel,” and balked at the idea. Hamas would have been pleased. I learned one thing above all from that time: Hamas wants the Gazans to suffer.
Hamas, I learned, cares nothing for the wellbeing of Palestinian civilians. While Israel is more than willing to facilitate the transfer of all the food and medicine Gaza needs—contrary to international opinion, Israel does not maintain a full blockade of Gaza but bans only the import of dual-use items like concrete that Hamas will use for rockets and bunkers—Hamas stops the trucks and even blows up the receiving terminals in order to create a humanitarian crisis it can then blame on Israel. Hamas, I learned, forces thousands of children to dig its tunnels and hundreds of them die in the process. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, cuts off aid for Gazans who receive medical treatment in Israel and freezes the pensions of Gaza workers, all in order to pressure Hamas and force it to start another war. The Palestinian Authority, I learned, is willing to fight Hamas to the last Israeli, all the while denouncing Israel for war crimes.
Yet Hamas, still somehow less corrupt than the Palestinian Authority and the flag-bearer of religiously inflected resistance, remains overwhelmingly popular in the West Bank as well as in Gaza. And despite its pounding in successive military rounds with Israel, Hamas believes it is winning.
“Is this an image of victory or defeat,” Meir Ben Shabbat, currently Israel’s national security advisor but then head of Internal Security’s southern command, asked me. Projected on the wall was a photo of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh standing atop a pile of debris and giving the “V” sign. “Obviously, it’s defeat,” I said, only to be corrected by Meir. “No. Haniyeh is proud of the destruction. And he’s still standing. That, for Hamas, is victory.”
Last month’s Operation Guardians of the Wall was yet another rerun of the 2008, 2012, and 2014 conflicts. It began with Hamas missiles—fired not at the south, for a change, but at Jerusalem—followed by an Israeli aerial response. The IDF succeeded in blowing up some 60 miles of Hamas tunnels and eliminating many terrorist commanders. The accuracy of Israeli airstrikes, harnessing artificial intelligence and closely coordinated with Israeli intelligence, was unprecedented.
In terms of public diplomacy, though, the operation faltered. Pointing to an Israeli court’s decision to evict Palestinian residents from Jewish-owned property in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, and a raid by Israeli police on rock-throwing Palestinian protestors holed up in al-Aqsa Mosque, much of the media blamed Israel for provoking the violence. Israel responded with the same messages it had used over the previous fifteen years—“Hamas commits a double war crime, firing at civilians while hiding behind civilians”—but the world was no longer listening. Feelings, not facts, dominated the media, especially those that labeled Israelis as war criminals and assailed us for acting disproportionately. “Why doesn’t Israel provide Iron Dome to the Palestinians?” a CNN interviewer asked me in all sincerity.
Hamas had other reasons to rejoice as well. With each passing war, the range and rate of Hamas rocket fire have greatly increased. This time, using only a third of its arsenal, Hamas hit both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and, in eleven days, launched more rockets than in the entire four weeks of the 2014 conflict. Inexplicably reviving the policy of distinguishing between Hamas’s political and military wings, Israel targeted several terrorist commanders but otherwise left Hamas’s civilian leaders unscathed. International calls for a ceasefire afforded Israel even less time to fight, and Hamas emerged with its prestige enhanced, especially among Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The bodies of Lieutenant Hadar Goldin and Sergeant Oron Shaul, both killed in 2014, remain in Gaza, as do the two Israeli civilians currently in Hamas captivity. Hamas, in other words, is still standing.
The same might not be said about me if I were to attempt today to give a lecture like the one I delivered at Georgetown in 2009. Israel’s need to defend itself against a genocidal enemy remains unchanged; not so the willingness of many American audiences to hear about it. Back then, fresh from the battlefield, I was able to deliver an hour-long, unabashedly pro-Israel lecture in front of a full college audience and was not interrupted even once. Could such a talk be given on any leading campus today? Rather than being respectfully received and listened to, I would likely now be interrupted by shouts of “apartheid” and “baby killer.” Perhaps I might not be invited to speak at all.
The situation is graver still given the near inevitability of another round of fighting with Hamas, with more and deadlier rockets landing in Israel and greater devastation inevitable in Gaza as a result. I concluded my 2009 talk by claiming that Israel had restored its deterrent power over Hamas and that, while not an iconic triumph, “that was victory enough for me.” Alas, I spoke too soon.Short of reconquering and reoccupying it at incalculable diplomatic, economic, and human cost, there is no solution for Gaza.
Short of reconquering and reoccupying it at incalculable diplomatic, economic, and human cost, there is no solution for Gaza. Iran, which is willing to fight Israel to the last Palestinian, would like nothing better than to see Israel indefinitely bogged down and bled. And who would take responsibility for the Strip—a widely despised Palestinian Authority that could only be installed and maintained there at the point of Israeli bayonets?
Ultimately, there is little choice for Israel but to prepare for a fifth and probably no less decisive round of conflict in Gaza. While a renewed peace process might mitigate some of the public-relations fallout from the latest conflict, it will surely also make Hamas more determined to distinguish itself from the “treasonous” Palestinian Authority—to demonstrate its commitment to resisting, rather than negotiating with, the Zionists.
Israel must also gird itself for a much larger-scale conflict, one that sees not only more powerful and accurate Hamas missiles but also rocket attacks from Hizballah and other Iranian-backed terrorists in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Such an onslaught would quickly overwhelm the Iron Dome system and force the IDF to mount a major air and ground offensive on multiple fronts.
Israel must thus ready itself militarily, politically, and emotionally. The nearly 80 percent of Israelis who opposed the ceasefire in May will be willing to fight on provided their government can withstand international pressure. Such resilience can only be secured once Israel accepts the fact that the main battlefield is not Gaza but the court of world opinion. Israel, accordingly, must invest unprecedented resources in shaping that opinion and generating a deeper understanding of what Hamas truly is and aspires to achieve. Posting on the Internet a three-dimensional tour of Hamas’s tunnel system would, for example, prove helpful, as would images of Hamas terrorists firing from civilian neighborhoods. Inviting John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and other entertainers who were critical of Israel to visit Sderot and other Gaza border towns could also alter their narrative.
Most importantly, Israel must determine its goals in Gaza, whether merely reducing Hamas’s capabilities or fully demilitarizing the Strip. It must state its intention to eliminate all of Hamas’s leadership, military and political alike. The international community must be apprised of those goals and fully forewarned about their cost. And our leaders must speak candidly to Israelis about the price they will have to pay for a more prolonged period of quiet. By acting responsibly now, Israel can conceivably achieve more in terms of deterring Hamas. The terrorists will be subdued temporarily, perhaps for a decade or more. And when the dust settles from that awful, necessary defense, as in the last confrontations so again in the next one, it will be the Israelis who are still standing.
About the author
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a member of the Knesset, and a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, is the author of, most recently, To All Who Call in Truth (Wicked Son, 2021).