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Michael Zoosman

Confronting Blind Spots: A Call for Constructive Dialogue on Israel/Palestine

Image: The Brandeis Seal, which borrows from Psalm 51. Source: https://www.brandeis.edu/library/archives/essays/archives/brandeis-seal.html
Note: This article was first published in the Jurist on April 11, 2024 under the title: “Confronting Blind Spots: A Call for Constructive Dialogue on Israel’s Response to Hamas”

Constructive dialogue over complex issues seems increasingly difficult to find in these extremely polarizing times. For the Jewish community of which I am a part, the highly valued idea of any such “makhloket l’sheim shamayim” — the Talmudic notion of an argument for the sake of heaven — seems all the more elusive when attempting to debate how Israel has responded in the half-year since the horrific Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7th, 2023. It behooves me, then, to highlight one particularly powerful example of effective civil discourse that has directly impacted me and that I feel might serve as a model for how to move toward greater mutual understanding.

My esteemed colleague Rabbi Reuben Modek has penned an erudite, insightful, and respectful response to the essay that I recently published that was entitled “The Cost of Revenge: A Cantor’s Critique of Israel’s Response to Hamas.” My op-ed had shared the lens through which I as a Jewish death penalty abolitionist understand the current war. I specifically delved into the latent, insidious role that the desire for revenge has played in the complex, multifaceted calculus of Israel’s tactics in the war against Hamas. Rabbi Modek’s response to my piece is called “The Shahid’s Sanctuary — a critique of Zoosman’s “The Cost of Revenge… Israel’s Response to Hamas.” His essay draws upon the author’s direct experience of living and working in Israel since long before October 7th. In crafting this thought-provoking reply, Rabbi Modek has opened my eyes to some of the blind spots inherent in how I have been viewing this war — blind spots that inevitably blur any singular human being’s personal lens. Living so far from the frontlines here in the United States, I of course cannot claim to have a full appreciation of all the details of what is transpiring on the ground. And yet, this same distance cuts both ways. It also affords me a clearer viewpoint from which to perceive the aspects of this conflagration that I likely would have missed if I were more directly impacted. Like Rabbi Modek, I, too — as an ordained member of the Jewish clergy who exercises leadership in my community — have a responsibility to voice my concerns, and not simply to toe the party line on Israel. Both of our perspectives — and all those in between — must be duly considered.

While many colleagues inside and outside the Jewish community either heartily agreed or respectfully disagreed with my column’s conclusions, far too great a number of individuals I hold in high regard reacted by hurling ad hominem attacks that accused me — even as a third-generation Holocaust survivor — of having internalized antisemitic tropes. Another wrote to me that the “blood of my brothers” who had fought and died for Israel was calling out to me, demanding that I stop spewing such falsehoods. I read this as a reference to the Biblical narrative in Genesis 4: 10 of the Divine’s exclamation to Cain after he murdered his brother, adjuring “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” Might not, I wonder, the blood of my cousins and their children — the scions of Abraham’s son Ishmael — also be calling out to me? Over the years, I regretfully have grown accustomed to bearing the brunt of antisemitic attacks from certain extremist death penalty proponents. Not until recently, though, did I have to endure such sinat chinam (“baseless hatred”) from members of my own Jewish community accusing me of being a self-hating Jew whose writing may pose an existential threat to my people. From many off-the-record conversations and correspondence with other Jewish leaders, it would appear that I am far from alone in feeling this way. Public discourse on this matter has become toxic — palpably so. As a death penalty abolitionist, whenever I deign to wade into these fraught waters, I cannot help but hear in my mind the echoes of the chorus that Roman gladiators supposedly professed to Caesar before fighting to the death in the Colosseum: Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant” — “we who are about to die, salute you!

Rabbi Modek’s persuasive and heartfelt response to my essay provided a most welcome counterpoint to the harsh rhetoric that has created this unhealthy public climate. His gracious, nuanced tone helped me to remember that, even if it is true that ”an element of revenge” — as one source recently told the Guardian — has assuredly played a role in the motivations behind the IDF’s response in Gaza, there are other overlapping truths as well that should not be ignored. Indeed, the layered underlying motivations behind the actions of any individual are rarely easy to discern, particularly when obscured by the fog of war. In the annals of my Jewish tradition, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah recognized this truth millennia ago when he wrote: “Most devious is the heart; It is perverse—who can fathom it?” (17: 9)

As I strive to unpack this complexity, forgive me if I again find myself turning to another infamous capital case, this one involving American founding father John Adams. Before he was a Continental Congress member and US president, Adams famously served as defending counsel for the seven British soldiers facing execution over their role in killing five Americans and injuring six others in the so-called “Boston Massacre” on March 5, 1770. After unpopularly demonstrating how the colonists had provoked the British soldiers into firing upon them, Adams wrote: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Rabbi Modek’s perspective has reminded me of this fact, just as I hope my vantage point from a distance also has done so for readers.

As I see it, since the publication of Rabbi Modek’s essay, two particularly striking developments have offered startlingly contrary examples of how Israel may or may not be modeling appropriate responses to “blind spots.” One was the IDF’s Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi’s attempt to issue an ostensible apology after the Israeli military strike that tragically killed seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen. Neither his words nor any of the disciplinary or preventative actions that the Israeli government has since taken can bring back these courageous souls, and all of these responses to be sure fall short of the calls for an independent investigation. Still, this behavior at least reflects a willingness, however lacking, to acknowledge what in this case was a lethal “blind spot,” and — hopefully — a readiness to learn from it moving forward. A stark counterexample to this was Israel’s decision this past week to ban the news channel Al Jazeera from broadcasting, citing a danger to national security. This censorship poses a much greater threat than any hateful comments that I received from my original essay; it serves to silence the opposition entirely. Such behavior inches the land of Israel that I love ever closer to authoritarianism.

I pray that Israel takes a cue from Rabbi Modek’s eloquent and important response to my essay. He has helped to open my eyes, just as I hope my words have assisted even in any small way in reaching some hearts and minds. I am reminded of the title of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield’s book, imploring the reader to remember that You don’t have to be Wrong for me to be Right. The Talmudic notion of “Teiku” (“let it stand”) effectively sanctifies this striking paradox, carving out a sacred space in Jewish tradition that allows for the coexistence of contrary opinions. This is holy ground that I myself have experienced in public debate with other Jewish leaders over the question of whether or not the Tree of Life synagogue shooter deserved the penalty of death.

It is essential that this kind of open dialogue between reasonable minds be allowed to flourish as society strains to comprehend what has unfolded in Israel over the course of the past six months. Meaningful discourse is the sine qua non to the creation of the kaleidoscope of perspectives so necessary for illuminating the blind spots that litter humanity’s diverse lenses. Debate, when conducted constructively, has the potential to pave the most direct path toward a fuller scale and scope of the truth. As Psalm 51 and the seal of my Brandeis University alma mater affirm, this can lead to the disclosure of a deeper “truth…even unto its innermost parts.”

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM, is a board-certified Chaplain (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains), co-founder of “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” and a member of the advisory committee of Death Penalty Action.

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain –  Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action

*This article is the opinion of its author and does not reflect any specific policy position of Death Penalty Action with regard to candidates for political office.

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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