On Parashat Sh’lah Lekha And the Gaza Flotilla Incident

What follows is the sermon I delivered in my synagogue in Forest Hills last week. I wanted to share it with you because it is a more thorough treatment of the subject than I could do in a briefer piece, and I think it important. I hope you will as well.

In Tractate Pesahim of the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis ask why it is that, on Seder night, the telling of the Exodus story begins with Avadim Hayinu– we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt- and ends with the songs and celebration of Hallel and Nirtzah. In answering their own question, they suggest a paradigm which has far broader implications than merely the Seder night. Mathil b’gnai umsayem b’shevakh; when one has both bad and good news to tell, one should start with the bad- the less pleasant- and end with the good, or praiseworthy.

I have a difficult challenge this morning in talking about the events of the past week, as it has been an extraordinarily painful, difficult, and challenging one for Israel and world Jewry. Not everything that I will have to say is pleasant, or easy to hear. So in attempting to meet this challenge, I shall adhere to the ancient Rabbinic dictum and be mathil b’gnai umsayem b’shevakh. I shall begin with the less pleasant aspects of the issues at hand, and end, if not in praise, then certainly in support of Israel and her right to defend herself.

As most of you know, I have more than a passing familiarity with the Shayetet, that extraordinary expeditionary unit of the Israeli Navy that carried out the boarding of the Mavi Marmara. My niece’s husband fought with that unit and was severely injured in the second Lebanon war, and now other members of the family do as well.

As you might imagine, almost all of what the Shayetet does is veiled in operational secrecy. It has to be that way. But what I have been able, through the years, to extract from my nephew and family is that the Shayetet, much like its sister expeditionary units like Sayeret Matkal, bases its operational model on the principals of speed, stealth, and lethal if not overpowering force. The most successful missions that they undertake have them leaving the scene of battle, mission goal completed, before the enemy even knows they were there (or, in most instances, does not live to know).

In my nephew’s case, they were there a little too long. Once the enemy knows you’re there, the encounter with them turns into a firefight. You have guns and weapons, they have guns and weapons… and while the commandos are surely better trained, there is no training that shields you from a bullet.

I am no kind of military expert, to be sure. But knowing that little that I know, I cannot help but believe that this mission did not turn out the way it was intended to, and that it represents a tragic failure of military intelligence. (How ironically appropriate to say that against the backdrop of Parashat Shlah Lekha, a Biblical example of problematic battlefield intelligence!) Those commandos were not prepared to meet the kind of opposition that they met. They were briefed to believe that, at worst, they might be spat at, or that the so-called peace activists might join arms and prevent them from having easy access. But they were not led to believe that they would be attacked with guns, lead pipes, and other such weapons.

Once you take a special unit like the Shayetet- even like the Shayetet– and place them in an environment where they feel threatened and endangered, they are trained to respond with deadly force, and that is what they did. From that perspective, they accomplished their mission. They overcame the resistance against them, which was fierce, and they secured the ship. They succeeded- but, at no fault of their own, the success of their mission came at a tremendous price to Israel.

The massive, world-wide condemnation of Israel that followed the Mavi Marmara incident is, without a doubt, unfair and unwarranted, and Israel has every right in the world to do whatever it can prevent Hamas from re-arming Gaza. But at the same time, its failure (either of imagination or of vision) to project how this kind of tactic would play in the eyes of a biased and unfair world is just another in a series of inexplicable failures on Israel’s part to take public relations into consideration in operational planning. The announcement of new construction in East Jerusalem during Vice-President Biden’s visit comes to mind as the most recent egregious example, but it is hardly the only one.

The world may indeed be against us, the deck stacked, the odds impossible…. all of this I believe to be true. But given all that, Israel simply cannot afford to “blow off” world opinion, even if those “peace activists” were not peace activists, the “humanitarian aid mission” was more accurately no more than an attempt to bring down the blockade so as to re-arm, etc. The damage done to Israel’s struggle against Iran’s nuclear aspirations was serious and costly, and her already shaky relations with America, her only dependable ally, were dealt another body blow. Really- how could the best military minds in Israel not have come up with some other way to accomplish this goal? I take no joy at all in saying this, but while it may have been a success in a purely military context, operationally, the boarding of the Mavi Marmara was a costly and tragic failure.

Having said all that, let me quickly transition now to the m’sayem b’shevakh section of this drasha. I’m not sure that what I have to say is praise of Israel, but it is, lest you misunderstand me and read it any other way, a full-throated, heartfelt expression of understanding and empathy for the situation that Israel finds itself in, and that makes it feel obliged to act as it does.

Let’s be clear about who and what we’re talking about here. Hamas is a terrorist organization that, by brute force, violence and intimidation, wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority after Israel’s painful and gut-wrenching withdrawal from there “for the sake of peace.”

It is unrepentantly committed to the destruction of the State of Israel, and has no desire whatsoever to reach any accommodation with the “Zionist entity.”

For almost four years now, it has held Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier it cruelly kidnapped, contrary to all norms of accepted conduct in warfare, allowing him not a single visit from family or relief workers. I have not heard even a whisper of a protest from the nations of the world about Gilad Shalit’s human rights.

Hamas fired thousands- literally thousands of rockets into southern Israel, into Ashdod, Ashkelon, and of course Sderot- and I cannot for the life of me remember any member nation of the world calling for a commission to investigate the deprivation of human rights that Hamas forced upon Israel’s southern citizens.

When Israel finally said enough, and invaded Gaza in Operation Cast Lead, the nations of the world found their voices and their righteous indignation, and the result was the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes.

This so-called “humanitarian mission” was nothing of the sort. Gaza is a terrible place to live, without a doubt, and you and I would not choose it.

But whatever “humanitarian crisis” there is in Gaza- to the extent that there is one- owes more to the brutality of Hamas than anything that Israel is doing. There may have been some volunteers on that ship who thought they were engaged in a just and noble cause, but they were hopelessly naïve, and surely they weren’t the ones who came onboard having planned to provoke the Israeli commandos into a violent response.

The deeper truth, of course, is that Hamas and its sympathizers are desperate to break the Israeli (and Egyptian!) blockade so that they can import weapons to be used against Israel in the next round of hostilities.

That’s why Israel (and Egypt!) blockades Gaza, and that’s why Israel is reluctant to take that blockade down. Hamas has tried to run ships filled with arms to Gaza (remember the Karin A, which Israel intercepted and which was LOADED with heavy weaponry?), they tried to run weapons through subterranean tunnels in the Sinai, and still do, and when they do succeed, they hide them in schools and hospitals. These people don’t need a humanitarian mission- they need fundamental humanity.

Let’s be completely honest. If you had Hizbollah sitting on your northern border, committed to your destruction, armed to the teeth by Syria and Iran, and Hamas sitting on your southern border, committed to your destruction, piling up arms 24/7, Iran threatening to wipe you off the map, and no nation of the world seemingly able to wrap their brains around just why it is that you feel threatened…. What would you do? How would you respond if you felt threatened- really threatened- and all the world’s nations were telling you that you were the problem, and not the nations committed to your destruction? Would you care what they said, or would you do what you thought you had to do in order to survive?

What happened on the Mavi Marmara was extremely unfortunate, and I have to believe that Israel regrets it as well. There is hardly unanimity of opinion within Israel about the mission and how it was executed, or, for that matter, about the blockade itself

But listen well, for this is key. The call from so many quarters for a “transparent, international commission of inquiry,” preferably under the auspices of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, is much worse than ludicrous. It is an outright obscenity. The epicenter of hypocrisy- the UN Commission on Human Rights- wants to weigh in on Israel’s operational error.

So here’s what I think. I saw that a member of the Jewish community of Hebron had circulated on the internet a two or three page list of commissions that he would like to see first, going all the way back through Jewish history. But I only have two or three to suggest. I’m a reasonable man. If I could just convince the world’s powers that be to form these three commissions, then I think Israel would be well served by having the United Nations investigate it.

Here are my three.

Turkey, which is trying so hard to endear itself to the Arab world after being snubbed by the European Union, seems to be really hot and bothered by what Israel did. After all, it helped to organize, sponsor and pay for the flotilla, and its citizens were aboard. Turkey’s president has, with each passing day, been trying to come up with new ways to articulate just how horrendous Israel’s behavior was. He has been calling with ever-increasing volume for a transparent commission by the UN Commission on Human Rights.

I propose that first, the UN Commission on Human Rights form a transparent, independent commission to investigate who was responsible for the slaughter of some one and a half million Armenians at the beginning of the twentieth century- a not-inconsiderable violation of human rights, wouldn’t you agree?

The Turks really don’t like to talk about this. Even bringing it up infuriates them. I say let an independent commission- transparent and all that, with a few Armenian representatives- ascertain the truth that we all already know. Have you ever heard a call for such a commission? I haven’t!

Second, the Pope is also very upset about Israel’s action, and he too has called for an international investigation. I have another modest proposal. Let the UN Commission on Human Rights form an independent, transparent commission to force the Vatican to once and for all open its archives. Before the UN investigates Israel, wouldn’t it be fair if they could find out for us, once and for all, what Pious XII really knew or didn’t know about the persecution and impending mass murder of Jews when he was the Papal Nuncio in Berlin in the late 1930’s, and what he did or didn’t do? Tell me- have you every heard a call for such a commission? I haven’t!

And third but hardly least important- there are voices emanating from the American administration that also call for this independent, transparent investigation, with international involvement if not from the UN itself. My suggestion is that before we do that, let the UN form a special human rights commission to investigate what was going on in the State Department in the early 1940’s. Doesn’t the world deserve to know what America knew or didn’t know? Isn’t it impossible to imagine that America didn’t know exactly what was going on at Auschwitz and the other death camps, and yet refused to “divert scarce war materials” so as to bomb the railroad tracks leading to the camps? Could there exist a more flagrant violation of human rights than that? Don’t you think that would be a more worthwhile use of investigative time to learn the truth about that tragic period of time than having people who are far from impartial tell Israel what it already knows about where its boarding of the Mavi Marmara went wrong?

Until such time as the UN or other investigative agencies are willing to undertake these investigations, I say to those who are clamoring for an independent investigation, with all the righteous indignation I can muster, go to hell- and back off on the gratuitous, over-the-top criticism of Israel.

And to those of us in the American Jewish community who seem to feel the need to punish Israel in some way for making our lives uncomfortable, I would suggest that there is more than enough soul-searching going on in Israel right now. All you have to do is read their papers- their free and uncensored papers- to know that. We, too, must exercise extraordinary caution at this unprecedentedly critical hour.

I am no blind fan of Prime Minster Netanyahu- not by a long shot.

And I think that having Avigdor Leiberman as Israel’s Foreign Minister at an hour such as this- or at any hour, for that matter- is a terrible and costly mistake. Without a doubt, Israel needs to get its act together and be better and smarter at what it does and how it does it. It needs a new vision, and the means to execute that vision wisely.

But the fundamental truth remains the same. No matter where I stand, I stand with Israel. In the face of the torrent of hypocritical criticism that has come Israel’s way these past few weeks, remembering that has never been more important. We must stand with Israel. Because it we don’t, clearly- no one else will- and we have never been more needed.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.