As I write, I am about as far from my home and synagogue in Forest Hills as I can be, or at least as I am likely to get. I am sitting in the living room of my daughter Leora’s apartment on Marine Camp Foster, one of some fifteen American military bases on the tiny but strategically important island of Okinawa, Japan. She is married, as many of you know, to Rabbi/Lieutenant Yonatan (Yoni) Warren, a Navy chaplain who is currently posted to a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) here in the Far East. A MEU is basically a Rapid Deployment Force that can move quickly to where the trouble is. There are a few of them stationed around the world in potentially volatile areas; this one covers the Far East. We are very, very proud of his service, and hers.
My wife Robin and I arrived in Okinawa late last Thursday evening, and less than twenty-four hours later, on Shabbat, Leora gave birth to a beautiful baby girl at the US Naval Hospital here on base. We are here to provide extra hands and a lot of love, both of which we do gladly. Robin will actually be returning over the holidays, since Yoni will be deployed and Leora will be alone. The life of a military spouse is never easy, but even more so when you’re a new, first-time mother and there is no one at home with you.
As I was leaving the States, the New York Jewish community, like so many others, was completely preoccupied with what was going on with Israel. It has felt odd, and not altogether unpleasant, I’m obliged to admit, to gain just a bit of distance from the intensity of the constant news cycle and relentless, troubling reports of death and loss.
In truth, it’s not at all as if I’ve left the consciousness of the conflict behind. I search my news outlets constantly, and keep as current as is possible given that the resources available here are limited. CNN, BBC World, and FOX News are all available on cable here, and American and Israeli sources are all online, but I still don’t have that feeling of absolute, up-to-the-minute awareness of the situation that life in New York provides me with. That, as much as anything else, depends on having other people, friends and colleagues, around me, and in the same state of mind as me. And in those moments when that distance feels, as I said, not altogether unpleasant, it’s hard not to feel guilty for the respite.
Trading all-Israel, all-the-time for all-baby, all-the-time hasn’t afforded me too much of an opportunity to talk about Israel’s current conflict in Gaza with the Marines on Camp Foster. I regret that. Most of the men and women that I’ve met have been officers who live in the same housing complex as my daughter and son-in-law. Some of them are medical personnel, many of them chaplains like Yoni, married, and here with their spouses and children. To a one, they have been gracious and helpful, and eager to participate in the joys of the occasion. These are the people who make up Leora and Yoni’s world in Okinawa, and how we Jews welcome a new life into our covenantal community is of great interest to them, both personally and professionally. By and large, their friendships with Yoni and Leora are the most sustained contacts they have had with "serious Jews," or Jews at all, for that matter, in all of their lives. They are, mostly, conservative Christians, and when you speak to them about both Judaism and Israel, you realize that, for sure, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Actually, you might well be in Kansas, but surely not in New York!
There was, however, one fascinating, if brief encounter, with a Marine who was in the checkout line with me at the Commissary, the very large food market serving Camp Foster that would compete favorably with most of the supermarkets that we see in the New York area (albeit with fewer hekshered options, to be sure).
When he saw my kippah (not many of those around here!), this Marine asked me casually if I was from Israel. I explained what I was doing in Okinawa, that I was from New York, but that I had indeed spent a lot of time In Israel, and that it's a very difficult time there right now. I don't remember his exact words in response, but they were along the lines of "Yes, fighting terrorists in cities has to be tough."
It took me a second to process that seemingly innocuous remark, but then I realized why what he had said struck me so powerfully. Here on Okinawa, in a purely military context, the war between Israel and Hamas was instinctively seen by him not as one of competing ideologies or geopolitical issues, but purely as an asymmetrical war being fought in a densely populated urban battlefield, with a trained and skilled army on the one hand, and terrorists using the local population as human shields on the other. It was, for him, a particularly difficult kind of military challenge, not at all unknown to a student of modern warfare. He wasn’t a talking head on CNN; he was a Marine. He understood how difficult this challenge was for Israel, and how likely it was to be perceived unfairly by those who couldn’t get past the ideologies to see the facts on the ground.
In the very few days since that chance encounter, I’ve realized how very significant it was to have shared those few moments of conversation here in Okinawa.
Most Jews know far less about the Pacific campaign in World War II than the European one, for obvious reasons. The Nazis, though allied with the Japanese, waged their genocidal campaign against us in Europe. But even those with the most casual knowledge of the battle to retake the Pacific islands occupied by Japan will know the names Iwo Jima, and particularly Okinawa. Okinawa was, arguably, the ultimate example of a battle being waged in settings that, though not urban in the conventional sense, were filled with civilians who were not combatants … or were they?
Everywhere the Marines went, there were men, women and children in the field of battle, and it was impossible to know who was being used as a human shield by the Japanese, who was truly just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who was actively fighting for the enemy. Many valiant Marines lost their lives on Okinawa, but so did many civilians, the “collateral damage” of a battle that absolutely had to be won, despite the heavy cost. From Okinawa then to Fallujah now, America’s military has known the cost of urban warfare. Factor in that today’s enemy “army” is made up of terrorists who deliberately and consistently target civilians and use them as human shields, and you have the Gaza campaign, 2014 …
From Forest Hills to Okinawa, family remains the most important common thread. But no matter where in the world I might find myself, Israel will always be on my mind. I share, with all of you, the same longing for an Israel safe, secure and at peace. What that single Marine reminded me of is that I also long for a world that, dare I ask for this, might be fair to Israel as well.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.