Truth without condemnation

Dear coworkers,

When we awoke this morning in Ashdod we knew we were entering a challenging and consequential week: starting the move out of our Jerusalem house; preparing to relocate our community of Gaza families in Bethlehem; and finalizing a new financial agreement with Sheba Medical Center.

So we started the day with Paul’s word to the Roman believers, that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. That word for character we learned means “proof of genuineness,” something “tested and true.”

And our faithful intercessor Berith in Sweden sent this word: If you look back, your task has been beyond your own strength and capacity, hasn’t it? But it has never been beyond God’s capacity! Nothing has changed in that area. Stand your ground, let God be GOD, enjoy the ride, smile and give Him the glory!

After the morning meeting Zechariah and I rushed off to Sheba to meet with the finance people. We had a few points to clarify, but the real question was whether we’d have the courage to sign our first new agreement with them since September 2020. It would raise our base heart surgery cost by about 15%, in keeping with rising health care costs in Israel. It would also for the first time give Sheba discretion to charge us per day for long term hospitalizations. On the positive side, it would take the same huge discount we receive for heart surgeries and apply it for the first time to every service performed at Sheba, Israel’s largest hospital. We don’t see the future, but this could be a powerful tool if the Gaza-Israel relationship is to be rebuilt.

We signed the agreement.

There is still a long way to go to pay off all the heart surgeries done over the last two years. We’re taking that as our Father’s gentle discipline, and since Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem has been much less forthcoming with a new financial agreement, we are painfully finding the courage to leave our beautiful home near Hadassah this week. This step, together with new discounts agreed to by the owners of our two homes in Ashdod, will allow us to almost cut our housing costs in half as we go forward.

We’re also resolved in 2024 to find funding in advance of each child’s surgery, unless it is a life-and-death emergency, so that we do not add any new obligations until our old ones are met. Let this year, in which we’re no longer responsible for so many Gaza emergencies, be a year of jubilee.

In this light I again want to appeal to you for little Fatimah, who is due to come from Kurdistan within the next week:

fatimah and fatherIf you saw her your heart would break; she’s been neglected and waiting all her life. Few of us have the $8900 she still needs for her surgery. But as we learned at the start of our community 30 years ago this summer, she just needs one advocate. If any one of us gives what we have, prays, and shares her story with everyone we know, God can do far beyond what we can imagine.

This is also true of the war in Gaza, which reached its six-month mark tonight. The killing of seven World Central Kitchen workers this week has prompted a reassessment not only around the world, but also in Israel, as our friend Lazar reported:

lazar article

There are many aspects of Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza that have frustrated its closest allies. Ill-considered statements by ministers and other elected officials, a refusal to talk about the “day after” Hamas, and, especially, the civilian death toll have strained the unqualified support Israel enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 massacre by Hamas in southern Israel.

But it is the Netanyahu government’s approach to the complex and often desperate humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip that is truly endangering support for the continuation of the war, and is placing the “total victory” he promised in doubt…

…the seven aid workers who lost their lives in the IDF strike might have done more in their deaths to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza than they could have dreamed of doing in their daily work.

Particularly impressive were the early statements of the World Central Kitchen founder José Andrés, who somehow found the grace to speak the truth to Israel without condemnation:

“We know Israelis. Israelis, in their heart of hearts, know that food is not a weapon of war,” he wrote Wednesday in Yedioth Ahronoth. “Israel is better than the way this war is being waged. It is better than blocking food and medicine to civilians. It is better than killing aid workers who coordinated their movements with the IDF.

“The Israeli government needs to open land routes to food and medicine today. It needs to stop killing civilians and aid workers today. It needs to start the long journey to peace today,” he continued.

“In the worst conditions, after the worst terrorist attack in its history, it’s time for the best of Israel to show up. You cannot save the hostages by bombing every building in Gaza. You cannot win this war by starving an entire population,” said Andrés. “The people of Israel need to remember, at this darkest hour, what strength truly looks like.”

Also striking this week were the words of Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, a longtime spokesman for Gaza in the Israeli media, who told a longtime Israeli journalist friend that he also expected better from his Jewish neighbors:

sufyan

On the morning of October 7, when he saw dozens of rockets being fired from the Strip, he thought that Israel had assassinated a top figure in Hamas and that this was the response. But when he saw a military jeep go by his home, and understood that it was carrying a woman abducted from Israel, and saw how dozens of jubilant local residents surrounded – he grasped the intensity of the storm that was about to engulf all of the Gaza Strip. “I knew that Gaza was finished. Gaza was on the road to perdition.”

A compulsive consumer of the Israeli media, Abu Zaydeh is well acquainted with the outlook of the public and the leadership. “I told my wife that the Israelis were going to run over us with tanks and that they would destroy everything. ‘All these tall buildings that you see around you,’ I told her, ‘the Israelis will topple them. One after the other. They will level all of Gaza.'”

Which is indeed what happened. The buildings are gone. Abu Zaydeh’s house became the Israel Defense Forces’ headquarters in the Jabalya area…

I asked him whether he understood the jubilant shouts of many Palestinians when they saw the captives who were brought triumphantly into Gaza.

Not for a moment did he try to defend their reaction. “You can write it in capital letters,” he said. “From my point of view, it’s a disgrace.” He raised his voice so I would not miss his determination. “I, as a Palestinian, say to you in a loud voice: It is a disgrace. I am ashamed that they murdered and abducted people – children, women, old people. I am ashamed. That is not heroism. Absolutely not heroism…

“And I tell you this as a Palestinian who knows that there are now 32,000 killed and at least 10,000 buried under the rubble. Ten people were killed in my family alone. Nine had nothing to do with Hamas, including a cousin and a nephew. They went to look for food and a missile was fired at them.”

“I understand the Israeli response,” he says about the current, unprecedented round of violence. “I knew there would be a response. But I didn’t believe there would be a response of this cruelty. To kill Ahmed Andor you destroy a whole neighborhood? Have you gone mad?”

Andor was Hamas’ northern Gaza brigade commander, and the man in charge of developing the military wing’s rocket arsenal. On November 16, the IDF bombed the site where he was hiding along with other ranking personnel. IDF Spokesperson Daniel Hagari said afterward, “Two powerful attacks were carried out against two underground compounds.”

According to Abu Zaydeh, the IDF used tons of explosives in the attack, wiping out an entire neighborhood and killing about 250 Palestinians. It was later reported in Israel that three captives – Sgt. Ron Sherman, Cpl. Nick Beizer and civilian Elia Toledano – were killed in a nearby tunnel, apparently as a result of the attack.

“For one person whom you wanted to assassinate, you killed hundreds of people. Does that make sense to you?” Abu Zaydeh says accusingly. “Even if the goal was justified from your viewpoint, and you are fighting against Hamas, do you not have any limits? No red lines? Afterward you are amazed that the whole would comes out against you. Because from your perspective, there are no innocent people in Gaza. As you see it, compassion died and therefore you are shutting your eyes to what is happening in Gaza.”

What riles him no less is the attitude of the Israeli media toward the events in Gaza. As an example, he cites the rescue of two Israeli captives, Fernando Merman and Luis Har, from a refugee camp in Rafah on February 11, in the course of which more than 100 people were killed, according to Palestinian reports.

“You undertook a heroic action to liberate captives who never should have been abducted,” Abu Zaydeh says. “But you also killed 100 civilians, [including] women and children, in order to provide cover for the Israeli force. Is that an act of heroism by the Israelis? To liberate two captives and to kill 100 innocent people?” Abu Zaydeh pounds the table with his fist. “And that doesn’t even merit a mention of one second in the Israeli media?”

I checked his allegation. With the notable exception of Jack Khoury in Haaretz, there was hardly any mention of the circumstances surrounding that rescue in the Israeli media. “So then you say that these are Hamas numbers, and they’re lying,” Abu Zaydeh continues. “Well, no. They are not Hamas numbers. We see it with our eyes. Watch television. Forget Al Jazeera; every other television channel in the world showed the images from Rafah – except for you. And then you say that the Israeli army is the most moral in the world. They are so trigger-happy, Shlomi. It’s wrong. You must not lose compassion.”

In fact, contrary to what is going on today in Gaza, Israel was careful for many years to avoid mass attacks on civilians. If civilians were hurt, Israel was quick to explain, express remorse and learn from the event. The Israeli media took a critical stance and asked questions. The best example is the response to the decision to assassinate Salah Shehadeh, the head of Hamas’ military wing, at the height of the second intifada, in July 2002. The missile that struck his home also killed another 14 civilians. The event caused a public furor in Israel, and 27 Israel Air Force pilots famously sent a letter to protest the action.

In the end we come to the perpetual dilemma of the Jewish people: they are always held to a higher standard than anyone else. Sometimes this is cynical anti-Semitism. Other times it may be a genuine acknowledgment that they are the people chosen by God to be a light to the nations. In either case it is a burden that most Israelis just don’t have the resources to carry. Two weeks ago a blogger cited the late UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Saints apart, we cannot love our enemies, and if we try to, we will eventually pay a high psychological price…”

The same note was sounded this week in the Times of Israel in the thoughtful essay “The cost of ignoring Gazan suffering“:

Upholding a moral principle that Gaza’s civilians should be spared or protected by Israel in the current circumstances may require a degree of sainthood that few Israelis would actually aspire to reaching.

Friends, I’m all for believing the best about Israel. We know from the word of God that their calling is glorious. But they, like we, have not yet fully attained all that God has promised. Indeed, one must be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven.

One of the worst things Messiah followers can do is to expect non-followers to act like followers. How can they? Or as Israelis are often saying when their nation is criticized during this war: “What else can we do?”

Let’s remember that in all our relationships on this earth, we are here not to condemn but to give hope, and point to the one who alone has the power to give us new hearts, and reconcile us to God and to each other.

Jonathan for Shevet Achim

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133).