OPINION | Israel and Hamas bring the pain

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Israel is at war with Hamas, again. You can spend all day reading news reports and commentaries — and wind up pretty disheartened and depressed. However, residing more than 6,000 miles from the war zone certainly has its advantages, as far as being out of mortar and rocket range.

As the AJW goes to press this week, there are reports of a truce in the works, as the war rages and Israeli armor has been readied for a ground assault.

The New York Times on Tuesday reported: “Israeli aerial and naval forces assaulted several Gaza targets in multiple strikes, including a suspected rocket-launching site near Al Shifa hospital, which killed more than a dozen people. Those deaths brought the total number of fatalities in Gaza so far to more than 124 — roughly half of them civilians, the Gaza Health Ministry said.” And two more Israelis were killed, bringing the death toll in Israel to five, according to a BBC radio report.

Hopefully, a cease-fire can be put in place, which would allow for the negotiation of a long-term truce. This would be good for Israelis and Palestinians, who could regain some semblance of normal life.

Commentators are pointing out that this round of fighting differs from the 2008-2009 Cast Lead operation, which took place before the so-called Arab Spring revolts that brought down governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Now the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt, the linchpin of the Arab world, which was previously under the control of Hosni Mubarak, who was a more pliable ally of the United States and European nations. Also, Turkey, a regional power, has gone from being Israel’s strategic partner to calling out the Jewish state for “war crimes” last week. There is also the lethal repression in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has gone about crushing an armed revolt — reportedly killing 38,000 people.

And so on. On Monday, Israeli author Bernard Avishai wrote on his blog, regarding the consequences of another Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip: “So imagine an invasion, which cannot but evolve into a bloodbath like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Mubarak is gone. [Egyptian President Mohammed] Morsi will not tolerate the slaughter of civilians projected all over YouTube and from there to Al-Jazeera. Meanwhile, the Jordanian throne could fall. Assad could try to save his skin by entering the war; Syria might prod Hezbollah to launch missiles of its own. An Intifadah could then take hold in the West Bank. Israeli Arab citizens begin mass demonstrations. What chance will there be for turning back from a fight to the finish? What general has a PowerPoint slide with an answer?”

Of much less importance are the Jewish rhetorical wars, which are provoked whenever hostilities in the Middle East reach the boiling point.

I happened to read some of the back-and-forth attending a blog post by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, which stridently criticized a message from Rabbi Sharon Brous to her congregants in IKAR, a “progressive, egalitarian Jewish community” in Los Angeles. Her message was titled “Heartache.” Here it is, in its entirety:

It has been a devastating few days in Israel and Gaza.

I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives. And I happen to agree with the editors of the New York Times that the best way for Israel to diminish the potency of Hamas is to engage earnestly and immediately in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

But most critically at this hour, I believe that there is a real and profound need for all of us to witness with empathy and grace. Take a breath. We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator — and we are scared. Over one million Israelis slept in bomb shelters last night and rockets nearly reached Tel Aviv. So it’s tempting to dig in our heels, to diminish the loss on the other side of the border, even to gloat. This is not the Jewish way. However you feel about the wisdom and timing of Israel’s response to the Hamas threat, the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.

Let us pray that this conflict comes to an end quickly, and that we soon see a return to negotiations and a real and sustainable peace.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Sharon Brous

This seems like a compassionate, very Jewish take on the horrific situation in Israel and Gaza; however, Gordis, on his blog for the Times of Israel — after expressing his “great admiration, respect and affection” for Brous — condemns her for not telling her congregants that Israel is good and Hamas is evil.

Gordis writes: “Of course Israel is far from perfect, and yes, much of life in Gaza is miserable. Yet why can we not actually say what we know to be true? Why cannot a leader of the American Jewish community say that the only reason that Israel and Hamas are at war is that Hamas wants to destroy Israel? Does anyone really imagine that even a return to the 1967 borders would mollify Hamas? How do I know that it would not? Because they say so. They say that they will never end the ‘armed resistance’ until the ‘Zionist entity’ is utterly eradicated. Why don’t we believe them? Why this paternalistic, virtually racist ‘oh they couldn’t possible mean that — it must be a cultural difference in how we express ourselves’?”

In his tendentious blog post, Gordis (who spoke June 3, 2010, at the Sabes JCC), the senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, allows that “my friend left me heartbroken. If people as wise and as deeply Jewishly knowledgeable as Rabbi Brous (whom I told that this response was forthcoming) cannot come out and say that at least at this moment, we care about Israel more than we care about its enemies because we care about the future of the Jews more than almost anything else in the world, then her Jewish world and mine simply no longer inhabit overlapping universes.”

In essence, Gordis seems to be saying that Israel has to act as savagely and immorally as its adversaries in its quest for survival. I recall publishing an op-ed by an Israeli writer along these lines some years ago: the thesis that morality was a luxury in which Israel could not indulge, because it was situated in a rough neighborhood, etc.

In fact, Jews, in Israel and in the Diaspora, look to the Jewish state to be a “light unto the nations” — to express our prophetic tradition, to seek peace and pursue justice. And the concept of “purity of arms,” the mindfulness of ethical norms in wartime, which is promulgated by the Israel Defense Forces, constrains Israeli actions during wartime.

Avishai mentions this in his post on Monday: “Sure, Israel has the moral authority to ‘defend its citizens,’ as President Obama automatically (and quite properly) put it. The thing is, no Israeli offensive on the ground can reimpose occupation without using what even Americans will see as disproportionate force. The thing [Richard] Goldstone could never quite grasp was that no Israeli officer will fail to use tank shells against a sniper in an apartment window if this means minimizing the risk to his troops — and damn the children in the adjacent apartment.”

My hope is that, by the time you read this edition of the AJW, the bombing and rocketing in Israel and Gaza will have stopped. May everyone in the Middle East be safe and unafraid under his or her own vine and fig tree.