I’ve been thinking a lot about covering my ears and eyes lately – and I know I’m not alone. It seems like every time I see, hear or read about Israel, I hold my breath. The tragic death of hundreds of Palestinian women and children, the destruction of countless homes and infrastructure, the misery in the streets of Gaza is horrific. At the same time, the anti-Semitic vitriol being spewed in the media and on the streets of cities around the world and close to home is paralyzing. I read of Hamas’ use of civilians as human shields. I see pictures of the tunnels leading from Gaza to the dining Halls of Israeli Kibbutzim. I hear reports from friends and colleagues in Israel about terrorized children fleeing to bomb shelters and safe rooms as rockets land in their neighborhoods. I gaze at the photographs of anguished parents who have to bury children who sacrificed their lives wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces and I want to turn it all off.
But I can’t.
This war has spilled beyond the physical boundaries of the Middle East. There is no escaping the conflict – it is all consuming. The Medieval Hebrew poet, Yehudah Ha-Levi wrote: “My heart is in the East, and I am in the uttermost corner of the West.” His words reflect the ancient pain and longing of Jews to return to the land of Zion. Today, although the physical distances separating the Diaspora community have not changed from the time of Ha-Levi, the reality of instant communication has brought destruction and devastation into our living rooms and computer screens. Our lives are not in danger like our brothers and sisters in Israel, but we feel the conflict, nonetheless. We cannot escape it. So instead of turning away, I find myself on social media platforms sharing articles from all sides of the political landscape. As a result, my Facebook page and Twitter feed are filled with angry accusations that I am (at one and the same time) a callous enabler of the death of women and children and a disloyal Jew whose rabbinic and Zionist credentials are called into question.
Let’s face it – defending Israel’s actions is not always easy. In the face of the exponential death toll unfolding in Gaza, any attempts to place the blame where it belongs – on Hamas’ goal of racking up casualties to engender sympathy around the world – can sound hollow and callous to those who do not understand the true picture. Israel has no choice but to eliminate the sources of rocket fire and the terrorists bent on violence. As horrific as the term “collateral damage” sounds (and is), it is a reality of modern warfare. Hamas knows this very well and they understand that every civilian death is more powerful than any missile they launch or tunnel they dig.
Our tradition teaches that the pursuit of peace is one of the most important mitzvot that we can perform. And yet, there are times when war is a necessary evil. The rabbinic concepts of Milchemet Mitzvah (a war which one fights after being attacked) and Rodeyf (the obligation to prevent an enemy from killing you by attacking him/her first) provide a clear justification for Israel’s engagement with her enemies.
For those who do not understand the history behind this war, Israel is easily portrayed as the aggressor. In our sound-bite world of instant information, few people who are not invested in the topic want to take the time to unpack the decades of conflict that have led up to this point in time. They see death and destruction and the disproportionate casualty reports and they buy into the Palestinian propaganda that portrays Israel as a demonic, colonial occupier.
At the same time, there are those among us who cannot or will not acknowledge that every casualty diminishes the image of God – regardless of who is the victim. They refuse or choose not to acknowledge the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people. This is wrong. As Jews, we are taught that every human life is precious for we are all created in the Image of the Divine. In the Midrash, we read of how God rebukes the angels who rejoice in the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds. “Be quiet! My children are drowning and you rejoice?” (Talmud Sanhedrin, 39b). Recent reports of racist mobs attacking Arabs on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are very sobering. While it is clear that these actions are condemned by the vast majority of Israeli citizens, they nonetheless should give us pause and force us to look at the damage that 66 years of conflict is causing to the psyche of the Jewish state.
Our task, then, is to defend Israel’s right to defend herself without losing our own humanity. If we ignore or (even worse) become immune to the tragedy unfolding in Gaza, we are like our enemies – whose leaders glorify death and suffering as a legitimate weapon of warfare. The Jewish people know all too well the ultimate consequences of dehumanization.
Hamas must be stopped. Their reign of terror – on Israel and on their own people – must be ended. But as soon as the dust has settled and this war is over, we must begin a new campaign – a campaign for a lasting and true peace. It will not be easy to find – and it may take a new generation before it comes to fruition, but we must never stop looking for new pathways for peace.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.