War and Peace

The defeat of the Amorites, by Gustave Dore

The defeat of the Amorites, by Gustave Dore

Last Saturday, Dina did her bat mitzvah at our local Jewish synagogue. As Dina recited the Biblical verses about God's wrath against the Israelites who had taken foreign women as lovers ("...and he drove the spear into both of them, through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach.."), I was glad almost nobody in the audience understood the meaning of her beautiful chanting.  In a Jewish community as peaceful and tolerant as ours pretends to be, the violence of the texts we read is a bit jarring. It takes supreme denial skills to reconcile the Tenah with our humanistic, inclusive worldview.  

Equally jarring was the knowledge that, as we sat in our best clothes in the sunny new synagogue, listening to the recitation of the story of Balak, King of Moab, and his war with the Israelites, riots were raging in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and children just a little older than Dina were being killed and tortured in back-and-forth revenge attacks.

 Since then, in the week since Dina's bat mitzvah, the conflict has escalated to an Israeli bombing campaign that has already killed more than 150 civilians in Gaza (many of them children) and a barrage of rockets from Gaza that keep our friends and family running to bomb shelters. 

 Next month, we are moving to Herzliya for a one-year sabbatical in Israel. This winter, when we made the decision to go, it seemed like a good idea to give our children the chance to spend more time with their grandparents. But as the bombs are falling and the revenge attacks escalate, it almost feels perverse to voluntarily move our children into this violence when we have the option to stay safely in peaceful Vermont. Of course, nobody voluntarily submits their children to this kind of violence. Most Palestinians and Israelis would prefer to live in a nice, peaceful place. 

 The theme of Dina's bat mitzvah happened to be peace and trust. For her mitzvah (charity) project, Dina had organized a fundraiser for a Jewish-Arab youth circus in the Galilee. The philosophy of the circus is that kids will forget political and cultural differences when they have to trust and rely on each other during balancing and acrobatic acts.

During our visit to Israel in December, when we attended the circus show in the Israeli-Arab town Dir-el-Asad, Dina remarked that she couldn't tell the difference between the Jewish and the Arab kids. She had known in theory about the conflict between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, but for someone who can't even distinguish between Jews and Arabs (and what actually is the difference?) it is indeed difficult to understand why they don't just reach a compromise and make peace.

 For her Davar Torah, the little Torah lesson that each child prepares as part of mitzvah ceremony, Dina continued on the theme of "trust". In her talk, she interpreted the violent wars between the Israelites and the Amorites and Moab as a misunderstanding that could have been resolved if they had just trusted each other, and she drew a parallel with the current situation. She concluded that if King Balak of Moab had trusted the Israelites, he would have realized that they meant no harm, and a war could have been avoided.

 If only it was this simple: The Israeli Palestinian conflict interpreted by a twelve-year-old from Vermont: just trust each other so you can reach a peaceful compromise. In a way, it is indeed this ridiculously simple: just trust each other. But, unfortunately, to trust each other after years of aggression, revenge, and violence, requires such extraordinary generosity and open-mindedness, that to expect millions of people to simultaneously embrace peace is as realistic as waiting for the appearance of the Messiah.

 What seems obvious here in quiet, peaceful Vermont – a place so gentle that children are not allowed to say that they "hate Brussel sprouts" because "hate" is "not a nice word" –seems laughable in a war zone.

 I'm afraid my kids will be in for some shock when they adapt to life in the Middle East. They'll pretty soon learn to distinguish between Jews and Arabs, and they'll quickly find out that the values they learned in kindergarten – to be peaceful and tolerant and kind – are not so easily applicable outside our beautiful, progressive Vermont town.

 But I don't think it's bad to have your ideals tested on the harshness of the world. It's easy to be tolerant and peaceful when you're already living in peace. The real test is to hold on to your humanity and compassion at a time of conflict, when your life and the life of the people you love is at stake.