How can we avoid losing hope in the Middle East?

By Hollie Russon Gilman

You and your family are vacationing. You are sunbathing, eating, drinking—a typical vacation. Then, suddenly, something very odd occurs: an explosion. Thirty people are left dead and 100 wounded. Your vacation at the Taba Hilton in Egypt is suddenly cut short. The night is Thursday, October 7. Incidentally, this year October 7 is also the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, which literally means “rejoicing in the Torah.”

I spent my Simchat Torah at the gracious Chabad House here in Chicago, dancing, eating, drinking, and rejoicing. We sang Jewish songs, told Jewish jokes, and celebrated our faith, the Torah, and our ancestors. Halfway across the world people were not so fortunate. The juxtaposition of these two images haunts me. I sit reading my St. Benedict and the Times and my heart sinks. Life is not fair. This world is a mess. I am so fortunate to be here, and yet why are others being killed while relaxing at a resort? October 8, The New York Times quote of the day reads: “What is sad is the fact that over recent months we have received incessant warnings concerning a possible attack in Sinai, and these warnings grew more and more clear but the public refused to listen.” The speaker was Yuval Steinitz, an Israeli legislator.Suddenly we live in a world where the saddest part of the day is not taking the threat of terrorism seriously. Suddenly the threat of terrorism is such an ingrained part of our existence that grave threats no longer tear at the soul.

These past few weeks included the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. In my synagogue we gave thanks for how blessed we are, how good Jewish people have it in America. These are the prosperous times. Thirty decades of violence abroad against Israelis and these are the prosperous times. Fear to vacation. Fear to ride a bus. Fear to live. But these are the prosperous times.

Throughout the history of humanity, there is one idea that seems most oppressive—the lack of hope. Subjugate people, suppress them, but never take away their notion of hope. Without hope alive in the human psyche, hardly anything can flourish. Israel is the physical embodiment of hope for a people who have been perpetually mistreated, banished, and conquered. They rose and created a democracy in the Middle East. And yet, in the process something has been lost. Sometime during the 56 years of the formation of the nation state of Israel, we have lost our objectives. Our objectives are not hunting down leaders of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Israel is not about taking hope away from other people; it is about spreading hope. And somewhere along the way, enraged by merciless bombings and assaults, we lost our most important asset.

On July 18, 2004, New York Times writer Roger Cohen observed in reference to Israel’s security fence, “…life is an accumulation, war a dissection. It is clear in Jerusalem today that the logic of war has won.” Regardless of one’s opinion of the security fence being erected along the West Bank—land grab or safety precaution—it is the physical embodiment of the death of hope. Kennedy in his great rhetoric once said, “freedom has many difficulties, democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put up a wall to keep our people in.” Yes, this wall was in Berlin and though slightly out of context, the imagery is inescapable. Imagine a wall dividing America from Mexico. Imagine having to pass through an armed militia on your way to work.

During the Republican National Convention I took a train out of Penn Station in New York City and was surrounded by police officers. At first I did not notice anything was different from usual, and then I realized the profound consequences of my proverbial normality. My mind has now justified hundreds of police officers on a daily commute. I no longer immediately cringe when the headlines read “an explosion in Iraq.” Our senses have been numbed by cruelty and its perpetrators. Those who do not believe that instability in the Middle East affects the entire world are missing the truth. As my history teacher used to say, “you are a horse with blinders on.” People do not need to vacation, or ride buses, or take planes. However, people need to believe they can do these things, and more, if they desire. People need to have hope in a future which is better than today. If people lose the hope of a tomorrow then our future is dim. Remember, these are the prosperous times.