Jeffrey Cahn

Moral Confusion and Danger in T’ruah ‘Open Letter’

On November 19, 2023, the rabbinic human rights organization, T’ruah, published an “An Open Letter From 750 North American Rabbis and Cantors Responding to the Crisis in Israel and Gaza.” While T’ruah is an organization with laudable goals and the letter was signed by hundreds of well-meaning Rabbi’s, many of whom I know and respect, the letter exposes the tragic moral confusion of a liberal Jewry committed to universal values and justice, but whose passion for “tikkun olam” is now being used against Israel and Jews due to a decades-long, relentless propaganda war, now blossoming in full fruition after Hamas’ most recent slaughter of Israelis. Even more tragically, the letter exposes some classic antisemitic tropes that have been internalized by our own Jewish community.

At this time, our support for universalism must now be rooted in a strong Jewish particularism, and expressed as such, or we will literally be playing into the hands of those committed to destroy us (see my post, “Israel’s Fifth Column: The Treason of Liberal Jews”). When Jews speak about the current situation, it is not necessarily what is said, but what is failed to be said that exposes the moral confusion at this time and aids and abets our enemies. 

Keeping the original text of the letter as a reference, I have added what text is necessary to turn the letter from a source of strength and comfort to our enemies to a call for reason and accountability from ALL  parties implicated in this terrible, complex, generations-long, global conflict.  

The Corrected, Reasonable, Morally-Defensible Version of T’ruah’s Nov. 19 “An Open Letter From 750 North American Rabbis and Cantors Responding to the Crisis in Israel and Gaza

[Note: The original letter from T’ruah is printed here in its original form in plain text. My suggested changes are added in bold italics. ]

“A song of ascents. Out of the depths I call You, O ETERNAL. O ETERNAL, listen to my cry; let Your Ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.” (Psalm 130:1)

We are North American rabbis, cantors, and rabbinical and cantorial students writing to share our deep grief and pain after the October 7 terrorist attacks in Israel. We stand in solidarity with our Israeli family and friends who are mourning, healing, and defending their homes from continued attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah, Houthis, other terrorist groups, and the many individuals inspired by jihadist Islamic ideology and funded by Iran and other Arab states. We also stand in solidarity with Jews worldwide who are being demonized and attacked by friends and enemies alike for their support for Israel or simply for being Jews. We mourn the deaths and suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and in the West Bank whose current misery has been brought about by the actions of Hamas but for which the world now blames Israel. We call for the immediate, safe release of the hostages, and for all parties to follow the laws of armed conflict in order to ensure the safety of Israeli and Palestinian civilians. But while we may “call” for this, we have no real expectation that the legitimately elected and ruling party of the government of Gaza — namely Hamas — or the ruling party of the government of Lebanon — namely Hezbollah — or any of their allies such as Iran, Yemen, Syria, Russian or Afghanistan, will in any way, shape, or form follow any so-called “laws of armed conflict,” a Western construct which the parties involved other than Israel have no cultural or historical allegiance to or sympathy for. We won’t even suggest, much less pressure via other state actors that actually DO have influence, that these countries or groups do so because it would be laughable. We only really expect this standard to apply to Israel – in other words, it is a classic “double standard”. We justify taking on this double standard by convincing ourselves that these other nations are just misguided at best or evil at worse and can’t help themselves, but we can and we owe it the world to be “ a light unto the nations.”  But we are mistaken — these countries are very clear and logical that war is about destroying the will and body of your opponent and “barbaric” acts (e.g. what we call, “war crimes”) are an effective and reasonable strategy to achieve their political goals. Our acceptance of the implication that it is our responsibility only to behave in a certain way is a classic antisemetic trope and it is exposing the extent to which those who hate us have succeeded in convincing Jews to act against our own interests.

On October 7, the army representing the legitimately elected government of Gaza — an army who has been supplied, supported, and hidden by the people of Gaza, and led by the duly elected terrorist organization Hamas — brutally attacked southern Israel. Indiscriminately murdering at least 1,200 people — including babies and children, teenagers, and the elderly — and taking approximately 200 people hostage in Gaza. Our hearts have been broken again and again as we have heard stories from the survivors and from the families of those murdered or kidnapped. Thankfully, in order to prevent as many further horrors as possible from befalling their citizens, the government of Israel has evacuated over 240,000 civilians from areas most likely to be in harms way in future conflict, even though the entirety of the land of Israel is now within range of Hamas and their allies’ rockets, of which almost 10,000 have been launched against the civilian population of Israel since Oct 7th. Evacuating civilians is what governments do who do NOT plan on using their own citizens as human shields. So are constructing things like bomb shelters, which a government acting on behalf of its people would create if the possibility of attacks from the air were a reality. Hamas, who has been in an “air war” for decades with Israel through its own use of rockets and Israel’s corresponding use of air power, has spent $Billions on an underground infrastructure to protect its army, but expressly tells its citizens that this is only for Hamas fighters, and not for the protection of citizens. 

We affirm what should not need to be said because it is useless and silly to say in the context of our enemies whose very strategy hinges on the terror induced by what they consider to be legitimate war practices: Murdering civilians is not a war crime among our adversaries, and neither are taking civilians hostage is a war crime, and targeting civilians with missiles is now and has for years been the very calculated strategy of Hamas, and in their view absolutely not a war crime any more than an IAF pilot dropping a bomb cleanly from an F15 at 10,000 feet in the air and returning to a hot meal on an army base while an entire family in Gaza is vaporized. In this, their point can and should be accepted as seen from their point of view and we should stop wasting our time, breath and energy on discussion about who is committing war crimes because its irrelevant. There is no justification for these acts of terror, but when we see them for what they are — acts of war — we wake up to the reality that we are at war and we must win this war, not just “respond” to a supposed “terrorist attack” and then go back to the status quo ante. By Hamas’ own clear admission, this is not some isolated criminal event or “terrorist attack”. Rather, it is part of an ongoing Jihad to destroy Israel and kill Jews. This is war, not crime. Israel and world Jewry must realize that Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and others are carrying out a war by any means; with the support of governments with substantial military training, resources, and support, to destroy Israel and eradicate Jews. Yes, just like the Nazis. It is absolutely not about gaining justice for the Palestinians via terrorism. It’s simply and horribly a war between radical Islam and Judaism that only Islam wants to wage. We call on all those who believe in the sanctity of human life to join us in affirming these truths.  

“God, listen to my cry; let your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.” (psalm 130:2)

Pidyon shevuyim, redeeming captives, is one of the most important mitzvot. Sadly, there is a long history of Jewish communities being forced to practice this mitzvah over the centuries and across continents — from Egypt to Poland to Russia and beyond. We call on Hamas to release the hostages immediately, on Israel to prioritize the defeat or surrender of Hamas and the prevention of more hostages being taken in the future, or from this horror ever again taking root on Israel’s borders, while simultaneously pursuing negotiations for the captives above all, and on the international community to intervene in every way possible to deny Hamas and their allies the capability to continue their war. We fear and expect that Iran will use this opportunity to use its proxy’s to take more Israeli and Jewish hostages — as we are beginning to see with the Houthi’s piracy against Israeli-connected ships —  and use the smokescreen of Israel’s response to Hamas as a cry for global Jihad and the targeting of Jewish institutions. We therefore call on the world community to do everything possible to prevent Jihadists globally from taking more hostages, and when they inevitably do because of the success of Hama’s current endeavor, work to secure their release. 

In the depths of our pain, we also mourn the deaths and suffering of Palestinian civilians and call for immediate action to protect their lives, which have been put at risk by the Hamas government’s calculated strategy of using non-combatants as human shields, and by creating the entire Hamas military complex underground in civilian areas. We call on Hamas to immediately surrender or to allow complete evacuation of civilians from any place in Gaza that is used to support the fighters, or lies above a tunnel. Roughly half of all Gazans voted for the Hamas government and many thousands of so-called civilians participated in the construction, sustenance and supply of the military complex based in tunnel systems beneath Gaza, and the recruitment, training and sustenance of the Hamas fighters, some of which are children under the age of 18. Already, thousands of Palestinian civilians, including hundreds of children, have died as a result of Hamas’ strategy of hiding among and under civilians, making them legitimate targets in Israeli airstrikes, and hundreds of thousands more have been injured or displaced because the government of the Gazan people refuses to evacuate them from harm’s way and even prevents them from attempting to leave on their own on pain of death, or are suffering from lack of access to critical supplies which Hamas has taken away from the civilian population and stored underground exclusively for their use to wage war. Humanitarian groups are warning of imminent catastrophe as Gazans run out of water, food, fuel, and medical supplies because of Gaza’s own governments hoarding all these supplies underground for the army only, putting their own people under the siege. We are grateful to President Biden and other world leaders who are working to ensure the entry of humanitarian relief into Gaza which Israel has welcomed, in spite of having already found contraband smuggled among the supplies. We call on the world community to do everything possible to save the lives of civilians in Gaza by pressuring Hamas to surrender immediately and release the hostages. 

We call for the immediate establishment of a humanitarian corridor so that critical supplies can enter Gaza and ideally so Gazans can be evacuated into, given citizenship in, or in anyway provided sanctuary in Egypt until after the war. But Egypt knows that so many Gazans are sympathetic to Hamas and radical Islam that the Egyptian government themselves admits they are scared to let them into Egypt for fear of an Islamic uprising. Only Israel is blamed for the “blockade” on Gaza, but in fact, Egypt could save all the civilians through its substantial border with Gaza and refuses to do so while professing sympathy for their Palestinian brethren. Gazans must also be guaranteed that they will be allowed to return to their homes after the present conflict ends even though this demand was never made of any country throughout history with respect to their expulsion of Jews, including the 800,000+ Jews that were expelled from Arab countries, or the millions who were murdered or displaced from Europe. Can they have their homes back? As Americans, shall we demand that lands taken from the Native Americans in our war expansion are finally returned, now that manifest destiny has seen its conclusion? While the vast majority of Israelis have no desire to occupy or annex Gaza, it would be suicide to allow Gazans to return unless they can provide assurance that their territory will never again be used to attack Israel. We call on the world to make sure that happens and to be accountable if it fails. 

At all times, Israel must follow the laws of armed conflict in order to avoid harm to civilians to the same standard expected of Hamas. Hamas’s war crimes to date do not justify the refusal of the world to expect no further war crimes from Hamas. The world must hold Hamas and their allies, including Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, accountable or the world should consider complete boycott, divestiture and sanction of countries, companies and organizations doing business with these Jihadi countries. This or other forms of collective punishment against regimes dedicated to the destruction of Israel and Jews should be the demands of mass demonstrations in our universities and around the world. We are deeply concerned about the reverberations of this war in the region, at home, and around the world. We reject all antisemitic, islamophobic, or anti-Arab bigotry and violence and call on our communities to recognize that it is only within the Jewish community that our own people have turned against us and joined the voices rallying against Israel and Jews. There are no mass rallies and marches of Muslims denouncing the heinous war that radical Islam has unleashed, and the literal genocidal aim and actions of Hamas and its allies. By what conceivable standards are the actions of Israel denounce-able and the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah in the current conflict, the Syrian government in the annihilation of its own people in the recent civil war, the state sponsored starvation of millions in Yemen, or the actions of any of the tyrannical dictatorships dotting the middle east and elsewhere not worth our rage, not worth the takeover of Grand Central station or the quad at Columbia? As Jews, we should absolutely be willing to vociferously call out the terrible abuses and destructive policies of Israel’s racist, messianic, thug-led Natanyahu government (and indeed we did for the months of demonstrations AGAINST the Israeli government that we fully supported before Oct 7th) BUT ONLY as long as others do the same to leaders of the countries and people that THEY support, and demand the same international pressure to stop their problematic policies. We call for an end to incitement by Israeli politicians and public figures against Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israel human rights organizations. We call for an end to the incitement by the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, and Hezbollah, and Iran against citizens of Israel and Jews worldwide as part of the global Jihad that has been building for decades and is now in full swing. We call for an end to the incitement by Hamas to murder those who support any hope of reconciliation with Israel within Gaza or the West Bank, as just happened with the recent lynching of two “suspected collaborators” in Ramallah. And we call for an end to incitement — yes, it is indeed incitement — by American rabbis, cantors, Jews, university officials and other leaders in America against the Jewish citizens of Israel by their amplification of the propaganda against Israel via the one-sided, double-standard infused condemnation of Israel, when Israeli’s very lives depend on support from the international community and especially American Jews. We call on Israel to prevent further revenge attacks by settlers on Palestinians in the west bank, and to refrain from using the war with Hamas as an excuse to extend settlements and occupation. 

“I look to the eternal; my soul looks; I await [god’s] word.” (psalm 130:5).

In this bleak moment, we are inspired by the extraordinary response of israeli civil society — including both Jewish and Palestinian citizens, religious and secular people, and people of multiple political allegiances — who directly saved lives after Hamas attacked, and who have since organized housing and supplies for the displaced, an operation to locate captives, and joint Jewish-Arab civilian patrols to ensure that there are no clashes in mixed cities.  We value their example as we struggle to turn our pain into positive action and not to lose sight of our vision for a shared society. But their numbers are tragically small. Some of the most active in the peace movement and most supportive of helping the citizens of Gaza were just murdered by Hamas. Much of the rest of Israeli society is understandably traumatized and no longer open to talk of reconciliation until Hamas surrenders or is defeated. In America, Jewish leaders across the spectrum are disheartened by the abandonment of our supposed friends and allies whom we have supported and fought with for racial, gender, environmental and other justice movements for decades who, with little understanding of the issues, have ignored our pain, turned on our interests, been eager to embrace blatantly antisemetic views and people, and taken advantage of our liberal values to strive to defeat us from within.

“O israel, wait for the eternal; for with the eternal is steadfast love and great power to redeem.” (psalm 130:7)

We look to our communities and our tradition for the strength we need today and in the coming days, weeks, months and years. We know that the only way to ensure the safety, dignity, and flourishing of both Israelis and Palestinians is a just, negotiated political solution that protects the human rights and political self-determination of both peoples and demands the same decency from those in positions of power on both sides. There is a time for war and a time for peace. We recognize the existential threat and are prepared to fight this war to win against an enemy sworn to destroy us. The number of casualties, civilian or military, among our enemy is not and can not be our consideration, for in this existential fight against Jihadi Islam, it is either “them” or “us”, and we unequivocally and un-abashedly choose “us,” just as any non-suicidal people or nations have always done and will always continue to do. We dream of the day when they come to the peace table and we can lay down our weapons, but until then we reject calls for cease fire or any restrictions on our ability to wage war. Only then will they bring peace to their own people and stop causing their own destruction in the horrors of the war that they started and continue. The safety of Palestinians and Israelis is inextricably linked to the actions of not only each other, but the many enemies who seek to use the Palestinians as pawns in a war to destroy Israel. While the impact of generations of propaganda by Arab states has brilliantly succeeded to put the focus of Arab state rejection of Israel, and more recently, of Jihadi Islam to destroy Israel, on the Palestinian/Israeli issue — including among liberal Jews — we are not fooled. We will not be duped. By signing this letter, we publicly proclaim our unwillingness to give comfort and sanctuary to our enemies, and we recommit to the long, hard work of bringing about a better future for everyone in the region by demanding all parties involved take appropriate responsibility and action. Once the current ability of Gaza to threaten Israel is destroyed for at least the near future, we also commit to working diligently toward a permanent solution for the people in Gaza and the West Bank that is sanctioned by the majority of all parties involved, supported by the international community and not subject to hijacking by the radical forces of Israel or its neighbors. 


Jeffrey Cahn – New York, New York

About the Author
Jeff is the Executive Director of the New York-based multi-site synagogue, Romemu. He has also held senior positions at Young Judaea and UJA Federation of New York. Jeff’s first career was in high tech, founding the internet company, Netpulse, and working for AT&T, Intel and the Israeli Telecom company, Telrad. Jeff has a BS degree from Cornell and a Masters degree from Stanford University.
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