Barbed Wire Fails to Separate Hearts

Almost every war has one photographic image that emerges and that remains ingrained in the public’s mind — and the media — as the defining picture of that war.

Out of the Holocaust came the image of the little boy in a cap with his hands raised over his head. Out of Vietnam, it is the village child running naked, terror on her face. In Israel, the Six-Day War gave us the young paratroopers looking up at the Kotel after its liberation; and the Yom Kippur War’s image was Hillel Unsdorfer carrying the sefer Torah across the Suez Canal.

The war that Ariel Sharon has waged against the people of Gush Katif and the northern Shomron has also given us an image — the minyan of young men in Kfar Maimon praying, separated by barbed wire.

On the left side are demonstrators; on the right, soldiers. As I pointed out to one of the many friends who forwarded the photograph to me, there were more than 10 demonstrators but less than 10 soldiers, which means that the soldiers needed the demonstrators to have a minyan, not vice versa.

So there is a subtext here, and it is this: The demonstrators must have been asked by the soldiers to move their minyan far away from the center of the Kfar Maimon event, over to the barbed wire, in order to enable them to pray in a minyan. And the demonstrators, obviously, agreed. Because their horror at what the soldiers had been commanded to do was not as great as their desire to help another Jew do a mitzvah.

What is the difference between all these photographs?

The little boy in the Holocaust photo was holding up his arms at the command of German soldiers. The Vietnamese child was fleeing in terror from napalm. The paratroopers had captured the Kotel from the Jordanian army. Hillel, carrying the sefer Torah, was going into Egyptian captivity. All of these photographs express people reacting to a situation created by a foreign enemy.

But the barbed wire separating the young men at prayer was erected at the command of their own Prime Minister Sharon.

The State of Israel has survived 58 years of a fragile relationship between the religious and secular, the right and the left (and they are not necessarily parallel), a relationship that has been sometimes stronger, sometimes splintered, but never totally shattered. And there has always been one type of situation that pulled the country together, differences set aside, even if only momentarily.

These have been times of war.

There are stories from the Six-Day War about how haredim, who avoided the draft, volunteered at first-aid centers. During the Yom Kippur War, soldiers arrived at their units in tennis shoes, straight from the synagogue. At every military funeral there are people from every segment of Israeli society represented — friends or family of the fallen, united in grief.

My own memories include being in a supermarket during the first Gulf War in January 1991, when a siren went off. Everyone was sent down to the bomb shelter, our gas masks in tow.

It was a Thursday night, and people had been doing their Shabbat shopping. During the 20-minute wait, I looked around at the crowd. Down there in the bomb shelter there were no frictions. We just wanted to hear the all-clear sound and get home.

More than 30 years ago, I had a rude awakening to the human rifts in Israel. I had become involved in Gesher, an organization created by Danny Tropper, a new immigrant from New York. Gesher, bridge in Hebrew, tried to work on weaving together the burnt threads of Israeli society.

As a college student, I was stunned at the time by the level of ignorance of young secular Israelis to basic Jewish practices and values, and by the ignorance of young religious Israelis to the workings and values of the secular world.

But I was also enchanted by their openness, their willingness to reach out to each other, to try to heal the rifts. It is perhaps no coincidence that out of those early years came some of today’s intellectual and religious luminaries in Israeli life, people like Rabbi Moti Eilon and professor Benny Ish-Shalom. Because, in addition to discussions about religion, we talked about human rights, social goals and issues like justice and democracy.

Regretfully, in retrospect, no great politicians came out of those or other similar initiatives. This is where our “bridging” efforts failed. We were snobs; politics was something dirty in our eyes.

Hence, we live today in a society in which politicians feel no qualms about supporting a prime minister who was voted into office by an unprecedented percentage of Israeli citizens on the basis of one election platform, and who is today implementing, instead, the platform of his badly trounced opponent. But Sharon has performed a sin far greater than reneging on his pre-election promises.

One of the great unifying factors of Israeli society has always been the army. Contrary to a common media canard, there have always been haredim in the army, and more so now that there is a special Nahal Haredi division.

In fact, if there is one legislative error that has kept Israeli Arab citizens from being more fully integrated into society, it is that the Knesset has never passed a law obligating Arab citizens to do some form of national service, which could be volunteering in hospitals or youth programs, not just military service.

Every soldier and former soldier (and in Israel, due to reserve duty, one is older than 40 by the time he is really a “former soldier”) has memories of his army comrades who came from different spectrums of society than he.

My husband did army duty with men who today are high-level Israel TV employees, who used to catch and grill rabbits (which are treif), which their religious comrades didn’t partake of, though they joined them around the campfire singing old Israeli ballads. And he once spent reserve duty with Avigdor Lieberman, head of today’s National Union Party, who back then organized an entire Likud convention from his cellphone at an outpost in the Jordan Valley.

Some form of acknowledgment of Shabbat and the army — these are among the threads of the collective Israeli consciousness that have woven the delicate tapestry that has kept us warm, shielded us from a sometimes cruel world and preserved us as a viable people.

Even some on the political left who support the disengagement have begun to say — unfortunately, too little and too late — that they are appalled by the crushing of human rights that Sharon has adopted in order to carry out his decree. For even worse than the destruction of vibrant, productive communities, the expulsion and demonization of “salt-of-the-earth” citizens and the rewarding and empowering of terrorists is what Sharon has done to our fragile national fabric.

The photograph of the barbed wire separating young men at prayer is so symbolic, because Sharon has done what no war, no haredi Shabbat demonstration and no opening of treif butcher shops or paving of roads over ancient Jewish graves has succeeded in doing: He has erected a barbed-wire fence between the Jewish people.

The ultimate poetic justice, of course, is that Sharon, who, according to the well-researched expose book, “Boomerang,” may have been convinced by his Svengali-like adviser, Dov Weisglass, to put his personal and family welfare before that of the country, will not go down in history, after all, as a prime minister who advanced the cause of peace.

There is not a single military expert in Israel today who claims that the disengagement will bring a decline in terror. On the contrary, Sharon’s legacy in real — not European — history is assured, and it won’t be rosy.

There is, however, hope. Because even Sharon’s barbed wire did not break up the minyan.

Twenty years ago, an American TV film, “The Day After,” depicted the day after a nuclear attack. Several years ago, another horror flick, “The Day After Tomorrow,” depicted the consequences of giant glaciers destroying part of America and other countries. It is no coincidence that Israelis have adopted the expression, “the day after,” for what will follow disengagement. For, like a nuclear attack, like a melting glacier, like a tsunami, the disengagement will bring disaster in its wake.

That is a hard statement to read and even harder to write, but we are not the people who created Mary Poppins. We are the people who brought forth Jeremiah.

If there is a time to pray, it is now. And the prayer should not be only that we somehow miraculously be spared the ugly sword of terror. The prayer should also be that the barbed wire erected by Sharon should not separate our hearts.