Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review July 2, 2001 / 11 Tamuz, 5761

On finger pointing

By Sarah Shapiro -- ONE spring morning in Jerusalem, a few weeks after the end of the Gulf War, I found myself in line at the local supermarket behind the mother of Esther, one of my neighbors. Passover was fast approaching, but neither of us seemed much undone by all the house-cleaning. We were much too full of joy for that.

With gusto, we'd dismantled our sealed rooms and tossed our ghoulish gas masks onto the highest shelves. Ever since Saddam Hussein had threatened Israel with chemical warfare seven months before, the prospect of some horrible, unthinkable death had been looming overhead. Now we were free. And Hussein's sudden surrender, on Purim Day, had instilled into the event an implausible dimension of the miraculous.

The rescue was as inexplicable as the strange Gulf War itself had been, and we were not only grateful, but proud. For we had stayed. We'd weathered the storm, and our ample reward for not fleeing had been to witness with our own eyes the bizarre unfolding of events.

But amidst all this rejoicing, there was something I, and many other American immigrants, were not thinking about anymore, in the wake of our liberation.

It was our own secret and solitary inner wars, about the children, that we were already forgetting. To stay or to go? It had been a daily torment. To leave is to lose faith, but to stay is to expose the children to....We didn't know what. To leave is to reveal ourselves as cowards, to give the children a role model of cowardice. Are we risking their lives for the sake of our pride? But to leave would teach them to run. They'll always remember our lack of faith. To leave is responsible. To leave is irresponsible. To stay is responsible. To stay is irresponsible.

Casting its vast shadow over all this was the Holocaust. It was never far from our thoughts. Maybe that's what we're doing, too -- not getting out while it's still possible. But then again, nobody ever called Europe the Promised Land. G-d never said, Lech lecha, get thyself, to Poland.

Now, on the checkout line, I stepped onto this minefield. Where's Esther? I haven't seen her around.

The woman's face underwent some faint change. Esther's in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

Oh, that's nice.

No, it's not. She's ashamed to show her face in Jerusalem. She left right before the war. She'd heard that as far as gas was concerned, it wasn't ideal they were on the ground floor, but they bought bottled water, the canned goods. Their gas masks were all set. Then she actually started getting ill, from the fear of something happening to the children.

* * *

Nowadays, a decade later, Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the United Hebrew Congregations, has been criticized for canceling his organization's summer youth groups to Israel during the present intifada. As the leader of a major American organization, it is said he should have demonstrated courage in the face of Arab terrorism. He replies that he can't take responsibility for sending other people's children into danger.

Although his own previous public criticisms, both of the Orthodox and of the Israeli government, have painfully increased our people's disunity though the years and have, more recently, caused immeasurable harm to this country during its present crisis, it seems to me unfair to fault him on this occasion. Rabbi Yoffie may be Reform; Esther (I just ran into her yesterday, at the supermarket) may be Orthodox. But both are parents, responsible Jewish parents, and therefore subject to the self-doubts, fears and harrowing decision-making which any responsible parent knows only too well. Making decisions for other people's children, I imagine, must provide him with a unique brand of agony.

Ascertaining statistical risk is an ambiguous business. Is the current intifada such that children are in more danger here than they are from earthquakes in Los Angeles, freeways in Long Island, or Ecstasy dealers in the suburbs? We who see the daily situation firsthand obviously think not. Otherwise, the Torah commandment to guard our lives would have obligated us to leave long ago. Danger is intrinsic to human life on the planet. If we design our existence around the futile effort to evade it, we expose our children to the greatest danger of all: a life devoid of trust in G-d.

I'm forever thankful we stayed here during the Gulf War. That act of faith did strengthen us in unforeseen ways. Most of our children -- one of them's a mother now herself -- are adults making their own decisions. Their roots are here, and I'm glad beyond words, and there's nowhere else I want to be, or want them to be. But back in 1990, if my husband had just given the nod, I would have forgotten my pride, and my faith, and anything else that seemed to threaten their safety. I would have scooped up the kids -- as my parents were begging us to do -- and gotten out on the first available flight.

Who can judge others when it comes to the lives of children? A worried parent -- even an unduly worried parent -- might well expect his brethren to empathize, not criticize.

JWR contributor Sarah Shapiro is a Jerusalem-based writer. Click here to comment on this column.


© 2001 and distributed by, Am Echad Resources