Naso: Your Next Vacation: Sderot

When I tell well-meaning acquaintances that I am about to return to Israel – yet again -- they usually remark, “Have a good time!” “I hope you enjoy yourself!” and/or “You must really like it there!”  Upon my return, they similarly ask me whether I did have a good time/fun.  

I appreciate the good wishes, and I always do have a good time and enjoy myself here.  I certainly do “like” it, although I would not use that word to describe my feelings.  But the questions, kind as they are, infer that I go to “have a good time.”   

Were that the case, I could save a lot of money, hassle, and sacrifice by having a “good time” closer to my California home, or in diverse other places that I enjoy or to which I haven’t yet been. California, so large and diverse, is replete with wonderful vacation spots, Hawaii always beckons, and “there’s a whole world out there” that I haven’t seen.  And, I have a much "better time" when I am with my family than when I am alone thousands of miles away from them! 

So, enjoyment is clearly not the reason I keep coming back to Israel.  In fact, enjoyment is way down the list of my reasons ... at least, enjoyment in the usual sense. 

I was reminded of this earlier this week during my first visits to towns and settlements on the “Front Line” of the border with Gaza, including Nitzan and Sderot.  Sderot is notorious as the Israeli city closest to Gaza.  Its proximity, and Palestinian hatred for Israel, has made it the target of thousands of rockets over the past two decades.  

During my visit, I was reminded that we Jews have an ancient presence in Gaza. The modern Israeli chapter of that history began when the Egyptian army headed north through Gaza when the State of Israel was declared.  The fledgling state feared that the Egyptians would be able to march straight through to Tel Aviv, hardly impeded.  Instead, they were delayed for five days by severely undermanned settlements.  This permitted Israel to organize its defenses and stop the Egyptian advance.  But after the armistice, the Israel government realized that it needed increased Jewish settlement in Gaza to serve as a potential buffer in case Egypt attacked again.  In what was known as the “Five-Finger Plan,” five (actually, six) settlements were created, collectively referred to as “Gush Katif” (“Harvest block”).

According to “old-timers” whom I met during this visit, the Jewish Gaza communities of Gush Katif thrived; in fact, this was something of an agricultural miracle, given that the settlements literally “grew” (food) on sand dunes.  (Skeptical but tolerant Arabs said "Hair will grow on your palms before food grows on the sand.")  Relations with the Arab population were good, with much social as well as economic interchange, not only within Gaza but cross-border.  (I have heard much the same from “old-timers” in Maale Adumim on the West Bank and in the North, where, they say, Jews would shop in Arab markets and Arabs would work in Jewish communities, plus social interaction with “neighbors.”).  All this changed in the late 1980s, as events deteriorated to the first Intifada.

In 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Arik Sharon shocked almost everyone by announcing that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from Gaza.  The reasons for this decision remain deeply controversial and the his full motivations will likely never be known, given his stroke shortly thereafter and subsequent death.  The deep wounds in Israeli society remain from the wrenching “disengagement” that occurred in 2005, especially with some (including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak just this week) urging unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank.  Click here to view a 90-minute documentary of the day Israel "disengaged" from Gaza  

Shortly thereafter, the people of Gaza razed Gush Katif, including its green and modern communities, extremely productive greenhouses and other agricultural facilities, and beautiful synagogues.  They then elected Hamas. The “Front Line” communities, especially Sderot, have taken the brunt of the result.

Apart from the history lesson/refresher, the main thing I discovered during my brief visit was how inspiring, special, and resolute are the residents of these communities.  Visitors naturally ask them “Why Do You Stay?”  

I heard three people independently give essentially the same answers.   

First, they love the community.  Their main worry is for their children, not themselves, but despite the trauma, they feel that their children greatly benefit from being in such a supportive and close-knit environment.  During wars, they send their children away, but even the adults who choose to leave almost all return.  

Second, they don’t want to give in to terror.  Not that terror in the “settlements” is justified, but, they point out, these aren’t even the territories. This is internationally recognized Israel, and no one should be able to force them out.  

Third, they argue, no place in Israel is truly safe. Terrorist attacks have occurred all over Israel, and if Hezbollah joins the next war, who can say that the North will be safer?  (Indeed, during the Lebanon wars, Israelis in the North were evacuated to the South, the opposite of the recent Gaza war). 

I was deeply impressed with the people I met from the “Front-Line” communities .. and, of course, I felt a strong kinship with them.  They and I are part of the same people, Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.

This, I was reminded, is the reason that I return again and again to Israel.  To be among and with my people, and to support our struggle to survive and prosper in the only Jewish state, whatever the risks.

To be with one’s people … to help them and be helped by them … to share good times and bad times… to be and feel at home … that is the essence of having a “good time.”

The Jewish people is to be a “Kingdom of Priests,” and the “Priestly Benediction” comes from this week’s Torah portion, Naso [Numbers 6:22-27]:  “May the Lord Bless [Us] and Guard [Us].  May the Lord’s Countenance Shine Upon [Us] and be Gracious Onto [US].  May the Lord lift up His Face Toward [Us] and Grant [Us] Peace.”  

Here in our land and everywhere.  

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.

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  • Naso: Your Next Vacation: Sderot

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb