''Oded is in the war,'' my Israeli friend of 25 years reported io a transatlantic telephone conversation. ''We heard indirectly, last Thursday, that he's OK. Oded is in the war.''
My thoughts race back five months to the last time I saw Oded. Shabbat family dinner. He was home, following basic training; 18 years old, laughing, singing, teasing. He left before dessert, rushing out in response to a telephone call to be with his friends.
What's happened to Oded in the past few weeks? What has he seen? What has he done? What is Oded like now after fighting in a war?
Is he among those Israeli soldiers shaken by the devastation, the suffering of innocents and combatants alike? Does he question the magnitude of this invasion and the inefficacy of military solutions to political problems?
Somewhere in the back of Oded's head there is probably a mix of bitterness and disbelief at the speed with which the world will condemn his embattled country's behavior while remaining silent at the slaughter of 10,000 Syrians by fellow Syrians or the fratricide wrought by Iranians and Iraqis.
How should I, an American Jew, a close friend of Oded's family, a Jew who speaks Hebrew and loves Jerusalem and believes absolutely in the legitimacy of a secure and free Jewish state, respond to the events in Lebanon?
I am relieved that the PLO's army is in disarray - it had become a sophisticated military force - for now Israel's northern border is safer. I grasp at the hope that Lebanon, free from PLO and Syrian occupation, can begin to rule itself and enter into peace with Israel. (Who can make it happen?) I fear that fragile cease-fires will be broken again and again, with even more lives to be lost and destruction on the way.
I condemn the PLO for its unwillingness to compromise; for its obstinate vow to destroy Israel; for its storing of munitions in hospitals and schools; for using churches as target ranges; for employing innocent civilians as a shield and a weapon and a target. I grieve for the Palestinians - yes, we must distinguish between the PLO and the Palestinians - for whom legitimate national autonomy is pushed further away by the chain of PLO violence and Israeli response.
With the PLO camps for training international terrorists destroyed, the world as well as Israel is somewhat safer. But I wonder what new levels of hatred will be reached by yet another generation of young people devastated in the process? Who knows what acts of primitive terrorism may follow the humiliation of defeat? Who knows what level of repression is yet to come?
I question how long Israelis - reluctant occupiers - can control yet another territory, another population that cherishes its freedom. I resolve to help those who see Israel as the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East understand how complicated that tiny corner of the world really is.
But another response has emerged. I know it is shared by Oded and his friends. It transcends political partisanship and now takes priority over all other reactions: anguish. Human concern over the price of war, the price of this war: destruction, death, refugees, fear, humiliation, hatred, ugliness. Enough!
Today there can be no sense of triumph, no joy, no pride, no self-righteousness.
Anguish. It must result in humanitarian aid, emergency relief, and long-term assistance for the people of Lebanon in whose midst the PLO hide and the war rages. The people of Israel are responding in this fashion, not out of guilt or regret, but because it is right and necessary. When Israel stops caring about the death of innocents, when anguish for a neighbor's suffering is silenced, then a significant Jewish dimension of the state will be gone.
The Jewish community in the US is also responding with humanitarian aid, joining Christians and Muslims and people of every political persuasion in a necessary effort.
Human anguish. Can it help us understand that war seldom resolves conflicts between people? Can it drive Israelis and Palestinians to eschew violence, to respect common desires for national security and independence? Can the insanity of war force moderate Palestinians to stand up and recognize Israel, risking their very lives to save life? Can the PLO see the futility of its armed conflict and accept this opportunity for political compromise? Can Israel, with newfound security on its borders, risk extending itself to the Palestinians - as it did to the Egyptians in the Camp David accords - trading the certain destruction and evil that accompany war for the hope that comes with peace?
Can human anguish keep Oded and his generation from yet another war?