Skyping with the enemy

Skyping with the enemy

If you were friendly with someone living in Gaza, would you have felt any differently about Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, its week-long campaign against Hamas terror targets?

That’s the premise of the film A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, which is being screened Saturday night at the JCC in West Orange. (I will be leading a discussion after the film, a preview of April’s New Jersey Jewish Film Festival.) Shot in Israel by a French director, the film is about a teenage Israeli girl and her unlikely e-mail correspondence with a young man in Gaza. Tal, disturbed by a recent cafe bombing in Jerusalem, initiates the exchange, asking how anyone could be angry enough to kill himself and a crowd of civilians. On the Gaza side, Naim is a sensitive student who answers her, first in anger, and eventually in sympathy for the Jewish girl he calls “Miss Peace.”

You’ve Got Mail it isn’t. This being the Middle East, there is little chance that Tal and Naim will meet face to face. And both suffer repercussions from their families and neighbors for daring to reach out to the enemy. Like many films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this one can’t help reducing the characters to talking points. But the young actors overcome the script’s didactic moments to make you feel deeply for the star-crossed youngsters, and feel deeply troubled about the politics and intransigence that will keep people who have so much in common from ever coming to terms.

Although the film is based on a young adult novel, there is nothing naive or fantastical about its premise. When I was in Israel last month, I learned about Hello Peace, a wildly popular service that allows Israelis and Palestinians to talk to one another over the phone. It began in October 2002 as a project of The Parents Circle, a group of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost relatives to terror and violence.

Robi Damelin, an Israeli member of the Parents Circle whose soldier son was killed by a Palestinian sniper, talked about it with JTA a few years back. “Obviously, not every conversation is gentle and loving. The only rule is that you listen,” she said. “Israeli leaders keep saying there is no one to talk to, and we wanted to show that’s not true.”

To date, Hello Peace has logged over one million conversations. Occasionally, they have led to face-to-face interactions, like the Israelis who delivered insulin to a diabetic in Gaza. More often, the conversations are casual and noncommittal. Callers on both sides say they are amazed finally to be speaking to someone who lives so close yet so far away.

Although everyone loves a Romeo and Juliet story, there is still something subversive about individuals reaching across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. You saw that in a heated exchange last week between Rabbis Sharon Brous and Daniel Gordis. In a message to members of her innovative IKAR community in Los Angeles, Brous defended Israel’s right and obligation to defend itself, but also urged her congregants not to gloat or to “diminish the loss on the other side of the border.” Israel’s obligation to protect itself “does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.”

Gordis, an American who moved to Israel in 1998, found Brous’s message far too even-handed. In a column for The Times of Israel titled “When Balance Becomes Betrayal,” he writes, “[W]hat’s deeply troubling about [her message] is that every single expression of sympathy for Israel is immediately coupled to a similar sentiment about the Palestinians.” Adds Gordis: “Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?”

While it is tempting to label this a clash between California and Jerusalem, it’s really a clash between Jewish values. Brous is writing in the tradition of the midrash in which God hears the angels singing songs of triumph after the drowning of the Israelites’ Egyptian pursuers. God chastises the angels, saying, “How can you sing when my creatures [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea?”

Gordis is writing from another Jewish tradition, encapsulated perhaps in the midrash on Ecclesiastes 3:8: “There is a time for loving and a time for hating.” Midrash Rabbah suggests “a time for hating” refers to “the time when a war is being fought.” In his own commentary on the passage, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes Winston Churchill: “I oppose the pacifists during the war, and the jingoists after the war.”

A first-rate Jewish community should be able to hold these two opposing ideas in its collective head without one side accusing the other of “betrayal.”

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