God heal her

Dear coworkers,

The saga of Kurdish baby Eva is in its climactic stage this week. You may remember that in January she was between life and death in the ICU in Iraq, then unexpectedly came off the ventilator long enough for Beth and I to rush her to Israel.

As her mother joined in our community life over the last four months, she eventually spilled the stunning story of just how Eva came off the ventilator in Iraq. The night before her mother had one of these classic dreams in the Muslim world, in which a figure in white appears. The man waved his upraised hands in Middle Eastern fashion and said Halas (“It is finished”).

Eva’s mother took that to mean her baby was going to die. When the doctors came in the morning she insisted that they take Eva off the ventilator. They objected but finally agreed to try briefly to see if Eva could breathe on her own. And to everyone’s shock Eva’s oxygen levels went up and stayed up. The dream didn’t mean she would die; it meant she could fly to Israel for her life-saving surgery.

Eva came through her first simple surgery in February, and four days ago finally went in for the major Glenn surgery to reroute her circulatory system.

eva hugged by motherTiny bodies often have a hard time adapting after this surgery, and Eva is struggling tonight with low oxygen levels and is again stuck on the ventilator. Her doctors in Israel are fighting with every tool they have, and after identifying a narrow blood vessel as the possible cause they will try to expand it via balloon catheterization in the morning.

eva intubatedWe pray with Eva and her mother the familiar words that are the essence of a believer’s faith:

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by thy help I’ve come
And I hope by thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

Eva’s family is among the 40 million Kurds who are almost entirely Muslim, but they don’t really fit in well in the Middle East. None of the nations they live in (Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey) are willing to give them sovereignty, and they’re viewed with suspicion as a “second Israel.” And indeed most Kurds do identify with Israel, as the Jewish state has the same enemies that they do.

This week a Kurdish delegation made their way to a remote death camp on the Saudi-Iraqi border to mourn those killed there in the Anfal “Arabization” campaign of the Saddam Hussein era, and they made clear their belief that the Kurdish genocide still isn’t over:

Kurdish mourning
A group of Anfal survivors from across the Kurdistan Region returned to the site in their desperation to preserve the living evidence of Anfal, a genocidal campaign when the Iraqi regime killed an estimated 182,000 Kurds people in 1988. The survivors had returned to their desert prison to collect the bodies of their loved ones who had been killed and bring them home…

Faruq Rafiq…said the Kurds have much to learn from the experience of the Holocaust and the lessons learned by the Jewish community about preserving the memories…

“They committed Anfal against us because we are Kurdish. So long as we insist that we are Kurds and are different, there is always a possibility for another Anfal. This is more so because the mindset in Baghdad has not changed,” Rafiq said.

He believes that the Kurdish understanding of what happened four decades ago is wrong. “We are living in Anfal, a slow Anfal. We have lost our awareness. We do not feel like we are experiencing Anfal. We have been deceived, to come to the impression that we have put [the atrocity] behind us.”

“The force that committed Anfal is now back in full force and they want to repeat it…We should forget the fantasy that Anfal was at the hands of the Baathists. It was committed by the majority and the majority have not reviewed their views on Kurds.”

Muhsin Adib, the head of Sulaimani’s culture department, agrees that Anfal is not a thing of the past.

“We always thought that Anfal belonged to 1988,” he said. “But it continued, coming back in Shingal, in Afrin and in Kobane.”

In Shingal [the hometown of Eva’s family], the Islamic State (ISIS) committed genocide against the Yezidis. The Turkish military invaded the Kurdish city of Afrin in 2018 and forced the majority of the Kurdish population out of their historical homeland. Kobane came under an ISIS onslaught at the start of the group’s rise in 2014.

“If they had the chance, they would have killed every one of us,” Adib said about Anfal. He said the objective of the genocidal campaign was to exterminate the Kurds…

The Nugar Salman compound is dark. There is no electricity. It has been abandoned in many ways. Some of the survivors lit oil lamps and formed a circle of mourning. In the middle was a man dressed in white. He performed a sketch about a victim.

“Please take me home, please,” the man shouted as the survivors cried.

“They have named me Anfal, Anfal, Anfal, an Arabic name,” the performer continued, his voice catching on the word.

Anfal is the Arabic word for the spoils of war, and is taken from the holy book of Islam.

“Take us back to Kurdistan, to our land, the land of our ancestors,” the performer said, echoing the calls of the survivors gathered at Nugar Salman.

Friends, can we see why the Kurds, like the persecuted Berber minority in north Africa, may be uniquely fitted by their history to receive the good news of the brotherhood of all men?

The Hamas authorities made the mistake last month of letting a Kurdish doctor into Gaza with a volunteer medical team, and after coming out this week he spilled the beans in an interview with Kurdish media:

Dr Baram
When the team passed into northern Gaza, he said, it reminded him of scenes from devastated Kurdish cities during the Anfal campaign, when Iraq was suppressing the Kurds. He compared northern Gaza to Halabja, a city that suffered grievously under Saddam Hussein, and also to the Saidsadiq area, where thousands were killed in 1988 by Iraqi forces.

Baram described his work in two hospitals, Al-Awda in Jabalya and Kamal Adwan in northern Gaza. There were IAF airstrikes near where he stayed, and one of them was so close, it blew away his blanket, he said.

Hamas continues to exploit hospitals, Baram said in the interview. It is a political and military organization that “needs to exploit all these places for survival, and that’s unfortunate, but I saw that hospitals had been used for hiding Hamas leaders,” he said.

Baram said he had spoken to a founder of Hamas in one of the hospitals and sat with him for coffee. The Gazans must accept that Hamas uses their hospitals as bases, because they cannot ask it to leave, he said, adding that this is the reality…

Baram also described how he felt Hamas did not have a strong base of support in Gaza. Support for Hamas was possibly as low as 10% of the population, he said, adding that Hamas rules the area with an “iron fist.”

“They have eyes everywhere,” he said. “Every bakery, coffee shop, [and] sunflower seller is associated with them.” In this way, Hamas continues its rule, he added.

Baram said it was possible that in some stores, the associates of Hamas have weapons. This stems from Hamas’s long control of Gaza and the many wars it has fought, he said. “They eliminated public opposition,” he added.

Nevertheless, Baram estimated that 90% of the Gazans were not on the side of Hamas but are afraid to be suspected of being against it.

Friends, could it even be that the Gazans, like the longsuffering Iranians before them, will prove ready for the freedom of the spirit of God after living under such an oppressive theocracy?

The fates of the Kurds and of the Gazans, like the fates of all peoples, are tied to the people of Israel. They are the priesthood chosen to bring salvation (Yeshua) to the nations. They brought him to us. And their story isn’t over yet.

This is why it is critical that the hearts of the people of Israel remain open to their non-Jewish neighbors. This morning our Ashdod community read how Paul shared his conversion story in Hebrew with the Jewish masses of first-century Jerusalem. The crowd listened quietly until Paul said that the Lord sent him to the Gentiles: Then they lifted up their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He is not fit to live!”

It reminded me so much of the present wartime turmoil in Jerusalem. Zealots distorting the Hebrew scriptures to somehow come up with the message that only Jewish lives are of the highest value. Don’t you know the very reason you were chosen is to bring light to the nations, and be a blessing to all the families of the earth?

There’s an essay this week in the Jewish publication Tablet that once again lays bare the heart of the issue: what we think about Jesus will determine what we think about the value of civilian life during the present war. It’s titled “Live by the Law or Die on the Cross.”

Christianity no longer gets top billing in the Western marketplace of ideas, but its legacy is everywhere you look, no matter how secular the setting. In the formation of a religious community that embraced all of humanity as equivalent, and all souls/persons/moral agents within its ultimate dominion, the Christian project rejected the hereditary priesthood and national chosenness of the Jews. Thomas Jefferson’s deistic “all men are created equal” (by God) filtered through the centuries to a point where the preference for Jews shown by the Law of Return sounds plainly illegal to an American ear.

Nor is chosenness the only point of divergence. Speaking in terms of religious archetypes, a Jew and a Christian can come to vastly different conclusions about what the right thing to do is in a given situation, particularly where something as ugly as war is involved. What would Jesus do if a Hamas fighter held a Gazan Arab child up as a shield while firing? Hard to say for sure, but anyone who argues that a properly humane response is to die rather than to try to shoot around the child has ample basis in Christianity. The image of the Crucifixion may mean many things, but part of what it means is that accepting corporeal defeat in this world can be a path to God-like virtue and spiritual victory in the world of tomorrow. You will not hear Jesus mentioned when Western leaders speak on how important it is that Israel adhere to international laws of war, but the concept of the innocent civilian enshrined in these laws grew practically out of wars fought within Christendom during the last several hundred years.

More importantly, the very idea of the innocent civilian makes sense in an explicitly Christian context: “Render unto Caesar” plus the idea of a universal community of faith that transcends nationality means the conscience of the individual is paramount, and a person cannot so easily be classed as a targetable enemy “just because” of his membership in some nation waging war.

The contrast with the Jewish perspective here is sharp.

One particular Talmudic-era commentary comes to mind. Everyone knows that Pharaoh and his army were on horses as they chased Moses and the Israelites seaward. But it took the genius of Shimon ben Yochai, the sage, to ask where the horses came from. A plague of hail had killed off all the livestock in Egypt, other than that which belonged to upright individuals who held the Lord in awe. What this means, then, is that Pharaoh got his horses from the upright individuals. Ben Yochai concludes: [In times of war], it is correct to kill even the righteous among your enemy (Mekhilta 14:7).

This is a wince-inducingly Judaic—and very unchristian—position…

The Jews do not venerate the image of a more-divine-than-usual human who achieved an abstract victory for all of humanity by dying horribly. And because we do not, we cannot accept the Western exhortation to be suicidally gentle with our enemies in order to receive a Christian burial on their “moral high ground…”

…the Torah is obstinately balanced when it comes to simple principles. It insists on justice, but makes room for mercy. It cherishes human life, but acknowledges deadly violence can be correct. It sees all people as created in the image of God, but it commands the nation of Israel to play a unique priestly role, through example rather than through world-dominating force, in leading the world to greater knowledge and service of God.

Put into practice in 2024, this means that Israel must stop pretending it is a nation like any other, begging to be judged fairly by whatever standards the current hegemon has decreed we all agree upon. We need to look for standards from within our tradition to set a moral example for the whole world, while making it more practically possible to defend our homeland.

Instead of bragging about the extra danger our soldiers experience for the sake of sparing enemy noncombatants, we should reject the premise that we Jews bear any responsibility for protecting the human shields employed by our enemy.

Instead of threatening Jews with arrest for praying on the Temple Mount, we should take a hint from the “Al-Aqsa” moniker our attackers gave to their day of savage invasion and let kohanim up there on the hill to slaughter lambs for Passover.

And above all—given that land is nearly all that matters to this death-worshipping foe—instead of repeatedly withdrawing troops from areas we have just taken over so we can deny having unchristian territorial ambitions, we should conquer, annex, and resettle parts of Gaza so that Jews and friendly gentiles both can live there safely.

If our own, unsurpassably subtle ethical tradition guides us to these policies, then it is only our lingering ideological subjugation to the Western tradition that makes them seem scandalous. Like the Jew among nations, Israel constantly struggles with its half-successful attempt to blend in with the crowd and pretend to be a member like any other, and it is time to put an end to this paralyzing charade. We did not stick to our Law through 3,000 years of human civilization to continue national life as the perpetual defendant. It is our job to know that Law, to teach what we know—and, most of all, to live by it.

Yes, a lot of baggage has accumulated over the last two millenia. The church itself through its unbiblical traditions is largely responsible for the writer’s assumption that the life and message of Jesus are non-Jewish, and that Christians deny the national chosenness of the Jews. He correctly identifies Israel’s unique priestly role in leading the world to God; but seems to view the highest goal as the salvation of the Jewish people, rather than the salvation of the world. Thus the lives of our neighbors are indeed of intrinsically lesser value.

I’m reminded of the uncomfortable feeling I get on Shabbat when we Christian friends of Israel may spend hours on the Torah reading, and just a few minutes on the prophets and the New Testament (if at all). How much we need the Messiah, about whom the Torah and the prophets testify, to help us rightly interpret the Hebrew bible.

And rather than argue endlessly about what is right or wrong about the current war, let’s cut to the chase. The real issue is Messiah. If we get him right everything else will fall into place.

So let’s pray for both the church and for Israel. Neither is wholly correct or pure. We’re both going through a time of reckoning that cuts right through communities and individual hearts.

I’d like to end tonight with a beautiful song that was in the news this week in Israel, a duet between an Israeli soldier and a Lebanese Christian woman named Carine Bassili.

Bassili said “she didn’t really care about Israel” while growing up in Lebanon.

Her interest only emerged many years later, when she chanced upon the teachings of US Rabbi Jason Sobel in 2017. The rabbi’s lectures prompted her to a more attentive reading of the Old Testament, and to discover “God’s heart for Israel and the Jewish people.”

“The veil was removed,” Bassili recalled. She has been a staunch supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state ever since, a passion she has expressed through her music.

In 2020, she began connecting with Israelis online – an act that would constitute a crime in her native Lebanon. “Even singing to the God of Israel is not allowed in churches in Lebanon,” she noted.

Among those she became acquainted with was Yair Levi, a Jewish Orthodox Israeli singer and an IDF captain. The two became friends, and in January 2021, they recorded an Arabic version of “Refa Na,” a Hebrew chant of healing from the biblical Book of Numbers [the prayer of Moses for Miriam’s healing]. The song was shared by the Israeli government’s official Arabic-language X account as an example of “musical cooperation” between the two countries.

The biblical chant held particular significance for Bassili.

“I felt it’s beautiful to sing for a healing between Lebanon and Israel, because you cannot have peace before having healing and reconciliation. We need to go deeper than just say we want to have peace and political [settlement]. We need an inner healing in our hearts, we as Lebanese towards Israel, too.”

Refa Na
God heal her
Give her strength and heal her
Fill her with your spirit and strengthen her
God heal her and strengthen her
Pour out your fire and purify her
God heal her and strengthen her

I sent this song to Eva’s mother tonight, as she awaits her daughter’s high-risk catheterization in the morning. Let it be our prayer for Eva, and for ourselves; for Israel, and for her neighbors.

Jonathan for Shevet Achim

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