Sunday, January 4, 2009

We need peace.

.אנחנו צריכים שלום

Yesterday, I learned about an Israeli phrase from the 1980s and 1990s: "Shooting and crying." It refers to the Israeli who defends himself and his country with deadly force but regrets having to do so. There are voices in Israel that focus on shooting: Kill our enemies at all costs. There are those that focus on crying: The pain caused by violence is unacceptable. And there are those who do both: I hate to kill you, but I have to do it.

The sermon I heard yesterday mounted a defense for shooting and crying. The offensive in Gaza, the speaker said, is necessary for the security of Israeli citizens, but the moral considerations cannot be forgotten even in such a critical situation. It may seem hypocritical to some, but it's the best we have.

Shooting and crying.

We're in a bad spot here in Israel. Hundreds of people are dying and everyone is weighing in with her opinion. What's the right thing to do in this situation? What's the right thing to say?

The advocacy group J Street (a liberal answer to AIPAC), released a statement condemning both Hamas and Israel and calling for an immediate cease-fire:

Israel has a special place in each of our hearts. But we recognize that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong. While there is nothing "right" in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing "right" in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.

And there is nothing to be gained from debating which injustice is greater or came first. What's needed now is immediate action to stop the violence before it spirals out of control.

I have to say that I agree. And it's hard to do so. The President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffe, publicly opposes the sentiments expressed in this statement:

These words are deeply distressing because they are morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve. A cease-fire instituted by Hamas would be welcome, and Israel would be quick to respond. A cease-fire imposed on Israel would allow Hamas to escape the consequences of its actions yet again and would lead in short order to the renewal of its campaign of terror. Hamas, it should be noted, is not a government; it is a terrorist gang. And as long as the thugs of Hamas can act with impunity, no Israeli government of the right or the left will agree to a two-state solution or any other kind of peace. Doves take note: To be a dove of influence, you must be a realist, firm in your principles but shorn of all illusions.

These words were welcomed by the commenters on the blog and likely reflect the prevailing attitude among American Reform Jews. We hate violence, but Israel has to defend itself. Moreover, Israel is the victim here: If Hamas didn't attack Israel, Israel wouldn't attack back, and therefore, every civilian death is on Hamas' hands. Rabbi Bob Orkand, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, defends this view by quoting Michael Walzer: "When Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible--and no one else is--for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counter fire."

But I don't buy it, and I certainly can't sell it. This view seems sound on paper: Israel's the victim, and Hamas is to blame for the people being killed. But is it entirely unimaginable for us to entertain the opposite view? If Israel hadn't acceded to the illegal settlement of Palestinian land and enforced hardships upon the Palestinian populace, maybe Hamas wouldn't be so powerful today. Both views are right, both views are wrong. And I return to J Street's point: "There is nothing to be gained from debating which injustice is greater or came first. What's needed now is immediate action to stop the violence before it spirals out of control."

I'm not surprised at what Israel has done, and I'm not surprised at the various reactions to Israel's decisions. However, I am disappointed that the rabbinic leadership of the Reform Movement isn't acting as the still, small voice reminding the public that it's wrong to kill. It's wrong to be killed, it's wrong to impose hardship, it's wrong to abandon your public. But it's also wrong to kill and that's a Jewish and universal value. And someone has to say it.

I would have been much more proud of Rabbi Yoffe if, instead of saying that influential doves have to condone killing sometimes, he had said that it's wrong to kill. Of the shooters and cryers, I'm a cryer, and I'll cry quietly to myself about the deaths of hundreds of people and I'll cry loudly from the rooftops that it's wrong to kill. Do with that information what you will, but do not ignore it.

I think that it is rabbinical responsibility to be the voice of moral conscience in this conflict, and regardless of what's politically sound or best for the people of Israel or more justifiable based on historical circumstances, someone has to be the voice that reminds the people that it's wrong to kill. Because we've seen what happens when people forget this most essential value.

I hear over and over again that "we pray for the end of the military action in Gaza." That's not my prayer. My prayer is simple.

We need peace.

We, Israelis. We, Palestinians. We, the people of the entire world. We can't separate ourselves from our neighbors, close or distant, and we can't forget that every single human being is created in the image of God. To save a life is to save the entire world.

Need. We don't want or wish for or expect or fight for or plan for or even hope for. We need. It is a basic and inalienable requirement for our lives. Our humanity depends upon it:

Peace. Non-violence. Co-operation. Reciprocal community. Respect, justice, brotherhood, acceptance, virtue, enrichment, depth, education, broadness, embraces, laughter. It's political, familial, moral, historical, and messianic.

We need peace.

That's my prayer.

It's not complex, it's not nuanced. It doesn't take into account historical arguments, and it doesn't discern winners from losers. It's a statement of existential reality, and it's my heart's loudest cry. And I believe that it needs to be heard and understood and taken into account and adhered to. You can't hear this sentence and then dismiss it because it's inconvenient right now. "We don't have time for peace, we're under attack."

We need peace.

Now. Can I simply say "We need peace" and go home? Can I make a blanket moral statement without applying it to the situation on the ground? If I do, is that irresponsible? Perhaps. So let me say this:

It's wrong for Palestinians to kill. I condemn terrorism, and I support freedom and democracy, two principles which Hamas tends to withhold from the people of the Gaza strip. Hamas is bad for the Palestinians, and if wishing made it so, I would wish that every Hamas-nik woke up in the morning and decided to step down from power. The poltical reality is that Israel has enemies, and they're trying to destroy Israel. Israel is defending itself and is not maliciously killing for the sake of killing. I understand the situation to the best of my ability, and if I had to cast a vote, I'd vote for democracy over terrorism every time. It's wrong to kill.

So what does that mean with regard to Israel today in the Gaza strip? I wish I knew... Is it justifiable for Israel to invade Gaza, trying to minimize civilian casualties, in order to demolish an aggressive enemy? Could very well be. Is it just? It's much harder for me to say. Is it right? I don't know.

But what I do know is that it's wrong to kill and that we need peace. So long as our first priority is security instead of peace, we'll be fighting for a secondary goal. We have to change our perspective, to realign our priorities, if we're ever going to reach the goal of peace that almost everyone can agree on. I believe that if, starting tomorrow, Israel's first priority were peace (regardless of what Hamas' goals are), their thinking process would be different. They would ask the question, "How do we protect Israeli citizens?" but they would also ask the question "How do we work for peace with ourselves and with our neighbors?" Right now the first question is the only one getting asked, and as soon as they find an answer, they go with it. I don't see the second question getting discussed, and that's painful to me.

So, the situation is very complicated, but I feel that there's a responsibility for a group of people to speak the moral truths that our tradition imparts upon us. We need peace. I'm at a loss for what else to say. What would I do if I were a politician? I don't know. But I believe that my role as a rabbi is to speak my heart on this issue and my heart reminds me that we need peace, and that's my message.

That's my prayer.


Nanette Goodman said...

I really appreciate your post. It is deeply moving. I agree with you that, as rabbi it is your responsibility to remind us what is moral.
However, there is one question that politicians and strategists must ask that rabbis do not need to ask. "What is the best strategy to acheive a peaceful coexistence with a neighbor who thinks you have no right to exist?"
I struggle with what to do and think when morality and security seem to be at odds? As for the current situation...are they at odds? Was this even a good strategic move?

Jeff H. said...

Amen to your original prayer, Daniel.

Talkative in Toronto said...

I agree with Nannette's comments. Indeed it is a complicated problem with no apparent solution. Hamas has proven that it is not group that can be reasoned or negotiated with. Hamas needs to be destroyed, or at least diminished. Unfortunately, as in most conflicts, innocent lives are sacrificed in pursuance of justice and liberty.

Perhaps once the fighting ends, it requires some nation building by Israel and other Western Nations to convince the Palestinians that we are on their side and quash Hamas once and for all. we can only hope and pray.


Talkative in Toronto said...

(from Sam)

First, I also appreciate your post. It gave me much to think about.

And, second, as you are living in Israel, you have great credibility. Sitting comfortably in Toronto, I have no "skin in the game".

But, I have to think that security should be the first priority of Israel. No lasting peace can be acheived without first having security. It would be unacceptable. I can only imagine what the US would do if the Government of Canada fired one rocket into the US. Canada would be bombed into a frozen waste land (I know, arguably it is that already - at least the frozen part) But, Hamas fired thousands, including during the cease fire.

You wrote, "there is nothing "right" in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.". But, the Gazans overwhelmingly voted for a terrorist organization, Hamas to represent them. It isn't extremists among the Gazans. It is there elected Government that has carried out the violence, that has sponsored the suicide bombers, that in it's own charter calls for the destruction of Israel and it's replacement with a Islamic state.

Now, are hundreds of innocent civilians being killed? Yes. It is tragic. And, what compounds the tragedy is that Hamas has done what it can to maximize civilian causalities by integrating military targets in civilian terroritories.

I remember clearly the Palestinian celebrations in response to 9/11. While I have deep sorrow over the loss of life on both sides, I'm not crying over a response to Hamas actions.

I agree with your prayer, "We need peace". And, would add that we need the state of Israel to exist within secure borders.

Anonymous said...

It takes a great deal more courage to be an advocate of peace than a champion of justice.

It is remarkable, Daniel, that you are living in Israel, hearing the justification for a war to end terror - and that you have found your individual voice in protest of these actions.

Peace is not an inactive state of torpor - it requires far more work and sacrifice than most people realize. Your understanding of putting PEACE before SECURITY shows that you understand that no true security can exist unless all concerned care more about LIFE than RIGHT - the NOW rather than the PAST.

In defense of American security, the Bush Administration condoned torture, committed murder, disassembled the Constitutional right to privacy and due process, and caused so much more misery and suffering than anyone can understand, here in the land of the free.....

We pray for Israel. We pray for Palestinians. We cannot separate life into labels, some precious, some unfortunate 'collateral'.

Prayer and tears.

It is the Jewish way. It is the only way that we can face reality - prayer that leads to action, tears that open hearts to understanding.

Peace can only occur when all parties concerned, Jewish and Muslim, Israeli and Arab, can share a common thirst for life without terror.

In your individual voice, whether you are crying silently within, or shouting your beliefs on the rooftop, I can see that you are going to be that rare and golden kind of rabbi - one who has a true moral compass.

Many prayers are with you and Jessica. You are not alone in your beliefs, but that you are voicing them from Jerusalem, that you are honest and uncompromising in your values, shows great insight and wisdom.

Thank you for being this voice.

Anonymous said...

The Torah says "Thou shalt not Murder". It emphatically does not say "Thou shalt not Kill". Hebrew, like English, differentiates between killing and murdering; murder is unlawful killing.

No physical act is always wrong or always right. Context is extremely important. The Talmud says that if a person is out to kill you, you must get up earlier and kill him first. Hamas is trying to kill the state of Israel and all its people. It is a moral action to kill them first. Will innocnet people die? Absolutely, and that is a tragedy. However, it is also a price paid for allowing and encouraging murders to live among you. Hamas was elected by 80% of the Palestinian population.

Anonymous said...

While it is true that Hamas was "voted in" by the Palestinians, we must acknowledge that the information, education and world view of those voters is far different than that of any American, or any citizen in most countries.

Palestinians living in squallor and unimagined poverty are as much the victims of Hamas as the Israelis. They may have voted for Hamas, but how liberated could their thinking be, how open-minded are their news sources? Born into poverty and seeing no way out embitters and diminishes a people.

Understanding how Palestinians think and feel is vital to any hope of a lasting peace. Here in America, we know next to nothing about our neighbors to the north or the south of us. However, in the Middle East, your neighbors are part of your life.

This is not to excuse in any way the terror and horror that Hamas has inflicted on Israelis and their own people. If they can smuggle in arms and bombs - couldn't they manage water, milk, food and medicine? They inflict terrible pain on the Palestinians and yet do nothing to help them - using them as human shields.

If Israel had the magical ability to direct its weapons soley on Hamas terrorists, it would be a just war. And I know that within the heart of the Israeli soldiers there is both love of country and respect for innocent life.

It is not just in the world's eyes, but in many Jewish eyes, that there must be a better way to handle the difficult conflict without killing of innocent people.

We most certainly want the other side to feel compassion for the horrific ways Israelis have had to live under constant bombing.

Who can begin this process? Can we kill our way there? As justifiable and strengthening it may feel to see enemies fall, how can the Jewish people find peace within their own hearts, having the death of so many innocent people on their consciences.

We all grieve for the death on all sides. And again I applaud Daniel for being as loyal a follower of Talmudic life as well as an anti-war advocate.

Dan Mont said...

I don't fully understand what a poster meant by putting peace before security. How does one do that? A lasting peace IS security. But at what price? We could have peace tomorrow. All the Jews leave Israel. Peace is a top priority but not the only priority. It also depends also what you mean by security. Being secure from physical harm or being secure to live the kind of life you think is worth living -- just and loving.

But Peace must come before "quid pro quo" and before revenge and before a whole lot more else. And we must sarifice for peace and not just say "they don't want it so that's that." For if we are not striving for a just peace than an what moral ground do we stand?

Jake said...


Thank you for your thoughts. As a "maybe rabbi" (still trying to decide if and when to apply), I have struggled with what Israel means to me, having never been, and having developed important friendships with Gazans. I am still working through what all of this means, and I commend you for having the koach to grapple with this as you pursue Jewish leadership. We Jews for peace need to recognize that we are not alone, and stand together, out of our abiding love for not only our people Israel, but all humanity.