Steven Moskowitz

Israel’s Responsibilities to Gaza’s Children

Although Purim is celebrated with laughter and revelry, the megillah concludes on a violent note. We dwell on the joy. We forget the violence. We hide it behind costumes and masks. The Book of Esther declares: “So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies…  They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes.” (Esther 9)

We forget how the war started.

It begins with antisemitic violence and genocidal hate.

It was not only that Hamas terrorists attacked Israeli communities and murdered innocent people. It was that Hamas terrorists invaded Israelis’ homes, butchered, and brutally murdered people. They raped women and girls. They took people hostages where they continue to brutalize and rape them. They desecrated the dead and took bodies captive. This is what started the war. Hamas represents the worst of humanity. They are akin to the Nazis who likewise filmed their atrocities.

Israel has every right, and duty, to attack the perpetrators. It must fulfill its obligations to its citizens to safeguard their lives and their homes. But these truths do not mean that this war can be won the way it is currently being fought. Hamas represents an ideology. And if we learned nothing else from the so-called war on terror then let us learn this: we cannot completely destroy an ideology, even one as evil and murderous as Hamas’ by military means alone.

Israel can kill the majority of Hamas terrorists. It can destroy much of its weapons.  It can cut off most of its supply routes, although to be honest only a small fraction of its tunnels. It can curtail a good deal of Hamas’ funding, although for that it needs the cooperation of other nations and the good will of other countries which it could very well be squandering, or if you prefer rightly angering. It can perhaps make it impossible for Hamas to continue its rule over Gaza.

But Israel cannot eradicate an ideology. For that it needs a political alternative. And the only alternative is some form of sovereignty and autonomy for Palestinians.  While a Palestinian state may seem like a dangerous proposition in the short term, in the long term meaningful Palestinian self-rule is the only alternative I can imagine to Hamas’ antisemitic ideology of hate and murder. Israel must find a way to take concrete steps toward building Palestinian sovereignty. It must engage, and support, partners (like Saudi Arabia!) who support this long-term strategic solution.

As Israel’s justified war enters its sixth month, the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza not only fuels the starvation of innocent children who bear no responsibility for voting Hamas into power but also strengthens the very ideology Israel seeks to destroy. All the children see are Israeli soldiers and bombs. All the children see is their destroyed homes and their dead relatives. All the children feel are their starving bellies.

Can Israel’s army destroy Hamas’ remaining battalions and its top leaders in Rafah and its weapons supply routes without causing catastrophic suffering? I am growing increasingly worried that Israel can achieve this. I do know that if Israel simultaneously pressed its attack while also embracing the idea of future Palestinian sovereignty without Hamas’ rule the situation might appear slightly more hopeful. I understand Israelis’ concerns about Palestinian sovereignty. Look at the October 7th massacre! Look at the United Nations funded Palestinian textbooks that too often include antisemitic tropes! And yet I know of no other alternative to endless violence and war.

While Israel is not at fault for starting this war it must assume responsibility for the current humanitarian crisis. It must assume responsibility for envisioning what a better Gaza might look like. Blaming Hamas for starting the hostilities does not negate Israel’s current responsibilities. Accurately ascribing fault does not absolve Israel of its moral duty to Gaza’s innocent.

I will not forget the pain that started this war. I also will not forget the pain that continues in the underground tunnels. The hostages’ bellies cry out in hunger as well. And I will not shut my eyes to the pain that continues among Gaza’s children.  Where are the leaders—Palestinian and Israeli—who might rise up and offer an alternative to those who see perpetual war as the only continued answer?

I am certain Benjamin Netanyahu (as well as many of his radical coalition partners) is the wrong leader for this moment in Israeli history. His stubborn unwillingness to discuss Palestinian sovereignty endangers not only Israel’s moral stature but its long-term security interests. I am less sure that such certainties should be proclaimed from the Senate floor, although I will always defend the right of friends and allies to offer heartfelt critiques. Right or wrong this lengthy war erodes Israel’s moral standing. How does it serve Israel’s interest—moral and strategic—to starve Gaza? The children are hungry and starving!

Yes, we must defend ourselves. Yes, we must protect and safeguard our citizens and rescue our hostages. Yes, first the hostages must come home. And yes, a nation can prioritize its own people’s lives over those of others. I make no apology for loving my family more than others. Yet, conquering and subjugating were never part of our dreams.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence declares, “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.” Our continued delay in planning for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians not only endangers our moral standing but the very security we are fighting to protect.

I will not forget who and what is to blame. Hamas is evil. I will also never forgo speaking about our nation’s responsibilities. Israel must do more to live up to its moral code. The Jewish state can always do better. Blame does not negate responsibility. In Israel’s legitimate defense of itself it may lose sight if its Zionist aspirations.

We returned to our nation’s ancient land to safeguard Jewish lives and reinvigorate the Jewish spirit. We did not return so that we might rule over another people. Securing our safety means pressing for a political solution as much as pursuing a military response.

I am left hoping and praying that we might find some way out of this death and destruction. I pray for peace, or even a respite, for my people and all people.

I pray that Purim’s raucous joy might return to our hearts, and we might forget its spasms of violence.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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