Honouring AJEX During Operation Pillar of Defence

By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
November 16, 2012

Wars are given names. The majority are so designated by the places that they were fought in, some by the nations that fought them and occasionally different names are given by the two more protagonists to reflect their narrative of the event at the time or retrospectively.

I am not convinced of the efficacy derived by denoting operations publicly for what ostensibly are I think propaganda purposes, an attempt to amplify one’s reasons for acting militarily. A subtext is of course the rich vein of culture that has often come to the fore from strategists hidden from harm and in particular if we think of the World Wars, from those writing in the trenches in the midst an ultimate human hell.

If one does wish to name a war or an operation, it is necessary to clearly state one’s motivations and if relevant, source texts. Operation Pillar of Defence is a clear case in point. The Hebrew name is amud anan, referring to the pillar of cloud that accompanied the Israelites during their escape from Egypt and years in the Wilderness.

On the one hand, John Cook writing for Gawker – an on-line and widely-read, American gossip column – quotes biblical passages to assert:

“So that's what a Pillar of Cloud is: A worldly instantiation of an all-powerful, vengeful God seeking to demonstrate the primacy of his chosen people, to guide them in their affairs, and to confound their enemies. And that's what the people who conceived and executed this wave of strikes against Hamas officials and Gazan civilians chose to call them. If anyone was worried about the increasing religious and ethnic fanaticism of the Israeli leadership, they should still be worried. Did Israel launch this attack because there was no other rational route to maintain its security? Or was it pursuing a broader agenda rooted in ancient mysticism?”
Thankfully, Yair Rosenberg writing for the online Tabletmag.com has identified what I do believe was the true intention of the moniker as, “a direct biblical allusion to the divine cloud which guided the Israelites through the desert and shielded them from those who might do them harm.” Ironically, both writers quote the same Biblical verses such as Exodus 14:19-20

“Then the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.”

You are beginning to see why one might use this amud anan and it is made even more relevant in the commentary from Midrash Mekhilta that is quoted by Rashi:

“And they [the Egyptians] would shoot at them arrows and stones from their catapults, which the angel and the cloud intercepted.”

A pillar of cloud, an Iron Dome defence system, the “Pillar of Defence.” In this instance it seems clear to most in the world that that is exactly the intention. One’s citizens cannot live month by month in bomb shelters. The escalation of rocket fire from Gaza has not only occurred this week. It has been an incessant, daily reality for Israelis in areas surrounding the Gaza Strip and the evidence behind Israel’s insistence on blockades is seen in the skies as rockets are aimed at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

It is clear that Israel has the support of much of the world community and as long as it is able to speedily destroy rocket stockpiles with the minimum of innocent civilian deaths, Operation Pillar of Defence will be seen as a success. Israel does have a clear right to defend its citizens in this way.

And yet we must not forget the pervasive damage that war and such operations bring. We think and pray for the innocent citizens of Israel and Gaza who are forced by the failings of leaders who send their messages on rockets rather than paper. War is an evil invention of humankind.

Tonight we have saluted the brave and courageous from the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) who sought to be an amud anan, a pillar of cloud for the civilians of their day and for those still engaged in active service. And yet we do so acknowledging the losses: The physical and psychological wounds they incurred, the anxiety and fears of those who loved them, the deaths and maiming of friends and fellow combatants, and the lives of innocent civilians from all sides.

You have helped shape a Britain in which your descendants have not been called to sacrifice themselves as you were called to do. We honour and thank you. And we also pray that just as humanity invented war, there might come a day when an amud anan, a pillar of cloud is rendered obsolete, for violence and war shall have been assigned to the past. Let us hope and pray for that time in the future.




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