On a three-day visit to Israel, Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg was part of a delegation visiting a house in Ashkelon that had been destroyed by a rocket that morning, when sirens went off and the group had to run to a bomb shelter.
“I don’t want to be overdramatic,” Gruenberg said. “I don’t know if I was ever afraid that I was going to die, but I was afraid; and a bigger thing than the fear was the reality or recognition that Israelis were living with this for 50 days, especially Israelis in the South.”
Gruenberg, rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County in Yardley, Pa., visited Israel as part of a solidarity mission organized by the New York Board of Rabbis in cooperation with Jewish Federations of North America’s Rabbinic Cabinet and UJA-Federation of NY. The group was on the ground in Israel Aug. 25-27, coinciding with an open-ended cease-fire agreement after seven weeks of warfare.
“It was unlike any other Israel trip I’ve ever been on,” said Gruenberg, who estimates he has been to Israel probably 50 times. “I’ve never been to Israel in the midst of a war, and so the country is just completely different from what I was used to.”
The 40-member delegation, which included, in addition to rabbis, Christian and Jewish lay leaders, was accompanied by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) and former NY Gov. David Paterson, chair of the New York State Democratic Party.
“It was very clear, as you meet with Israelis, that the war is definitely taking an emotional toll on them,” Gruenberg said. “It’s not an easy thing to live through a war where you are constantly concerned with running to bomb shelters and when the next rocket is going to fall; it’s just a different reality.”
David Horovitz, editor-in-chief of the Times of Israel website, spoke to the group about media responses to the war. “When we all look at media coverage of Israel, we simply dismiss it as being anti-Israel,” said Gruenberg. “David looked at it in context, asking why newspapers are reporting it in a particular way.”
From Michael Ratney, the consul general of the United States in Jerusalem, the group heard about misconceptions that North Americans have about what happens in the West Bank. He told them that despite a widely shared perception that Palestinian textbooks are very negative toward Israel, said Gruenberg, Ratney “has copies they are using in the West Bank, and they weren’t as negative as we thought.”
Dr. Tal Becker, a member of the Israeli negotiating team in Egypt, told the group that the most abundant resource in the Middle East is not oil, but “bad options.” At the same time, Gruenberg said he heard repeatedly that Israel needs to figure out a way to make Gaza more like the West Bank, to empower the PA and Fatah to take over Gaza and in that way marginalize and weaken Hamas. Regarding Hamas, however, Gruenberg said, “Everyone we heard from, regardless of where they were on the ideological spectrum, seemed to indicate that Hamas will never be content, never make a peace commitment.”
Gruenberg said he was inspired by a meeting with Rachel Frenkel, mother of one of the three Israeli teens whose kidnapping and murder preceded the summer’s hostilities. “She has a big smile on her face and is not bitter — it seems like she has found meaning in this horrible tragedy,” he said. When someone asked her whether she had anger toward all Palestinians, she responded, “No, how could I? It’s not all Palestinians.”
Gruenberg found that Frenkel’s response and that of Israelis in general to the war is much more nuanced than those he has heard in the United States. “We tend in America to create significant dividing lines, battle lines — you’re left or right and there’s no in-between.
“Sometimes as Americans we want everything to be clean and quick — either get out quickly or go in and take Gaza and take care of it once and for all,” he said. “But neither is a compelling option; it needs to be something more complex and long-lasting than those ‘nuclear’ options.”