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.
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.