The government of Israel has launched a military operation in Gaza. It is an operation that is justified, and in fact overdue. American Jews across the political spectrum should be offering their support.
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I am worried at this moment about Jews in the progressive camp. This segment of American Jewry has struggled in the past with Gaza, dividing over whether to back Operation Cast Lead in 2008. Reservations about Israel’s use of force in Gaza have continued. Gil Troy, writing several weeks ago in the Daily Beast’s Open Zion Blog, noted that progressive Jews had expressed little outrage about the suffering of Israelis from rocket attacks in southern Israel. Troy made a strong argument, and I wonder if this attitude will now translate into opposition to Israel’s current operations in Gaza.
I hope not. Progressives, of course, want the use of force to be a last resort. But it would be hard to imagine a case where Israel was more patient than Gaza. Sderot and the surrounding communities have been subjected to missile fire from Gaza for 11 years. With sickening regularity, rockets fall on civilian centers and hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens flee to shelters. Israel responds, usually with modest force aimed at lower level operatives, the violence stops for a while, and then the cycle begins again.
Progressives should be as outraged as everyone else about this. As innumerable Israeli leaders have said, no other civilized country in the world would tolerate for a week what Israel has tolerated for a decade; a single rocket aimed at an American city would call forth a far more drastic response than anything that Israel has attempted or even contemplated. And yet, incredibly, despite her tough talk, Israel has tolerated these attacks – with the exception of Cast Lead, which brought a respite from the violence, although only for a while.
The greatest outrage here, of course, is the human toll on Israelis in the south. I have read account after account, year after year, of the children of Sderot and surrounding communities who wake up crying, wet their beds, and cling to their parents and teachers in incomprehension and terror. There is not a school or a day-care center without a bomb shelter. Under what circumstances could that possibly be acceptable?
And the second outrage is the terrible political cost. The Israeli left collapsed for many reasons, but high on the list is the fact that unrelenting missile attacks from a rejectionist Hamas helped to snuff out any flickers of hope that peace could be achieved. I have been critical of Israel’s government for its obsession with settlements and bungling of West Bank policy; it could do far better than it has done with Palestinian Authority leaders Abbas and Fayyed, voices of relative moderation. But there has been no sign of such voices among Hamas’ leadership, which abhors compromise and harms Israeli and Palestinian peace-seekers alike.
In short, I support a real “get tough” policy in Gaza, and I hope that progressive Jews will as well. There are, to be sure, strategic and tactical difficulties. The peace treaty with Egypt, essential to Israel’s security, could be jeopardized. Furthermore, it is not at all clear which military policies will be most effective in stopping the missiles.
Some in the progressive camp, including Haaretz, have argued that force has not worked and that Israel should use Egyptian mediation to arrive at informal agreements to stop the violence. The problem is that this sounds a lot like what has already been attempted, and it hasn’t worked either.
Perhaps the ideas proposed by Major General Giora Eiland (ret.), the former Israeli National Security Advisor, should be considered. As quoted by Elliot Abrams in the Council on Foreign Relations blog, Eiland calls for an immediate and strong response to any attack from Gaza. No slow escalation or signaling, just a quick and tough response. In addition, Eiland suggests closing the border and cutting off electricity for a while after each incident. In any case, the goal should be to convince Hamas of the value of a long-term ceasefire, while strictly limiting civilian casualties.
I admit: The rocket attacks could get worse rather than better. But no matter how dangerous Israel’s operation is, the effort must be made. Until now, in effect, Israel has granted Hamas leaders a certain “reasonable level” of rocket attacks, and Hamas has no incentive to stop firing missiles. Common sense dictates that there must be a high, ongoing price exacted for every attack originating from Gaza.
And if progressive American Jews ask me why Israel can’t just muddle through, my answer is this: Israel came into being so that Jewish children would never again have to huddle together in fear, terrorized by enemies of the Jewish people, while their parents stood by helplessly. Helping those children is a progressive cause. And doing nothing for them undermines the sovereignty of the Jewish state and strikes a fatal blow at the very raison d’etre of Zionism.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.