Jews need to get real about Gaza, and with it, the rest of Palestine. By getting real, I don’t mean only getting tough. That we have done and are continuing to do. And being tough is certainly a survival virtue of the New Jew created by the Zionist project that in its Religious Zionist iteration employs a swath of Pentateuchal edicts and Early Prophetic narratives. I am arguing for our accessing Rabbinic Talmudic and Halakhic insights that allow another faculty to be utilized: empathy.
Empathy once was considered the defining mark of being Jewish. Jews were Rachmanim B’nai Rachmanim – Empathetic Ones the children of Empathetic Ones. This faculty/identity has withered considerably in our State, especially with regards to the Palestinian plight. Indeed being empathetic to them in my religious community is considered either the mark of a traitor or an idiot – “after what THEY planned and attempted to do to us how can you speak of RACHMANUT?!”
That response conflates all Gazans into one THEY – which is just not true when you are talking about children as well. It also refuses to look at their present agony. To understand the latter we need to turn to our own Rabbinic responses to trauma.
Maimonides (Spain, Egypt, 1138-1204) lists 12 forms of Anguish that call for “fasting and wailing” (Laws of Fasts, Chapter 2), among them “the Sword” and “the Ruin”. He explains: “what is ‘the Sword’? Even a sword of peace as when there is a war of one (non-Jewish) nation against another; and they pass through an Israelite locale even when there is no war between them and Israel – this is nonetheless an Anguish (tzarah) and we fast… for the very seeing of war is Anguish.” To make it clear – the very viewing of war, or even potential war is an anguishing and traumatic event even when it is not directed towards you. We fought a war directed against Hamas – damage to innocents was huge: read B’Tselem’s new report. And a great number of traumatized and anguished civilians and children resulted, even amongst those who were not listed as “casualties”.
And Anguish doesn’t easily end. Maimonides explains “the Ruin” as “a city whose once healthy walls collapse… this is Anguish… and so the Quakes and Forces that collapse buildings and kill – we fast and sound the shofar.” Is this not an accurate evocation of life amongst the ruins of Gaza? And in this discussion we should consider a certain degree of Jewish enlightened self-interest: it is fantasy to think that we will protect ourselves only through the Sword. An anguished, traumatized people will eventually lift up its head, but not to make peace or even “just be quiet”. There may be “a time for slaying”, but there must be “a time for healing”. (Ecclesiastes 3:3)
From a strictly Halakhic point of view, Moslem Palestinians are covenanted B’nai Noach – children of Noah who are completely in compliance with the seven universal laws of ethics. Those who live in Israel are the modern day equivalent of the ancient Ger Toshav (resident convert) who is accorded full economic, legal and moral rights in our country. And our empathy. Those who fight us obviously will face a tough hand. But to encounter THEM as an evil totality is to push them all into the enemy camp. And worse, it serves to erase our own identity. If one lacks this quality of empathy, of being Rachmanim, one cannot cleave to the nation of Israel (Tractate Yevamot 79a). Indeed Maimonides rules (Laws of Forbidden Intercourse 19:17) for the lineage obsessed amongst my co-believers, that a “Jew” who has no mercy is probably not really a Jew. A tough hand, yes, but where is its twin soft hand, which has defined our very being for 2,000 years?