Sunday 5 June 2016

Staying Unified

Picture from aicvideo
Today is the day in the Jewish calendar that Israelis (and others) celebrate the reunification of the holy city of Jerusalem 49 years ago.  Jerusalem Day is celebrated widely, and nowhere more enthusiastically than in the city itself.

Not only is Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world, it is undoubtedly the most controversial city in history.  According to Wikipedia, the city has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.  And these numbers do not include internal strife, intifadas and terror attacks which persist in the city until today.  Although these events have taken place over approximately 5,000 years, it still seems a great deal for any city to endure, and there are many who wonder why it is that one city should be so sought after that people are prepared to go to such extraordinary lengths to secure control over the city.

For the Jewish people, the answer is quite clear.  The belief is that the creation of the world emanated from the Foundation Stone on Mount Moriah.  This is also the same place that Jacob was ordered to sacrifice Isaac (and then stopped from doing so), and also coincides with the location of of the famous dream of Jacob's ladder.  So it comes as no surprise that King David chose this place to erect his City of David in approximately 1,000 BCE, and that Solomon's Temple was built on Mount Moriah soon after this.  From the moment that Solomon's Temple stood at this site (and possibly even from long before), it took on the undisputed position as the holiest place on earth to all Jews.  The city of Jerusalem is mentioned by name more than 600 times in the Jewish biblical texts, and thousands more times by other names and references.  The centrality of this location and this city to Jews is without rival.  It is highly likely that this centrality is the reason why Jesus, a Jewish boy from Nazareth, found himself in Jerusalem where he was crucified.  This established Jerusalem as a holy city for his followers, later to be known as Christians.  The holiness of Jerusalem to the third monotheistic religion, Islam, stems from an event that took place more than 600 years later.  The Quran tells us that the Prophet Mohammad was taken by Buraq to visit the "furthest mosque" (believed to mean the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem), from where Mohammad was taken to heaven.  This reference is the sole claim that Muslims have to Jerusalem as a holy city (although still not quite as holy as Mecca and Medina), and Jerusalem is not mentioned by name once in the entire Quran.  The scene was set for conflict, disagreement, war, death and destruction surrounding the control of this city, holy to three religions.

Today we celebrate 49 years of freedom of the city of Jerusalem.  This freedom extends not only to Jews and Israelis who have administrative control over the city.  It extends to all from the three religions, and others, who come in peace to worship, learn the history and pay respects to the holy city.  But this was not always the case, and is never taken for granted in this conflict-filled city.  Even as recently as 50 years ago, Jews were prevented from entering the Old City of Jerusalem, and approaching the holy site of the Western Wall.  This fact alone is justification for Israel to continue to exert control over the city and its holy sites.

Over the past few years, Jerusalem has put on an annual festival of light as part of the Jerusalem Day festivities.  It is highly symbolic that the city, with such a dark history, has a festival of light to emphasize all that is positive about the city.  I had the good fortune to participate in the festival this year, and it is an experience that has left an impression that will remain with me for a long time to come.  Not only were each of the exhibits creative and interesting, the atmosphere that could be felt around all parts of the city was electrifying (no pun intended).  Thousands of people formed a human chain following the different coloured tracks around the streets of the Old City, and around the walls.  People were drawn to parts of the Old City that they had never visited, perhaps because they were afraid or perhaps just because they were off the beaten track and unfamiliar.  I could not help noticing that people came from all parts of the country, from all walks of life and from all ethnic backgrounds.  Muslims joined with Christians and Jews in celebrating the light of this intriguing city.  I silently wondered as I walked around the thronging alleyways whether the Muslims were not enjoying more freedom now since the Old City is in Jewish hands, than they did when it was ruled by Jordan.  It could only happen under Jewish leadership that the King of Jordan, the same Jordan that denied Jews the right to access its holiest site for 19 long years years, is now the head of the Waqf religious council that has jurisdiction over Muslim holy sites in the city of Jerusalem.

Despite the conflicts and violence that continue in Jerusalem at the current time, the city of Jerusalem has undergone probably one of its most dramatic reconstruction periods in its history over the past 49 years.  While the integrity and the character of the original city has been preserved, the construction of infrastructure and residential and commercial buildings has been astonishing.  The light rail trundles over ancient cobblestones, and modern buildings are built in the Jerusalem stone in keeping with the rest of the architecture of the city, blending in with the ancient walls of the Old City.

Jews have maintained a continuous presence in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem since the 8th century BCE, with the exception of the period between 1948 and 1967 when Jordan brutally forced Jews out.  There were periods when being Jewish in the Jewish Quarter was not easy, but Jews were never willing to give up on this despite any hardship.  The same tenacious spirit is in evidence today.  Jews will not give up on the presence in the Jewish Quarter, and Jews will not give up on the united city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Each time I visit Jerusalem, I wonder what my grandparents and great-grandparents would feel if they saw the ease with which I am able to visit the holiest city in Judaism, and its holiest site, the Western Wall.  I wonder what they would think to see me driving freely around the streets, walking in the market and viewing the Knesset building.  We are indeed a privileged generation to have the immense good fortune to live at this time when we are able to do the things that our forefathers prayed fervently to have the right to do, and who died fighting to do.  When we say Lshana habaa B'Yerushalayim at the end of the Pesach seder, it is not a pipe dream.  It is something that is absolutely achievable.

If the history of Jerusalem is anything to go by, we will be forced to continue to fight to retain Jerusalem as our eternal capital.  It is a fight that most Israelis are prepared to undertake, and a fight that many have already died for.  But this makes us stronger rather than weaker, and our resolve to retain Jerusalem will never diminish.  For now, we bask in the glory of Jerusalem, and we rejoice in our ability to be free as Jews in our holy city.

Saturday 4 June 2016

Rough Justice?

The story of Sgt. Elor Azaria has captured the imagination of many Israelis, and has succeeded in dividing opinions very sharply.  Sgt. Azaria is an IDF soldier in the Kfir brigade, who was on duty near Hebron on a day in February when a terrorist stabbed and wounded another IDF soldier friend of his.  According to the most reliable eye-witness accounts of the story, Sgt. Azaria shot at the terrorist some time after the terrorist had already been neutralised and was under the full control of other IDF soldiers.  The shot fired from Sgt. Azaria's gun resulted in the death of the terrorist.  As a result of this incident, Elor has been court-martialed, and charged with the offense of manslaughter.

The entire episode has played itself out in the public eye.  This is due to the intervention of the human rights organisation Btselem, who miraculously had somebody on the scene to record the events, and decided that it was appropriate to publicly air a video taken of the incident.  The video turns out to have been edited before being publicised, and without full disclosure of that fact.  The act of airing the video in public pushed the matter, and the debate, into the public arena.  The IDF was forced to respond publicly saying that it would investigate the incident, and take actions against the soldier if appropriate.  This, in turn, sparked a great deal of public support for the soldier, explaining that he has been forced to operate in extremely dangerous conditions as a result of the recent wave of terrorist violence in the West Bank and Israel.  It was put forward that his actions should be understood in the context of the situation that has been imposed upon Israel and her soldiers.  Israel's prime minister, minister of defense, chief of general staff and other ministers in government all felt the need to make public statements on the matter in criticising the soldier's actions.  In turn, this drew in the family of the soldier and many others who felt the need to defend him.  The incident degenerated into a classic public free-for-all.

The considerations on each side of the argument are clear, and convincing.  Israel is a country that is constantly under threat from those who wish to destroy her and her people.  This forces all of Israel's citizens to serve in the army as protection against those who desire to reap destruction.  Israel's soldiers are placed in danger's way each and every day.  This is not a normal or acceptable situation, and places enormous stress on young people who serve in the country's military.  Little consideration seems to be given by the international community to this fact.  Instead, Israel's soldiers are constantly under close scrutiny.  Organisations like Btselem ignore the human rights abuses that are inherent in the constant threats to Israel, and they find it only necessary to hold Israel and her soldiers accountable for their reactions in the spur of the moment.  This background forms the basis for the support that Elor has received from the public.  The fact that he was placed in a difficult situation having to protect his country at such a young age, has elicited sympathy and respect for him, and support for his actions.  Elor and his brigade spent many long hours on patrols, knowing that somebody could try to kill them at any moment.  Why should terrorists be afforded human rights, when they have no respect for the human rights of others?  There are many who believe that the fact that this person was trying to kill another individual in an orchestrated terror attack, immediately removes his right to being treated with respect and removes his human rights.  So, for many Israelis, it is inconceivable that a soldier can be tried on charges of killing a terrorist.  This is, after all, the job that soldiers are trained to do.

Despite many indications to the contrary, the IDF has strict disciplinary rules that it enforces.  These rules have been developed to fit with the environment in which its soldiers are forced to operate, and are designed to take advantage of the Israeli culture to extract the most from each conscripted soldier.  The rules are also highly influenced by our Jewish heritage, and the values that come with that.  The IDF's view is that we have the obligation to separate ourselves and our behaviour from those who seek to destroy us, and who behave without compassion or humanity in their quest to achieve this.  Even though the IDF's objective is to protect the people and the State of Israel, this should be achieved in a manner that is true to our cultural and religious teachings.  We should never lose sight of the fact that our soldiers are human beings before they are soldiers.  It is for this reason that the IDF discipline affords human rights not only to soldiers, but also to terrorists and enemies.  When responding to terrorists and enemy fighters, IDF soldiers have strict rules of engagement that are closely policed.  While giving IDF soldiers freedom to do almost anything that is required in the protection of Israeli lives, the rules of engagement strictly forbid shooting anybody unless an order to do so has been given or unless a victim's life is in immediate danger.  Failure to abide by the rules of engagement is taken seriously.  An army that has to counter the threats that the IDF sees daily, is forced to have a zero tolerance policy on operational transgressions.  There is no room for any soldier to have his or her own agenda or ulterior motive while he is in the service of the IDF.  If there is any suspicion that Elor has overstepped the well-kown and highly drilled rules of engagement, the correct action is to investigate the matter and give the soldier the right to defend his or her actions.  If the soldier felt fear or threat at the moment that he fired his shot, or believed that another life was in imminent danger, he will have his opportunity to present this defence.

I feel confident that the court-martial system will allow the charges to be put to the soldier, while also allowing him the opportunity to defend them in a democratic manner.  No external party or member of the public, whether it be Btselem, the minister of defense, the chief of general staff and even the prime minister can, or should pre-empt or interrupt this process.  It is extremely regrettable that this process is being played out in public, and it would be far more effective to allow the IDF to do its job internally in the manner that it is accustomed to doing.  It is clear that the act by Btselem of bringing this into the public domain effectively forced some of our leadership to respond to this in public.  The response, however, to the Btselem accusations was way beyond what was required.  Some believe that this was designed to pander to the international community, rather than considering the impact on the soldier and on the IDF as a whole.  Elor Azaria has become a villain in the eyes of some, while being a hero in the eyes of others.  I regard this act of forcing him into such a high public profile is possibly as stressful as the job that he was doing in the field near Hebron.

There is no doubt that Israel's young soldiers are forced to endure more stress than other young people of their age, and perhaps even more than professional soldiers in the armies of other countries.  Israel is currently the only country in the developed world that is being forced to fight a war within its borders, and the only country whose very existence is constantly questioned and threatened.  In spite of this fact, the international community seems to hold Israel to standards that are far in excess of the standards expected of other countries.  All of this is extremely unreasonable and even discriminatory, but standing up and shouting about it from the rooftops appears futile.  It does not help Israel secure her future, which is the most important task at hand.

It is thanks to the enthusiasm of those like Elor Azaria that Israel is able to protect herself against the constant threats of destruction.  Israel's young soldiers show incredible loyalty and patriotism when serving their country.  This enthusiasm needs to be allowed to show itself within a very stringent framework.  The framework is not only important for the discipline in the IDF, it is important for our soldiers and our country to retain their humanity.  This is the key difference that distinguishes Israel from her enemies, and is something that we would never wish to lose.  We would never wish to sink to the levels of those who seek to destroy Israel.

It is important now to allow the court-martial to conduct its work according to the rules and democratic principles under which it operates.  No external parties should be allowed to influence this process in any way.  No doubt, the verdict of the court-martial will be received with controversy, whatever its outcome.  We are forced to accept the verdict, and understand that this is the way in which our democracy operates.  Whatever the outcome may be, I feel immensely proud that we are able to retain our humanity even under the most extreme conditions.  And I am proud that we demand this humanity of our soldiers, even if the international community does not acknowledge this.