Archive for July, 2014


Some day it will end. The horrifying bloodshed of this Gaza war will end. The rocket fire will cease. Israeli strikes will stop. Israelis will heave a collective sigh of relief for the respite – whatever length it turns out to be. There will be appropriate congratulations over the discovery and destruction of the tunnels that very well could have led to indiscriminate slaughter of Israeli civilians. There will be the declarations of triumph by both sides. Netanyahu will declare that Hamas was dealt a crippling blow. Hamas will crow about its bravery in standing up to Israeli military might. After 5 or 6 weeks of brutal war, the springs that had been so tightly wound will be released. Then, they will begin to rewind once more; tightening ever so relentlessly to the point when violence will inexorably spring forth yet again. It is inevitable. Or is it?

Watching the deadly dance between Israel and Hamas is like watching a bloody version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” The day keeps repeating itself again and again. In the movie, the cycle does not end until Bill Murray’s character learns enough about itself to change his outlook and behavior. That is a great metaphor for what has to happen for both Israel and the Palestinians. They are doomed to repeating the same sequence again and again unless someone learns enough to change their outlook and behavior. What are the possibilities for change? What needs to be learned?

Israelis need to do an honest assessment of how they arrived in a situation of a Gaza being dominated by Hamas. It is a convenient narrative (and not without a measure of justification) to lay the full blame on Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization masquerading as a liberation movement. It has radical religious goals that reach far beyond the political goals of freedom for Palestinians. Hamas uses absolutely brutal methods, from employing children to dig the invasive tunnels into Israel (some reports indicate 200 children died doing this) to placing weapon sites in the midst of civilian populations, banking on high casualties from Israeli strikes; to its readiness to just kill Jews. Israelis, however, have to ask themselves: to what degree have their own policies fostered the growth of Hamas?

The blockade of Gaza was seen as a necessary measure to keep weapons out of Hamas’s hands – yet clearly it has failed. Hamas has all the weapons it needs and ever more sophisticated rockets. Instead, the blockade has impoverished the civilian Palestinian population, creating in essence a large, restricted refugee camp, while at the same time providing fuel for Hamas to garner Palestinian support. Further, by not working seriously for a two state solution, Israel has undercut the one Palestinian leader – Abbas – who has shown some willingness to come to the table. Israelis must ask themselves this question. Would a better strategy be to help facilitate a stable Palestinian state that would share an economic future with Israel?   Would it not be better to create some prosperity among Palestinians making it more profitable to focus on peace and growth rather than fostering the despair that leads to support for Hamas? Gideon Levy raises these and many more questions Israelis must face in this editorial in Ha’aretz http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.608118

As hard as it will be for Israelis to break their “Groundhog Day” tendencies, it will be even harder for the Palestinians, who must come to realize exactly what Hamas represents – death, destruction, and radical religious theocracy. However, at the very core of changing Palestinian attitudes is a turning away from the rampant anti Semitism embraced by so many in the Arab world. Arab anti-Judaism is so bad that it is spilling rapidly into Europe, where in France, Jewish stores are being vandalized and the Jewish population intimidated. I must ask the Arab and Muslim communities how Israel can be expected to act with more restraint in the face of such obvious hatred of Jews? The blatant anti-Semitism in the Arab world creates heightened fear not just in Israel, but among all Jews. We have no choice but to support Israel as a rampart against what seems to our community, a continuation of centuries of scapegoating of Jews for the world’s wrongs.

My friend, Dr. Parvez Ahmed has told me that the path for Palestinian freedom lies in the formation of a non-violent peace movement that aligns itself with like-minded Israelis. I totally agree. But in order for this to happen, the Arab world has to confront its anti-Semitism. This would result in a rejection of the radicalism of Hamas and give hope that there might be a path to a peaceful, more prosperous, and most importantly – a shared future.

And isn’t that really the central point? If there is to be any kind of decent, prosperous future, it must be a shared future. There is grand potential in a region that harvests the already successful economic and technical advances of Israel when paired with the creative potential of the Palestinians – one of the most educated groups in the Arab world. The aftermath of the Gaza war is not fated to be a continuation of “Groundhog Day.” Palestinians and Israelis can choose to accept each other –and the world would then indeed wake to a new day.





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There is a country much criticized in the news today, whose history is checkered with less than savory incidents. Its founding is the result of European colonial activity. Initially, land was purchased from the native population of the country. There were also some great examples of cooperation between the early settlers and local population. But as history unfolded and became more violent, land was appropriated by other means. Unfortunately this included expulsions from native villages, consignment to restricted territories, and even, sadly, tragically – some massacres. Nevertheless, this country has overcome these incidents and is regarded as a center of democracy that tries to achieve the best it can for its citizens.

The country I am describing is the United States of America.

The Dutch bought Manhattan for 60 Guilders (680 in today’s dollars). Much of America, however, was purchased by spilling the blood of native Americans. The documentation of broken treaties and even massacres of Indian villages is an indictment of the 19th century doctrine of “Manifest Destiny.” Native Americans were consigned to reservations, stripping them of their ancient culture by denying free access to the land. The United States has this abuse in its history, in addition to others (such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II). The United States certainly comes under much criticism on the world scene.

Much in the history of Israel parallels the above synopsis of the history of the United States. There is one great exception, however. Israel was settled, built, and birthed while surrounded by other nations that not only opposed the formation of the state, but clearly wanted its Jewish population dead. Despite being surrounded by enemies and sometimes engaging in terrible actions, frequently Israel has risen above the conflict and engaged in humanitarian acts. Israeli hospitals treat Palestinians as well as Israelis. The IDF has often, in the midst of conflicts, tried to warn civilian populations of incoming fire. In short, Israel’s history is made up of the same mix of laudatory and lamentable acts as that of the United States – or any country for that matter. No one questions the legitimacy of the United States (or any other country with a far darker history) yet Israel’s very legitimacy is under attack – even from elements right here in America – from those we deemed to be our friends.

I refer in particular to the recent general assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, in which a motion to divest from 3 companies who invest in Israel was barely passed. The final resolution, frankly, is not the real problem. It includes language that recognizes Israel’s right to exist. No, the real problem was the circulation and prominence of a document entitled “Zionism Unsettled,” published by a very pro-Palestinian group within the church that was the driving force behind the divestment movement. While it was not officially endorsed by the PCUSA, it was widely read, used as an “educational resource,” and was posted on the PCUSA website as such.

What makes “Zionism Unsettled” so awful? It does a great job of criticizing Israeli abuses of Palestinians. Most of those abuses are real. BUT, and this is important, there is no historical context given which frames the equally, and in many cases more atrocious acts committed by Arabs against Jews. In particular it ignores most of the history of Zionism in the years leading up to the declaration of Israeli statehood in 1948. Even worse, it changes or ignores facts to conveniently serve its narrative. For example, in relating the Six Day War and the consequences of its aftermath, “Zionism Unsettled” only states that Israel was the first aggressor. There is no mention of the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, effectively cutting off Israel from the rest of the world. There is no mention of the failed attempt by the Johnson administration to create an international merchant fleet to break the blockade. And there is no mention of the president of Egypt’s blatant calls to push the Jews into the sea – a call for outright slaughter of the civilian population. In discussing the aftermath of the war (1967 through 1973) there is no mention of the Israeli offers to exchange all of the captured territory (including the West Bank) for peace with its neighbors, and the rejection of that offer by the Arab nations.

Most perfidious of all, however, is there is no indication anywhere in “Zionism Unsettled” that Israel has any legitimate right to exist. Zionism, indeed all national aspirations of the Jewish people are depicted as a twisted belief, and a corruption of Judaism. The role of messianism in the formation of Zionism is greatly exaggerated. There is more than a touch of Christian superiority in the discussion of a Jewish theology that leads to the creation of Israel. A false choice is implied, Christians who support Israel are fundamental, evangelical dispensationalists. Those embracing true Christian values do not support the idea of a Jewish state. Jews are praised for their contributions to the many diaspora societies in which they live. Yet this is a kind of “Pyrrhic” praise. We Jews should be happy living in and contributing to Christian dominated societies (or Muslim), yet any national aspirations based on the traditional Jewish tie to the homeland is a perversion of Judaism. We do not need such friends.

All of this is important as we watch events unfolding in Gaza. There is indeed much about Israeli policy that can be criticized. One only has to read the Israel paper Ha’aretz, for example, to read how Israelis engage in serious self-criticism. We can question if the current government has any real interest in a two state solution. We can criticize and lament the heavy civilian losses of the Palestinians, especially the children. However, we cannot accept a conclusion that denies Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. That is my line in the sand.

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They are gone. We say Kaddish. We mourn. We are angry. We look for a response that will salve the wounds of their murder. We want to know why Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach, three Israeli teens, had to be kidnapped and murdered. We want to know how people, even those who see themselves oppressed by Israel, can rejoice at their murders. How can even a radical fringe rejoice over the deaths of three teenagers? How can any political organization, even a Hamas, just see three teens as pawns in a political game? We wonder how human life, even the life of your “opponent,” can be dismissed so casually? So we are lost in a swirl of emotions and look for a way to react.

He is also gone. Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old from East Jerusalem has been kidnapped and murdered. Some initially thought this might be an honor killing, an act between rival Arab clans. But Israeli police are becoming convinced that his murder is a revenge killing by Jewish extremists: revenge for the murder of the three Israeli teens. If this is indeed a revenge killing, one has to wonder if the extremists will see the score as evened, or will they look to commit further acts of revenge? After all, the Torah does tell us “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” (Exodus 21:24), right?

Is this the place we must stand? Is the road of alternating killings the path we must travel? I will express dismay that so much of the Israeli response has been a call for reprisal, not the extremist act of murdering Palestinian teens, but Netanyahu’s promise of action against Hamas. Please do not misunderstand me. If there were a military action that would neutralize Hamas, I would support it without hesitation. If striking Hamas outposts in Gaza was really something more than violent chest thumping, I could understand it. But no military action will eliminate Hamas. Hamas has become much more than a terrorist organization bent on Israel’s destruction. It is a political party that dispenses services and favors to the Palestinian population. Israeli strikes against Hamas has the same effect as cutting a branch off of a tree but ignoring the roots. The tree will simply grow a new branch.

So I must ask, what does continuing this cycle of violence achieve? What is its strategic purpose other than showing a population in mourning that the government is doing something? Is there another response? This is the crossroads at which we stand. I say “we” because all Jews, whether they acknowledge it or not, are connected. What happens in Israel affects all of us – profoundly.

I was moved by the reaction of one of the great Jewish sages of our time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Two of the murdered teens attended his Mekor Chaim high school. His former student, Pinchas Allouche, was in the car with Rabbi Steinsaltz when news of the murders spread and broke it to him. He wrote about the rabbi’s response. “People will light memorial candles, recite prayers, and attend vigils. Our boys were killed al Kiddush Hashem, (a sanctification of God’s name), because they were Jews. Therefore, to best honor their memories – indeed, to confront evil – we must act always as proud Jews, in our deeds and through our lives.” Allouche elaborates that while we cannot erase evil, we can create good. By living and acting as Jews through Torah and mitzvoth, we can create good.

That is the other path we can choose. Torah interprets “an eye for an eye” not as a dictum for revenge, but as a formula to provide just compensation to the victims, to provide as much healing as possible, even if the healing cannot be complete. Torah eschews revenge. Our tradition is one of law, justice, and healing. So interpretations of Torah, such as using the law of din rodef as justification for killing Palestinians, is a twisting of the intent of Torah. Any use of Torah to do anything other than create good, to create wholeness, is a misuse of the Divine message. Torah’s purpose is to effect tikkun (repair) to try to achieve sheleimut (wholeness).

I recognize that this Israeli government is not ready for the big gestures like halting expansion of settlements on the West Bank. I also recognize there is a pathological illness running through the Palestinian population, preventing acceptance of the Jewish state. My question is this; can we Jews recognize that we bear a part of the responsibility for this illness? Can we, as a first step towards bringing healing, do some honest teshuvah about the history of Israel that allows for some shared responsibility for the status quo? Or do we insist on a narrative that only casts Jews/Israelis as the good guys and Arabs/Palestinians as the bad guys?

However we answer that question, I do believe there is a small, tangible step that would demonstrate what Rabbi Steinsaltz means by being Jews who live by our Torah – a Torah that promotes healing. The family of Mohammed Abu Khdeir wants a statement by the Israeli government acknowledging his murder as a revenge killing. Grant them this. Even more, make a gesture of sorrow towards his family, an offer of something to promote healing. Provide appropriate compensation. This should be done without any expectation of a return gesture by any Palestinian towards the families of the murdered Israeli teens. It should be done as a simple human gesture, to demonstrate that as Jews, we understand senseless human loss. It will do more to heal the Palestinian illness than any reprisal.

I remember well the attack by a Jordanian soldier on March 13, 1997, on a group of Israeli school girls, killing seven. King Hussein of Jordan came to Israel to apologize personally to the victims’ families. He stated then, “Your daughter is like my daughter, your loss is my loss.” The power and sincerity of his gesture affected all Israel, indeed all Jews. King Hussein’s example is the one we need to follow.

Yes, we are angry at the murder of our innocent teens. Yes we are angry at the sick celebrations by segments of the Palestinian population. Yes, we are deep in grief over the perpetuation of conflict. But let us affirm the teaching of Rabbi Steinsaltz, live proudly as Jews and try to create goodness. Zichronam livracha, my the memories of three innocent Jews and one innocent Palestinian one day bring blessing. Amen.

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