The view from my veranda

Shabbat, Christmas and bicycles

22nd December, 2023

Shabbat shalom and a very Merry Christmas to you all!  Merry Christmas, Bon Noel, Hyvaa joula! Feliz Navidad! Nadolig Llawen, and of course a hopeful and much kinder New Year.

I woke up this morning to find that one of the requests from the refugees from the South of Israel is bicycles; children’s bicycles. Why on earth would people who have lost everything, who currently have no homes to go back to, who lost family members, why bicycles? Because it is the thing that their children most miss, the ability to just get on a bike with friends and feel free, not just to be enclosed in a hotel room with five other people. The feeling of freedom is more than being able to go where you want, for children who grew up on farms, kibbutzim and villages, it is getting on a bike and feeling the wind in your face.

Negotiations are continuing to release the remaining hostages. We understand that it means releasing security prisoners “with blood on their hands”. The Israeli security prisons have, for many years now, become the cerebral intelligence network of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah. Marwan Barghouti, who led the 1st and 2nd Intifadas, has long been known as the brains behind the planning of further attacks by Fatah and a “community” leader within jail. Israel refused insistent demands to release him for Gilad Shalit but Yahyeh Sinwar was released and instead of an Intifada, this vile excuse for a human being masterminded October 7th. This is a security Catch 22 whatever way one looks at it. Since prisoners in Israel, even mass murderers, are given every right demanded by international law. They meet to pray, they meet to eat, they meet during open-door time and they are allowed cell-phones, to say nothing of conjugal visits. These rights give them ample time to plan attacks. Why the preamble to my next statement? Because the world needs to know. To release prisoners whose crimes were so great that they received sentences, like Barghouti, of 127 years, for murderous attacks killing may Israelis, may sound insane, but that is the demand of Hamas to save our hostages, those who are still alive, and the picture on everyone’s mind is that of the Bibas family, a young mother grasping her two little red-headed babies to her breast, her face contorted in fear.

Last week I wrote to you about the Director of a Gaza hospital admitting that his hospital was a centre for Hamas. Well, here you see him spilling the beans, freely and openly to the Israeli Secret Service.

Mothers of hostages were invited by Donna Karan to speak at an event in New York. Outside the event anti-Israel protesters banged on doors to interrupt the speakers and in the end these women, mothers whose children were kidnapped, raped, held in dire conditions, could only leave the event under police protection. What is the world coming to? This is New York City!! Manhattan! The most sophisticated, cultured city in the world? I think not.

Hillary Clinton, who had a huge wake up call after October 7th, said that the parents, families of hostages should ask Hamas for a Christmas release of hostages, as if Christmas holds any importance for these radical Moslems. In terms of the West, it was a fine suggestion, but probably the most naive belief that brought a wide and wicked smile to the faces of Hamas. They know not anything about this season of kindness and good will because they have none.

There are several organisations which go south, even into Gaza itself, to bring relief and a barbecue to the soldiers, young and old, who are fighting a cruel and tough guerilla battle. I told you about Chabad, but they are far from alone. Each evening, food trucks and private cars, loaded with meat and salads, head south, set up their portable barbecues and bring cheer and music to the soldiers. One particular story touched my heart. A 14 year old boy took his hard saved pocket money and then collected from anyone he could and with the help of his parents he cooks for the soldiers! Children in Israel are so much more grown up and responsible than children in the rest of the West. I’m not sure whether it is the preparation for the responsibility of IDF service or whether it is the fact that they are so free and rather than being driven everywhere they walk or catch buses, be it school or going to friends. Independence is a very important part of their upbringing.

Just in case you think that UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, is even handed in its care for children all over the world, think again. It is all over the world except Israel. The Shurat haDin Organisation made calls to UNICEF in several countries asking to send donations specifically to help Children in Israel during this war. One responder actually claimed that Gaza is Israel! I am rarely shocked these days but this really shocked me to the very core.

This is the time of year for Christian tourism. Normally Christians throng to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Haifa and many Christian sites around the country but, sadly, not this year. Bethlehem will be deserted on Christmas Day, the pews of the Church of the Nativity, atop a hill in Bethlehem, are usually filled to capacity but no-one is coming on pilgrimage, there are few flights for those who choose to come anyway. The Christian community of Bethlehem itself has dwindled to 15% of the citizenry and it makes me sad. Christmas trees are still given to Jerusalem’s Christians by the municipality as in every year; the Carol Concert will almost certainly take place in the Brigham Young University concert hall; the bells of the churches of St. John, the YMCA, the Dormition and the Scottish Church will ring out but like JK Rowling’s Dementors, the joy has been sucked out of this Christmas. My childhood memories of Santa, decorating our neighbours trees, Carollers and wonderful parties still remain strong in my mind though. Rabbi Leo Dee, who lost his wife and daughters in a horrific terror attack, used to live in London, this is what he wrote on the subject

Someone wrote this week about the difference between most wars that the USA has fought, is that while those wars took place thousands of miles from home, this one is on our doorsteps and in our homes.

Protection of communities “If I am not for me, who is” has become an essential part of Jewish life. Rabbi Jeremy Rosen writes this week about just that subject and the ineffective quiet diplomacy as opposed to the highly effective CST in the UK. Well worth reading  

In the meantime, life goes on in a very Israeli way. I met some friends in Tel Aviv this week, in a large shopping mall in Ramat Aviv and it was full to the gunnels, especially all the restaurants. Tel Aviv which suffers many missiles each day! It is a peculiarly Israeli way of telling our enemies that we are strong, resilient and will not be cowed – and of course that food is the most important element in any Israeli family, be it at home or in a restaurant it must be a culinary delight. As a people watcher I enjoyed watching friends gathering, probably talking about the “matzav” the situation, almost certainly about the government and of their concern for both our soldiers and of course the hostages and their families. We are a people that needs to be together.

Once upon a time, Aviv Gefen was a rebel, not just a rebel he wrote songs about his generation, using words that should not be heard in polite society! As the nephew of Moshe Dayan, himself a rebel, it seemed incongruous but now, Aviv Gefen the family man has changed, done a 180 and spends a great deal of his time talking to and entertaining soldiers and the families of hostages. Here, singing a song that he wrote with released hostage Mia Leimberg, I’m sure you remember her arrival back home with her little white dog, a Shitz Tzu named Bella,  bringing a smile of relief to all who saw her. Well Mia loves to sing and she just made a music video with Aviv Gefen. I couldn’t find a translation but I don’t think it matters! The song Black Sunrise, “Children woke to a morning without playing in the garden and since then it doesn’t leave us”

This rendition of the blessing for the soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces is so special I couldn’t resist the sweet voice of the singer Neriya Granot

To end, Tom Jones, Dylan Thomas, the Treorchy Male Voice Choir and A Child’s Christmas in Wales way back in 1970. As they say, “You can take the girl out of Wales but not Wales out of the girl”

This is a time when we must celebrate our similarities, forget our differences and stand up for our beliefs, beliefs that echo our determination to pray as we see fit. Pride may come before a fall, but pride in who and what we are make us stand tall, form a defensive circle holding hands and looking outward. I wish you Shabbat Shalom and a beautiful Christmastide filled with blessing and promises for a better future. I pray that the hostages will soon come home, that we will lose no more soldiers and that the families of those who lost their sons and daughters will be consoled and that somehow, who knows how, the tide of hatred will be stopped by a wall of love.

I send you love from Jerusalem, so precious to us all,