Breaking the American Jewish Silence Over the Gaza Conflict

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Pro-Israel supporters dance during a rally at Times Square in New York, to show support for Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip, July 20, 2014.Credit: Reuters

American Jews can be a loud tribe, declaiming noisily about what we endorse or condemn, what we know and what we think we know. Those in my line of work – the community rabbinate – may be especially prone such a pattern.

Yet a couple of weeks into the Gaza conflict, I remained silent. Being out of the synagogue for the summer, working at camp, I had no occasion to speak in public, and I had distributed no online message.

I was not too anxious that my silence might be construed as a wavering Zionist commitment. I am sure the congregation knows that I am a proud and unqualified believer in the worth of the modern Jewish state in our ancestral homeland.

So why had I kept quiet? Mostly, I just was not sure what I should say.

Should I say that, facing a ruthless enemy, Israel has not only a right but a moral duty to protect its citizens from Hamas’ estimated (before the war) 10,000 rockets, now capable of striking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv? Not just a right but a moral duty to destroy the tunnels Hamas built expressly to attack the residents of southern Israel? I certainly believe this. And so I grieve for the Israeli soldiers who have fallen honorably in Operation Protective Edge, giving their lives to defend the Jewish people in its homeland.

Should I say that even when there is just cause to fight, the very first rule of moral warfare is to distinguish between civilian and combatant? Should I say that that although Israel faces tremendously difficult challenges – given the asymmetry of guerilla forces, given Gaza’s urban concentration and Hamas’ consistent firing from amidst its own citizens – nevertheless this most basic moral demand of conducting a “just war” is simply not negotiable? That our hearts should grieve, that we should not be able to sleep at night, for the hundreds of Gazan non-combatants who died horrible deaths this week, yesterday, today, and are dying right this minute? I believe this too.

Should I concur with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he says that Hamas bears moral responsibility for placing missiles near hospitals and schools, and for digging tunnels beneath homes? Yes, I do. Should I endorse his conclusion that Israel therefore bears no responsibility for civilian casualties? I cannot.

Should I say the hypocrisy is all a bit rich when Hamas – which sends suicide bombers into cafés, which lobs missiles at city centers – bewails civilian casualties? Should I say that being “better than Hamas” is no worthy standard for the people of the Torah?

In the end, Israel and those who love her face harrowing moral choices – both the real duty to act and the real duty to refrain. There is no single satisfactory answer. It would immoral and foolish to expect Israel to expose itself to Hamas’ weapons without defending itself. As Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik wrote (in his essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”): Zionism affirms that, after the Shoah, Jewish blood must not be left undefended before cruel enemies.

Yet the vast suffering our forces cause in Gaza cannot be waved away casually as merely regrettable collateral damage.

I decided to break my period of silence to my congregation, and share the thoughts I’ve just written, upon reading Parshat Mattot, two weeks ago. On that Shabbat, I was struck by what seems to me – forgive my impiety – an ugly verse [Numbers 31.2]: “God spoke to Moses saying: Wreak Israel’s vengeance upon the Midianites.”

Vengeance, nekama, is a brutal impulse, impossible to justify. Justice? Yes. By all means, society must impose morally appropriate consequences for violent behavior. Prudence, strength, deterrent capacity? Absolutely. Society must take the steps that leave its citizens safer, to sit without terror beneath vine and fig tree.

Instead, vengeance suggests brutality, the cathartic unleashing of a victim’s rage.

It is customary when citing the names of terror victims – like the kidnapped boys Eyal, Gil-ad and Yaakov – or fallen soldiers or Shoah victims, to append the acronym hey-yod-dalet, meaning ‘Hashem yikom damo’, “May God avenge his blood” (based on Deuteronomy 32.43).

Myself, I never use this phrase, not even for Shoah victims. Some will tell you that this phrase asks God to exact vengeance, but we humans should not. I find that apologetic and hypocritical. In fact, almost always in Judaism, we strive to be God’s partners in building the world, putting sacred values into practice.

Praying for divine vengeance, it seems to me, endorses our own basest rage, and goads people into acts of vengeance. I thought of this at the horrifying immolation of Mohammed Abu Khdeir at the hands of Jewish terrorists, and at the calls for vengeance emerging from various circles in Israel, including the rabbinate, and the politicians, even the Prime Minister.

Soon enough, I pray, Protective Edge will end. Hamas will have fewer missiles, fewer tunnels, more martyrs and more rage. And the citizens of Israel and Jews worldwide will have to contend with our own losses and our own rage. Thanks to heaven and thanks to their bravery and wisdom, the IDF will continue to protect the Jewish body with distinction. But every call for vengeance, every chant of “death to the Arabs,” every politician hammering on about paving over Gaza, every calloused reaction to Palestinian death, reminds me how crucial it is to care vigilantly for the Jewish soul.

Jeremy Kalmanofsky has been a rabbi at Manhattan's Ansche Chesed since 2001. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiJeremyK

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