TEL AVIV — If all you see about Israel is scary headlines, you’re missing the point. What’s really going on, participants saw on a Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA solidarity mission that brought 15 Canadians to southern Israel on July 22 and 23, is not about weakness, it’s about resilience – and hope.
Merely reading the headlines “instils a lot of fear,” said former Montreal Federation CJA president Harvey Wolfe. “Whenever there’s a crisis, I’ve made it my business to come.”
As new tunnels were discovered hourly and reserve soldiers were called up around the country, Operation Protective Edge hurtled toward full-scale war. But between rhythmic booms and screaming sirens, the area pulsed with life, growth and hope.
“For those who haven’t experienced visiting during a crisis,” Wolfe said, “they think it’s crazy. But I’ve always felt safe and secure, every time I’ve come.”
Participants came from across Canada, including Winnipeg, Toronto and Calgary.
The group stopped first in Sderot, a city under siege. It is also, astonishingly, a city on the rebound, home to nearly 24,000, one-quarter of them children and teens.
Canadian mayors may not have a war room, but it’s a necessity less than a kilometre from Gaza. Based on an official government list, all Israelis know how long they have to get to a shelter: 15, 30, 60 or more seconds. Under Sderot, the list says “immediately.”
In a concrete bunker two stories beneath a cheerful green lawn, Mayor Alon Davidi and Eddy Azran, who has co-ordinated Sderot’s partnership with UJA Toronto since 2007, told the group what that connection has meant for the people of Sderot. Davidi praised individual Canadians, including Kurt Rothschild, who made aliyah in 2011 at age 91 and met with the Canadian group in Sderot.
Davidi had kept schools, daycares and even the city’s market open throughout Protective Edge.
“People ask me, ‘Are you crazy people?’
“I tell them, ‘We are Israeli.’”
“Sderot is a symbol,” Davidi said. “This says to our children, ‘If Hamas wants you to hide… we say no.’”
Despite a need for shelters, he said, “if someone has one million dollars, I’d say, ‘Build a playground.’ That’s a good answer to Hamas… Put your dollars on the future of Sderot.”
That future was evident in the construction cranes visible from the roof of the city’s large hesder (army service) yeshiva, with its rocket-proof beit midrash. Rosh yeshiva Dovid E. Fendel pointed out a menorah crafted from used rockets.
“They sent us tools of destruction,” he said. “We turned it into a source of light, learning and inspiration. They believe in killing, we believe in learning.”
From the same rooftop, clouds of black smoke were visible over Gaza. “They thought they’d turn this place into a ghost town,” Fendel said. “We will turn it into a capital of Zionism.”
The yeshiva was serving as a way station for young soldiers going into Gaza. Two nights earlier, Lt.-Col. Dolev Kedar, 38, had stood there encouraging them, soldiers told the group. The next day, he was killed.
After visiting a nearby moshav to meet Yossi Tanuri, director general of United Israel Appeal, and Sigal Moran, mayor of the Bnei Shimon regional council, the group turned southeast toward Be’er Sheva, Montreal’s sister city.
They handed out toys and stickers to a room full of excited children in a day camp run for essential workers. All other camps were closed.
In another war room deep underground, Mayor Ruvik Danilovich told the group, “You deserve credit for standing with the citizens of Israel against the missiles.” Underscoring his words, a siren sounded. Two missiles had been fired at Be’er Sheva, one intercepted by Iron Dome, the other landing in an open area.
Be’er Sheva was assumed to be out of rocket range until 2008 and Operation Cast Lead. But Danilovich has worked tirelessly since then to bring in students, high-tech jobs and thousands of new residents.
Heading north at last, the mission paid its final visit – to the shivah of Nissim Sean Carmeli, the lone soldier whose midnight funeral was attended by 20,000 Israelis. Subdued, the Canadians filed past Carmeli’s parents, looked into their eyes, offered the traditional words of comfort.
Carmeli could have been excused due to an injury; he went anyway. Every soldier and leader the group met had echoed his determination to root out the threat. Not just for the south, but for the entire country.
Outside of Israel, we see scenes of destruction. We miss what Danilovich called the “battle for the existence of the Jewish People.” That battle cannot be won with shelters alone, but with hospitals, community centres, playgrounds and yeshivas.
Tunnels are the perfect symbol for Israel’s enemies, he said. “Those who love hate will always stay below ground.” But those who love life will defy hatred, living life outdoors, in the light of day. “There is no doubt that we will win.”