Gaza: A Lament

In two weeks time on Tisha B’Av (9th of the Jewish month of Av), Jews will read the Book of Lamentations, a bitter lament about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple some 2,000 years ago.  Over the past few weeks, I have felt a lament welling up inside my broken heart.  Eicha/How? or Alas! is the first word of the book of Lamentations.  How have we, as Jews, come to the point where the state that claims to be acting in the name of our people and our ethical and historical legacy has killed, as of today, over 650 Palestinians, the majority of them innocent civilians, 160 of them children?  How do we, as Jews, face ourselves as we see the bodies of entire families in body bags, often just plastic bags, human beings that have been killed by jet fighters, tanks and navy ships of the fourth strongest military force in the world acting in the name of the Jewish people?  How do we face ourselves as we see people fleeing on carts and by foot, images that remind us of Jews in earlier times fleeing for their lives, trying to find shelter somewhere from the barrage of armaments unleashed against them on all sides?

The answer that is repeated over and over again is that Israel has the right to defend itself against the rockets launched into Israel.   Over 1,500 rockets have been launched  into Israel, killing, as of this date, 2 people.  The rockets are a terrifying attack on civilians and any country has the obligation and right to defend itself against such an attack.  Every day Israelis hear sirens and scurry to shelters and safe spaces. Everyone, especially the children, are traumatized by living with this threat of imminent danger.

However, focusing exclusively on Israel’s right to defend itself against the rockets, avoids looking at the root causes of this assault. The rockets are the desperate, and thankfully, mostly ineffective, response of an occupied people who have been subjected to an Israeli siege for the past 7 years.  It is an act of desperate resistance by a people who live in the “largest open air prison in the world.”

The bottom line is that this is not a war of defense.  This assault is a war of choice by Israel with the goal of maintaining the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza and no matter how brutal, it will not bring safety and security to Israel.  The only path to safety and security is a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians that ends the occupation of the West Bank and siege on Gaza, something Israel has steadfastly rejected.  Just a few days ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated that Israel would never withdraw from the West Bank and never allow the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Since before the founding of the State of Israel, Israel has believed that the Palestinian claim to their homes and homeland can be defeated by military might.  This has been the underlying reason for all of Israel’s wars.   In 1956, in a famous eulogy by General Moshe Dayan for a young kibbutznik named Ro’i Rotenberg, killed by Gazans who had crossed over the border into Israel, Dayan articulated this position.

“Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us?  For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…

This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water.”

It is this same belief that underlies this latest assault on Gaza, a territory that has been under Israeli siege for 8 years and has been brutally attacked three times in the past six years. It is not a coincidence that the majority of Gazan residents are refugees or the children and grandchildren of refugees from the 1948 war.  There is no military solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The only solution is a negotiated settlement.

Again, so what about the rockets?

Israel has the right to defend itself.  I have compassion for the fear of the Israelis and all those traumatized by the rockets and the sirens.  Twice in my life I have been in Israel during the time when we had to run to shelters because of rockets; during the Gulf War and another a month before the Israeli assault in 2008 (Operation Cast Lead).  I know in my bones how terrifying it is to hear those sirens and to run for cover.

However, I believe there is no moral equivalence between the firing of rockets by Hamas and other militants in Gaza and the Israeli assault.  Gaza is a land and people living under Israeli siege since 2007.  There is a myth that Israel “withdrew” from Gaza and allowed the Gazans freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Israel withdrew their settlements from Gaza in 2005 and the military force that protected them, in 2007 they placed a blockade on almost all exports and imports and on the movement of almost all Gazans.

Sara Roy, an economist at Harvard, has documented how the siege has impoverished the people of Gaza creating an entire population that is dependent on aid and has no means to develop its economy.  For a time, the Israelis even put Gazan’s on a “diet” controlling the amount of food they allowed into Gaza according to the number of calories that they deemed each Gazan would need.  There is no equivalence between the resistance of the occupied, which is an internationally recognized human right, and the assault of the occupier, the fourth strongest military on the planet.  While the Israelis are certainly suffering profound losses in this conflict, they are ultimately the occupier and oppressor.

There is also abundant evidence that this current war in Gaza is a war of choice. The prominent Jewish journalist, J.J. Goldberg, a life-long committed Zionist, recently wrote an article in the Jewish Forward describing how Israel used the kidnapping of the three teenagers to launch an attack on Hamas on the West Bank. Fearing the Palestinian unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas established after the failure of the peace process, Israel manipulated the kidnapping to launch an attack on Hamas. Israel knew the teenagers had been killed yet it hid that truth and launched a “Bring our Boys Home” campaign all over the world.  It launched an assault on Hamas on the West Bank arresting many of its leaders who had been freed in the exchange for Gilad Shalit, attacking its institutions on the West Bank and killing six Palestinian leaders.  For the most part Hamas had maintained the ceasefire agreement of 2012 and Israel violated it.

There were no rockets from Gaza until these unprovoked attacks on Hamas by Israel even though there was, and still is, no evidence that the kidnapping was the work of Hamas.   You may also want to read the article by my colleague, Rabbi Brant Rosen and the article by M.J. Rosenberg who at one time worked for AIPAC.

Rosenberg writes:


Listening to Netanyahu’s defenders in the media (and that is pretty much all you get as objective reporters are yanked off the air), I’m struck by how Americans are indoctrinated into ignoring the most significant fact about Gaza.


It is under Israeli occupation (now called blockade) and has been since 1967.

That is the cause of the “war.” Yes, Israel has the “right” to defend itself but Palestinians have the “right” to resist occupation. Those conflicting rights are leading to perdition and, in my opinion, the loss of the Israel many of us have loved and identified with our entire lives.

The oft-proclaimed Gaza withdrawal was a fraud. Although Israel pulled the settlers out, it has maintained a blockade of Gaza ever since, blocking its air, sea, and land borders, locking its people in a giant prison.

I wish we could say, “this is not our problem, let the Israelis and the Palestinians sort it out.” Unfortunately, it is directly our problem as it is our government that provides the military, diplomatic and financial support for Israel. And it is my community, the Jewish community that plays a major role in ensuring the unconditional support of our country for Israeli government.  Two days ago, the Senate voted unanimously (including the most liberal Senators including mine, Senator Elizabeth Warren) for an AIPAC sponsored resolution in support of Israel’s actions without a single reference to the suffering of the Palestinians!   As Americans and as Jews, we are directly complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians.

So where are the prophetic voices in the Israel and in the Jewish community?

There are very some brave Israelis who have demonstrated against the assault. They are the moral heroes fighting for the soul of our people.  They have been attacked physically by thugs incited by Netanyahu and other members of the government, the same thugs who roam the streets looking for Arabs they can attack.  You can read Rabbi Rosen’s blog post on this frightening phenomenon here.

And, in America, I am so pleased to be part of Jewish Voice for Peace and of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council.  JVP is a bold and clear Jewish voice standing up against the Israeli assault and calling for a negotiated settlement that is based on equality, dignity and justice for all, Israelis and Palestinians. Yesterday, several JVP members,  including our visionary and courageous executive director, Rebecca Vilkomersen, were arrested in an act of civil disobedience in the Friends of the Israel Defense Force offices in New York.   You can view the action here.  Their courage is a source of inspiration at this dark time.  There are many Jews out there who know in their very bones that the State of Israel is betraying what they hold most dear about our legacy and increasing numbers of us are willing to say “not in my name!”

The prophets teach us that the only source of security is justice and love.  The prophets of our time are not to be found in the mainstream Jewish community, they are to be found on the streets of America and the streets of Israel.  At great cost, they courageously speak truth to power, calling for a negotiated settlement to the conflict  based on justice, dignity and love for everyone who lives in Israel/Palestine.  It is ultimately the only way both Israelis and Palestinians will find security.

Every day brings another horrifying series of images and reports about the suffering in Gaza. Today was another such day.  Every day also brings images of people in our country, in Israel and around the world, protesting the Israeli assault.

May the ceasefire come soon, a true ceasefire that brings an end to the siege on Gaza and a real commitment by Israel to negotiate an end the occupation, the settlement program and the siege of Gaza.  If the at the end of these hostilities there is no real negotiation, we will be back at the same point one, two, or three years from now, when Israel will again “mow the lawn.”

May our lament turn into a commitment to bring pressure to bear on Israel to turn from the suicidal path it has chosen.


  1. In Canada and the US we talk about Palestinians as colonialists. “We” have the right to our home, our safety. Palestinians are the First Nations, the Native Palestinians who are fought with all means available. The world will have to watch repeated slaughters of the Palestinians until Americans get sick of it and defeat politicians, lobby groups and media who have a vested interest in maintaining Israel as some kind of fortress in the ME.

  2. Chazak v’Ametz Rabbi Brian you are a fierce speaker of tzedek v’emet, justice and truth. What5 you have written is a painful truth indeed, to watch
    day by day the slaughter of innocence in our name. Alas, the shame is so great we take to hiding behind the edifice of our justifications rather than
    use it to shake ourselves out of our slumber.

  3. Emet. A poignant and eloquent narrative kinah. I’ve been here in I/P since July 4. Oy, meh haya lanu.

  4. Thank you so much for the articulate and compelling case. We need more such voices to carry this message of justice and love.

  5. Dear Brian. I would like to address some of the matters raised here. Let me start by saying that I live in Israel and I am proactively involved in working towards peace. I am a co-founder of a grass roots organisation to this end. I write consistently in the Times of Israel and in fact almost everything I have written in the past two years is generated to evoke this awareness. I initiated a tribute to Mandela with the SA embassy here this month order to stimulate a discourse on that legacy. I am proactively involved with the Geneva Initiative and have visited PLO headquarters in Ramallah and more…
    With respect to Gaza, much of what you describe about the manipulation of the kidnappings by the government is correct, but much of what you write, is I believe, incorrect:
    You say that Gaza has been brutally attacked three times in the past six years but all these instances have been consequent to rocket attacks continuing consistently in greater and lesser degrees for ten years now.
    You say that 1,500 rockets have been fired at Israel with two deaths. Does this mean that Israel should sacrifice one to one deaths on the other side? Israel has spent a great deal of money on protecting its citizens with Iron Dome and very costly safe rooms required in any home or building. Hamas has spent its money arming, creating attack tunnels, building offense rocketry. All this time, the people of Gaza remain impoverished. If this was spent on stimulating the economy, I assure you Israelis would want those goods and the gates would gradually open.
    You talk of root causes. Yes the settlement and occupation regime are wrong however in the case of Hamas the root cause is a belief and ideology based on 1. Racism 2. Islamic supremacy 3. fundamentalist sanctity of death over life 4.Open praise of Bin Laden 5.Education of minors to hate and discriminate 6. Intolerance to Christians and other religions 7. A loathing and abuse of moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank. This is no freedom movement. This is the very dark side of fanaticism and it works to manifest that belief with or without the “open air prison”. Case in point: When Rabin and Arafat were in a peace process, Hamas was killing children in Tel Aviv. “The only solution is a negotiated settlement” is sadly – and I say this with respect – a boiler-plate platitude. Evidence works against this. Every cease-fire intended to calm things down to mediation and moderation have been used to grow a vast killing machine – all premeditated. For Hamas, the Jewish State is occupied territory. End of story. There is no empirical evidence to suggest otherwise and there is much empirical evidence to suggest that vague phrases over the years are no more than transparent covers for a terrible charter at the heart of this fanatic group. Dear Brian – ask from them only one thing to start with. Take the racism out of the charter. This would be a good start to dialogue with the Western world. I assure you, you will be met with a blank stare.
    You posit the conspiracy theory that this is no war of defense but a ruse to prolong the occupation. I believe you are very wrong, and despite your intimate knowledge of Israel, very out of touch. No country can or will bear rockets on its citizens. The current offensive is aimed at stopping that, demilitarizing Hamas whether by force or by diplomatic means.
    Of course a prolonged occupation and settlement regime is catastrophic however,a Lebanonized Palestine controlled by militants with a facade of democracy is not a solution for Israel. We need something better.

  6. Thanks once again for your prophetic voice.

    I lament the damage Israel has done to the the moral presence of Judaism, to Judaism’s history filled with partisans for social justice, and to current Judaism in the diaspora. I just checked again the website of Reform Judaism, the “liberal” Jewish denomination, and see a continued singular, blind “Stand With Israel” position, an announcement of Reform rabbis travelling to Israel to “show solidarity,” and what I can only regard as a wilful misrepresentation of the Presbyterian Church’s resolution on divesting from companies “profiting from operations in occupied Palestinian territory” (not, as URJ says, from companies doing business in Israel). Despite the more than one thousand Palestinian civilians killed in this latest assault and all the evidence on who is primarily responsible for the conflict, “Official” liberal and less-liberal US Judaism promotes almost total silence, occasional hand-wringing, but never an honest appraisal of Israel’s morality/immorality.

    Here’s a personal story of one horrific effect Jewish silence on Israel’s actions is having on Jews: Last week I participated in a demonstration calling for an end-of-the-assault-on-Gaza Our group was gathered and holding signs in front of the local federal building. I was standing with my sign (“Not In My Name”) at the curb. A car, driven by a young man, maybe in his 20s or early 30s, who identified himself as Jewish and start yelling about how we were supporting Hamas terrorists. I walked over to the car, started talking about the Israeli attacks and said something about myself being Jewish and having lost family in the Holocaust. Before I could say more, he replied, “It’s too bad the Germans didn’t kill your mother and father.”

    Surely an extreme “defense” of Israel — and a remark that has been hurled at Jewish demonstrators in Israel — but that one Jew could say this to another is one measure of current Jew compassion and morality that “we stand with Israel (right or wrong)” has fostered.

    1. geraldcoles hello from Israel. If have described who I am in comment 8 above. First let me say that this unknown person who delivered a clearly anti-Semitic verbal attack on you represents no one, I hope of true Jewish faith. It is of course also not representative of any side of this discourse but way outside. People like this exist and do damage. When they resort to violence, we are all under attack and then the question is – what does one do?
      geraldcoles, Rabbi Brian laments for Gaza and for what he believes is the moral degradation of the Jewish people. After the rise from the ashes of the holocaust, the course of Jewish action world wide with consensus of the nations of the world was a solution of nationhood. That nationhood has brought with it a terrible burden of self-defense and a very imperfect moral foundation. If only self-defense could be dished out in reasonable proportions, we would all feel better however the extremity, violence and commitment of our enemies has evoked responses that created exigencies for the establishment of our state rather than have us undergo another holocaust here. Unfortunately such has been the course of history here. Our greatest element of corruption of values, is of course our government’s inability to part with land captured following the unprovoked attack from Jordan during the six day war. Rather that leverage that strategic advantage to try to solve problems, Israel has stumbled both willingly and unwittingly into a cycle of colonial occupation. Having said that, its important to note that if every stone of occupied territory was returned tomorrow, Israel would be extremely vulnerable to a wide possibility of threats and attacks, the most obvious of course the complete and total disruption of urban existence all within several kilometers from the West Bank. These genuine security concerns have provided a long term sense of domination by settlement fanatics. To roll all of this back is a huge challenge.
      One of the key factors that worry anyone and everyone here is the threat of Islamic fundamentalist extremism that matches anything you may find in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. Its most powerful front is the Hamas and I urge all readers here to take an evening, run through their covenant and internalize and analyze what we and indeed any free liberal minded nation in the world is up against. There is everything to suggest they work to manifest this canon in full and very very little other than a few sentences by some leaders to suggest there is anyone to really engage with there. While Rabin spoke to Arafat, they dismembered children in Tel Aviv. When Barak spoke to Arafat, they sent women disguised as pregnant into restaurants to decimate anyone there – children, families, Arabs, Jews. For you 9/11 was an event. From then on it all happened in another country in another place. Here we live with this ethos, deep within a terrible culture of violence, a belief in death over life and world domination.
      For you this sounds as bizarre as the Joker in Batman. For us, this is a very disturbing reality and while it creates a corrupting counter reaction, we absolutely have to find maximum protection with minimum losses. If you cannot stomach a rude man insulting you in the street, how would you possibly tolerate a determined, large body of extremists, practiced in the art of premeditated murder, at your doorstep. You didn’t even bother to engage the rude person who insulted you – and you expect us to sit here quivering and wait for the next rocket to kill someone.
      That is how we got to where we got to. You and Brian may think you have all the answers – negotiation, engaging, reaching out, working with the other. And that, by the way, is what I do. But as Hillel said, If I am not for myself, who is for me, and being for my own self, what am ‘I’? So Brian is focused on what am I. And here in Israel, according to a recent survery 93% of the population is worrying about protecting themselves. (By the way 21% of Israel’s population is Arab so figure that one out – the majority of that minority is voting this way too). But there is another phrase – And if not now when. I respect your meditation on the issue of who we are. You need to respect that we are in the midst of a very serious encounter which will continue until the foundations of our enemies are dislodged to a degree that will enable us to engage on the same page, and not that of the Hamas covenant.

      1. so continually removing people from their homes and placing your own people has no effect on the attitudes of the other side?

        whatever has happened from Palestinian side, is negligible compared to the death and destruction caused on the Palestinian people for the last 60 years. don’t you agree?

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