Left-Wing American Jews When the Bombs Fall

Hundreds of rockets and bombs have been launched this weekend directly into population centers in Israel killing at least four Israelis and wounding many more. Our defense forces responded, and as I write these words, another, fragile cease-fire is in place. Over the past few days, during the hostilities, professional pundits and armchair philosophers electrified traditional and social media outlets with notes of sympathy and, of course, advice on how to best resolve the conflict. Calls of support and comradery, while we are under attack, are a boost to morale and always a welcome and appreciated. However, the advice can be, well, a bit unsettling.

On the one hand, are outlandish and immoral calls to “carpet bomb” and hence “turn Gaza into a parking lot.” To be sure, General Sherman’s claim that war his hell certainly rings true and all conflicts, as he surely knew, include casualties even from those not directly involved in the hostilities; however, it seems unconscionable and indeed a violation of modern war ethics to indiscriminately bomb civilian targets even when the enemy shows no such moral fiber. As Walzer argues in Just and Unjust Wars, not only the cause but the method of warfare must be justified. This very idea is codified in the IDF code of ethics, “IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war.” So suggestions “to wipe out the entire population of Gaza” should shake one’s moral fiber and not be heard. Yet, despite my disdain for these calls, which honestly are little more than chest-thumping, they don’t disturb me in the same way as those from the other side of the political aisle.

Personally, I find more disturbing the announcements of Jewish organizations such as If Not Now (INN) sending support only to the people of Gaza or statements by Jewish human rights organizations declaring that we Israelis don’t really need to go to war if we don’t want to and are willing to risk our lives.

I have tried to understand why these statements bother me so since, let’s be honest, the Israeli government, my government, doesn’t listen to either set of voices. So why do I find them so disturbing? Why, do they cause me visceral reactions? Why should I care if liberal voices in the American Jewish community don’t reflect a basic understanding of our situation in Israel?

Bear with me for a little, personal, psycho-analysis.

Once in high school,  a visit to the doctor required that I miss some classes. My high school was rather strict, and one could only be readmitted to class with a note from the dean of students excusing the absence. Without such a letter, punishment for truancy consisted of the annoying “Saturday Suspension.” This required one to pick up litter for three hours on a Saturday morning. My mother, a very rule-abiding type, made sure to give me the requisite permission slip to return to the dean allowing for my absence. And, as many absent-minded high school students do, in between the time I left my mother’s car and the time when I arrived two minutes later to the dean’s office I lost the note. Without a letter from a parent, my fate was sealed.

I pleaded my case, but the dean would not relent. Without written confirmation from a parent, I would have to serve my punishment. However, I thought I had a plan. I recently began keeping Shabbat and hence coming to school on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, was a violation of my new found religious faith. In deference to God, I could not, in good conscience, work on Saturday. I returned home and explained the issue to my mother who was supportive of Shabbat observance and moving in that direction as well. I thought that this would resolve the issue since one, I really was with my mother at the doctor, and two, my religion prevented me from serving my sentence.

My mother called the dean, and after hanging up the phone, she explained. First, the dean suggested, that for me to get out of the punishment, even though I had really been at the doctor would unfair to other students. He further pointed out that there was no reason he couldn’t rename the “Saturday Suspension” to “Sunday Suspension.” And indeed, the dean wrote me down for a “Saturday Suspension” to be worked off on Sunday, changing only the day of the week, not the name, as punishment for having skipped class. I love my mother, may she rest in peace, but I feel she dropped the ball. Was the coach right? Maybe, but at the time I felt that the truth was beside the point. I felt it her duty to fight for me not to listen to the dean’s “fairness” speech. She would not hear of it. The dean said what he said and what is fair is fair.

At the time I felt that this was an opportunity to look out for me and felt that my mother let me down for a universal claim: What’s fair is fair!

As a side point, it is worth noting that of course, the world isn’t even always as fair as people make it out to be. This dean forgot to mention that not only was he the dean of students but he happened to also be one of the football coaches. It was well known that football players worked off their time by showing up to the regularly scheduled Saturday football practice. So I received punishment for something I hadn’t really done to make everything look fair in a world where people choose to omit some inconvenient facts.

Even had this been a case of what is right for the group over what was right for me, I still felt let down. Sometimes, you just need to feel that someone is on your side right or wrong.

Moving from the childish to the harsh reality.

Why I find the attitudes of Left-leaning American Jews regarding Israel so aggravating even while I find that those on the far right are making an immoral suggestion?

For all their bluster, they and we know that the IDF and the Israeli government are ruled by strict ethical standards and despite the calls to the contrary will never fight in a manner which belies those standards. We also know that those calling for such drastic actions are doing so out of absolute loyalty to the Jewish State. They want to protect Israel at all costs. They want the IDF to use all means possible to defend Israeli civilians – meaning my family and me. They are acting like the mother screaming at the soccer match supporting her kids. Their bluster is one of love and loyalty to friends and family. It might go too far as families sometimes do. But at the end of the day, I hear a lot of love for the citizens of Israel in those outlandish statements. And with rising global antisemitism, we need all the love we can get.

What about those who say they love Israel so much, they just want what is fair and what is right? At least, based on the facts as they perceive them to be?

The founders of If Not Now creatively took their name from the famous statement of Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “[Hillel] used to say: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?” Their rhetoric and pollical stances seem to focus on the second half of his statement, “when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?” No doubt, Hillel seems to celebrate a universal message – that being only for oneself or one’s community is problematic. However, they seem to totally ignore the first half, “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” In rejecting or taking an agnostic stance towards the Jewish state, they seem to choose the universal at the expense of the particular. They seem to worry about justice for all the people in the world even at the expense of justice for their own. We are being battered by rockets, and they are holding vigils for terrorists.

It doesn’t have to be this way. One can have love and loyalty for a particular and not sacrifice a search for universal justice. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “there is a difference all too often ignored, between absoluteness and universality. I have an absolute obligation to my child, but it is not a universal one. Indeed it is precisely this non-universality, this particularity that constitutes parenthood – the ability to feel a bond with this child, not to all indiscriminately. That is what makes love, love: not a generalized affection for persons of such-and-such a type, but a particular attachment to this person in his or her uniqueness. This ability to form an absolute bond of loyalty and obligation to someone in particular as opposed-to persons-in-general goes to the very core of what we mean by being human.” (The Dignity of Difference p. 55)

Here is the crux of the matter: in immediately criticizing Israel, individual American Jews and their organizations, such as INN, have abandoned us. It’s as simple as that. But why? Why do so many – and my Facebook feed is filled, especially with university professors and would be intellectuals, feel the need to use rhetoric which sounds like they want to abandon the Jewish people? While bombs are reigning down on Israeli schools and hospitals, they can’t help but blame Israel. Why?

The French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, said that “even if a jealous husband’s claim about his wife – that she sleeps around with other men – is true, his jealousy is still pathological. Why? The true question is “not is his jealousy well-grounded?”, but “why does he need jealousy to maintain his self-identity?”

Expanding Lacan’s idea, the controversial, iconoclastic, and really funny philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, wrote  “Along the same lines, one could say that even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true – they exploit Germans; they seduce German girls – which they were not, of course, their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) pathological, since it represses the true reason why the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position.”

I think this pretty much sums up INN and many other American Jewish critics of Israel: their approach to Israel is pathological no matter any iota of truth to their claims. They need to attack Israel, even when we are under an unceasing barrage of missiles, in order to justify their own tribal existence — an existence based upon discomfort with Jewish power as reflected in Israel.

This discomfort is deep and expressed candidly by a member of the group of non-Zionist, Jewish intellectuals, Daniel Boyarin. The University of California Berkeley professor writes, ‘I had always been … a sissy who did not like sports, whose mother used to urge me, stop reading and go out and play….I did not think of myself so much as girlish but rather Jewish.” Quoting Harry Brod, Boyarin continues, ‘I was an outsider, not an athlete but an intellectual, fat, shy, and with a stutter for many years. The feminist critique of mainstream masculinity allowed me to convert my envy of those who fit the approved model to contempt. It converted males previously my superiors on the traditional scale to males below me on the new scale.” (unheroic conduct pp. xiii-xiv.) For Boyarin, and I think some others, the entire Zionist endeavor threatens their sense of self: As a Jew in the Diaspora, how do I navigate Jewish power in the State of Israel?

Some respond with pride, comradery, and visceral (and sometimes maybe too visceral) loyalty to we who live in the Jewish State. They see us as family and partners in modern Jewish culture. By the way, there are many members of other faith communities – Christians, Muslims, and others – who have shown and continue to show great support, brotherhood, and comradery for which everyone I know here appreciates and is thankful.

But others, who define their sense of Jewish self in a very different manner, brotherhood and sisterhood with the Jews who muster one of the most powerful armies in the world seems to create profound psychological dissonance – even when the Israelis are running for shelter. They know the IDF will strike back with force. And this is something which it seems upends their sense of self. So they respond to rockets falling on Barzilai Hospital in Ashdod by tweeting, “We stand with Gaza tonight and always” and to the death of an Israeli father of four in Ashkelon by posting old articles claiming Israel need not go to war when even most European leaders see the need for Israeli self-defense.  I don’t know how else to view such sentiments beyond the descriptions of Lacan and Zizek. We are your brothers and sisters for Heaven’s Sake!

During lulls in hostilities, one can have profound and challenging debates about policy. But when the bombs are falling and our citizens are being injured and, Heaven forbid, killed, it’s time for particularism and love not criticism and impartiality.  I would choose hyperbolic encouragement over cold objectivity or worse any day.

Thank you to all those who have and continue to show support. I think we all appreciate it.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.