An Open Letter to Joshua Leifer

Dear Joshua,

We haven’t met, and you don’t know me, but I know you. Having read your September 1st blog post in The Times of Israel, I feel compelled to reach out to you with this letter. You see, I too am a Solomon Schechter graduate with an activist’s heart. In 1970 I made repeated calls to the Soviet Embassy protesting the plight of Soviet Jews. I was in elementary school and “forgot” to ask my parents’ permission first. My acts of protest came to light only when the phone bill arrived. In November, 1975 I took a break from preparing for my bar mitzvah, and marched in a protest against the infamous UN Resolution 3379 which declared “Zionism equals racism.” Adults and children marched for miles along a major thoroughfare carrying a coffin draped with a pall that read “The U.N. is Morally Dead.” Twenty five years later right before Veteran’s Day on 12 November 1990, I stood on the dais at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza across from the United Nations with Senator Patrick Moynihan, Israeli Consul General Uriel Savir, Rabbi Avi Weiss, and my friend Eli Wurtman among others, continuing that protest. It was my first semester of rabbinical school; I was an enlisted veteran of the US Navy with first-hand experience with Islamic terror groups. That’s why Eli invited me to be on the dais that Veteran’s Day to share a devar Torah and lead a crowd well over 1,500 strong in a protest chant. We raised our voices and demanded “It’s Time To Right A Wrong.” Just over a year later, the UN revoked their shameful claim. I’ve been there, and I get it. I understand the call to speak truth to power in a prophetic voice. We are kindred spirits. And with that connection, I suggest with a heavy heart that because of the fact you have a conscious and care deeply about justice, you may well have been duped and used.

You call the last war with Hamas “unjust and avoidable.” I don’t know where this demonstrably untrue charge finds its basis beyond the propaganda of Israel’s enemies. Hamas started the war by committing war crimes with indiscriminate attacks against non-military targets, e.g. civilian population centers. The support you saw was not “for war.” It was support against being victimized by a recognized terror organization committing war crimes. The primary responsibility of every responsible government is the safety of its people. Israel made it clear to Hamas:  you get what you give.  Calm begets calm. Attacks beget attacks. By every recognized code of international law, Israel’s defensive efforts to preclude attacks aimed to kill civilians are patently legal and just. The war certainly was avoidable; Hamas opted to push ahead anyway. The Netanyahu government showed restraint for months if not years before the tipping point was broached. Perhaps the PM’s advisers were pushing the distinction between Hamas, and the general population of Gaza. I know that there were many Israelis who, in the early stages of Protective Shield, felt similar to you that the Netanyahu government made an active decision to go to war when it did not have to do so. Evidently, it was the discovery of the terror tunnels leading to kindergarten playgrounds that caused them to reassess their initial position.

You decry the “blind support” of the American Jewish community of this response. I see a different reality. I see a reaction among many long-standing and vocal Jewish American and Israeli supporters of a Palestinian state that appreciates this response was necessary. The range of Hamas’ M302 rockets literally puts almost the entire country under threat. The support you saw wasn’t for the Netanyahu government going to war; it was for government’s obligation to protect our families and our friends. As former MK Dr. Einat Wilf (also a self-professed devout “lefty”) recently said, “If my choice is to choose them or us, I choose us.” There is nothing immoral in that choice.

You wrote you are motivated by the need for accountability, and claim that American Jewish organizations provided Israel the necessary cover for “violence against civilians in Gaza, martial law for millions in the West Bank, and racist incitement in Israel’s streets.” I again fear you have been fed a diet of disingenuous claims, and have swallowed it uncritically. Israel’s “knock on the door” policy was so effective in saving Palestinian lives that Hamas had to send armed troops to force residents back into buildings about to be bombed. Inviting Israeli retaliatory strikes and the use of human shields by Hamas was the real violence against the Palestinian population. The IDF air strike controllers would wave off missions if pilots reported civilians at target sites; this is not only documented, you can see it yourself on YouTube. While the West Bank certainly has an Israeli military presence, maintaining law and order is the purview of the Palestinian Authority and its police force. The few and deplorable acts of racism by Israelis—in the streets or in social media—were immediately decried by the municipal and national authorities, investigated by the police, and suspects arrested quickly; it only took Jerusalem police four days to arrest multiple suspects in Mohammed abu Khdeir’s murder. PM Netanyahu condemned it the day it occurred (I don’t know if you are aware of it, but The New York Times twice misrepresented that fact and eventually printed a correction for its errors on 9 July). Yes, some in government and some rabbinic figures voiced approval of racist behavior—only to be roundly decried by the overwhelming majority of Israeli society from secular to haredi. This quick and decisive condemnation is a point of pride for Israel, and for Americans of all backgrounds who appreciate Israel’s fundamental commitment to democratic values. The incitement to racism not reigned in was that expressed by certain Arab Members of Knesset. It was also expressed by Abu Khdeir’s family members in front of Israelis who came to offer condolences to them; I had friends and colleagues there who experienced it. Israeli Jews were arrested for racist incitement; none of these Israeli Arabs were.

You cite your Zionist credentials, and then state “But three military operations in the Gaza Strip over the past five years and an occupation that grows more intractable each day have made that kind of unquestioning support impossible.” Certainly you are intelligent enough to know the numbers:  after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005 through this summer, over 11,000 Hamas artillery attacks fell on Israel. Three military interventions in the course of five years appear pretty restrained by comparison. “The occupation” of Gaza certainly exists; Gaza has rightfully been called the world’s largest open air prison. Yet it is Hamas who makes it so, not Israel.  (It is telling that other Arab states have forced Hamas to admit it doesn’t fight Israel because of “the occupation.” They now affirm the fight with Israel is because the Hamas charter demands the destruction of the Jewish State.) Even during Operation Protective Edge, Israel created windows of opportunity for relief goods to enter Gaza, and for civilians to access medical care in Israel on a daily basis.  It is interesting to note that Egypt was far less willing to open their Rafah passage and for good reason:  they did not want Hamas returning to Egypt and recreating its havoc there.

Joshua, the biggest concern I have with your claim here is the idea that our support of Israel is expected to be unquestioning. In my experience, that just simply is not true. If anything, our willingness to be critical of Israel is what compels our support for it, be we Israelis or American Jews. We are not automatons absent the ability to reason. The ability to see critical challenges invites, if not demands, our commitment to be part of the larger solution. It is precisely the young IDF recruits who are critical of policy towards the Palestinians that the IDF wants to see wearing officer’s insignia. It is our willingness as American Jews to see better possibilities for Israel that compels us to work toward meaningful and sustainable solutions to her challenges. If anyone has suggested to you that there is no room for a critical appraisal of Israeli society and the Israeli government, they have done you and Israel both a deep disservice.

You are absolutely correct that many people in the American Jewish community with the roles of responsibility and leadership have modeled unedifying conduct. Haval aleinu; woe upon us. But then again, that is the challenge of living in an open and democratic country. People have the right to say mean and hurtful things. Yet, there are many leaders, teachers, rabbis, and committed Jews who have modeled different responses. Many rabbis especially have taken great heat for doing so, because their congregants are too concerned for the very lives of their families in Israel to appreciate nuanced statements based on enduring Jewish values. I appreciate your outrage for those who pander to this fear for their own benefit. At the same time let’s appreciate and commend the unsung moral bravery of the religious and secular leadership of our Jewish community who have unceasingly reminded us that we know too well that the “dehumanization of the other” is not the Jewish way.

Joshua, there is so much more I could say, but I fear that I have already said more than you want to hear.  I hope I am wrong; I hope that with your emotionally compassionate heart you still have an intellectually open mind for this conversation. I know that you have written elsewhere that you are still engaged in dialogue with Zionism even though you identify as an “ex-Zionist.” I trust you when you make that claim; I know your activist heart and call to use your prophetic voice would be undermined otherwise. After all, your assessment of the future of Jewish life is absolutely on the mark. Just as “the generations come and the generations pass”, so too do the hallmark organizations they cherish.  The organizations that don’t disappear survive only because they continually transform themselves to stay vital and relevant.  Stay engaged in the conversation, so that you can be a part of creating the next generation of Jewish life along with the organizations that will be meaningful for the needs of the community yet to come. You are right:  you and your peers will build it, and then you will need to sustain it. That fact is unavoidable.

But Joshua, I urge you, indeed it is my prayer: just as you are willing to be critical of Israel, just as you are willing to be critical of the organizations that dominate the landscape of the American Jewish community today, be equally critical when digesting the statements you hear at Princeton and elsewhere that seem to speak to your heart. Question their veracity with a check of unimpeachable sources. Ask their proponents for the essence of the counterarguments; I sense they won’t be so forthcoming. You might find that on reflection, the agenda they support is no less palatable than the other agendas you otherwise eschew. There is no surer way to lose the compassion in your heart and the ability to speak in a prophetic voice than to be manipulated by others. Don’t let that happen; don’t get used up by someone else’s agenda. Protect your ability to effect change in the long term. You are the Jewish future and you bring much to the table. If you are not going to be for us, who will be?  If not, then what?

B’virkat shalom,


Rabbi David Greenspoon, Baltimore, MD

About the Author
Rabbi David Greenspoon is a rabbi, educator, and writer. He is a popular guest rabbinic scholar at numerous Jewish, Christian, community Interfaith, and secular academic settings.
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