Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: A letter to our community

2 Sivan 5781/May 13, 2021
Dear Temple Emunah Family,
I hope this email finds you well amidst all the challenges of this time.
For the last several days, many of us have been watching the events unfold in and around Israel with great concern. Our community follows the Talmudic dictum of “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh — all of Israel are joined together,” caring for one another throughout thick and thin. That is why we chartered a bus before the pandemic to stand with 10,000 other Jews in New York when Orthodox Jews were being attacked. That is why we stand with our sisters and brothers in Israel at a time like this. When the rockets fall and our families rush to bomb shelters, we watch CNN, we worry, and we make sure we are reaching out to those we know in Israel. We also find ways to stand with Israel, trying to defend her in times of need.
That said, we mourn losses on both sides — as the Mishnah teaches, every life that is lost is the loss of an entire world. Thus, we send a message of condolence to the families on both sides of this ongoing, horrific conflict. Too many civilians, too many children — both Israeli and Palestinians — on both sides have suffered because of this conflict.
While we all know that Hamas, a terrorist organization, created this major escalation in this conflict as well as in others, it is important to educate ourselves in the nuances of this conflict.
In this case, we have several causes and aspects of the current situation.
First, a battle over several homes in Sheikh Jarrah; this is a very complicated story as Jews bought and owned this land since the 1870s; however, during the 1948 war, Jordan captured East Jerusalem and Jews were displaced. Israel captured West Jerusalem, displacing Arabs. Thus, Arab families moved into these homes in East Jerusalem 70 years ago. This is being litigated in the courts as Israel has been trying to evict the inhabitants and demolish the homes. Having right-wing Israelis try to move into this neighborhood in an antagonistic manner is probably not the most helpful action either.
Second, attacks on Israelis by the Arab population in East Jerusalem have been growing. The Arab population is in a grey area. Since Israel annexed East Jerusalem, the Arab population can go about the city freely — many of them work in hotels in West Jerusalem. However, they are denied many rights as most of them want to live in a Palestinian State and they (and most of the world) do not recognize Israel’s annexation of West Jerusalem. But these attacks on Jews have grown more and more violent and numerous, contributing to the negative dynamic.
In response to these acts of violence, groups of Jews on the more extreme right have been gathering outside the Damascus Gate of the Old City, provoking clashes between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This had led to an increasingly volatile situation.
These tensions between Arabs and Jews in Israel have been escalating, exacerbated by the posting of videos of the violence on social media like Tik Tok. Younger Arab and Palestinians attacked Jews, even assaulting them in broad daylight, and uploading these assaults onto Tik Tok. The videos trended and multiplied. Jewish groups began to retaliate in various ways including provocative protests near the Damascus gate – the Northern entrance to the Old City from East Jerusalem. As these two sides fought more and more, the behaviors escalated, although the reporting sometimes framed it in a more negative light toward the Jews.
Third, the Muslim holiday “Laylat al Qadr” (celebrating the receiving of the Quran – there are similarities with Shavuot) occurred a few days ago. Israel allocated significant resources and effort to ensure that tens of thousands of Muslims would be able to come and pray on the Temple Mount for this festival. For safety, Jews were restricted from that area as Muslims began to arrive. When Israel tried to stop Palestinians who were encouraging violence by stopping the buses they were on, many of the other Palestinian passengers protested and would not go on without their friends/relatives. Not only did this lead to a traffic jam, but to a large protest. When those already on the Temple Mount heard about this, their anger boiled over.
To make matters worse, Yom Yerushalayim “Jerusalem Day” was held on Monday. Although it began as a holiday to celebrate Israel’s return to Old City and the Kotel (from the Six-Day War in 1967), it has become a day when right-wing Israelis march through the city including into sensitive areas of East Jerusalem waving Israeli flags as a direct provocation to those who live there.
Fourth, there has been a continuing untenable situation in Gaza for years as the Strip has been governed by Hamas and there is the lack of any hope for a two-state solution; this terrible situation has been caused by both sides, but again truly supported by the extremists on both sides who utilize the situation for their own gain, without concern for their own people. This is most especially true in Hamas’ case, although sometimes we see this in the Jewish settler communities.
Fifth, Hamas has been waiting for an opportunity. This most destructive terrorist organization knows that its own population will pay the price for its violence. They embed their rocket launchers in apartment buildings and amidst civilian homes so when Israel tries to stop the attacks, inevitably civilians, even children will be hurt or killed. This is the same group that murdered my friends on the #18 bus 25 years ago. They have little concern for human life — be the lives Jewish, Arab, or Palestinian. In fact, two of the Israelis killed were Israeli Arabs who live in a village in Israel which the State does not recognize. I do not know the backstory to this, but suffice it to say, it does not have bomb shelters…
So, that’s when things really escalated a few days ago. Hamas rained down missiles on Israel (1500 as of last night); so many that Israel’s Iron Dome could not keep up with them. While many were intercepted and some fell in the Gaza Strip itself (injuring its own population), many made it through, killing 7 Israelis (as of last night) and injuring others.
That’s why Israelis are in their bomb shelters.
Image courtesy of Rabbi David Lerner
Here is a picture of my first cousin Nili and her family in their bomb shelter — which they have had to visit throughout these nights. In response, Israel has attacked the locations in Gaza where the rockets are launched or where commanders and leaders of Hamas are based; because of where those neighborhoods are in Gaza, inevitably civilians are caught up in this conflict.
A new and potentially more frightening phenomenon has added fuel to the fire as Israel Arabs or Israeli Palestinians (those who are living in Israel as citizens of Arab/Palestinian descent — 20% of the Israeli population) have started to clash with Israeli Jews opening a new and terrible aspect of this situation. Fighting and mob violence have broken out in the streets of several Israeli cities and towns, even ones where Jews and Arabs have coexisted in peace.
The political dynamic has made this situation more complicated as there is only a caretaker government in place. Bibi Netanyahu has been unable to form a government after the fourth election in short succession and seems to have been caught off guard by the rapid escalation from Gaza. However, it is in his best interest to have events draw away attention from the political gridlock, keeping him in power longer which also shields him from prosecution on several counts of corruption.
As usual, this complicated situation is reported on in a variety of ways, often not helpful to Israel. The cover of the Boston Globe today has a picture of the destruction in Gaza, nothing about the destruction in Israel. Today’s New York Times is more balanced in its photographs with one that displays victims and devastation from each side of the conflict. On social media, often the tension boils over into not only anti-Israel and anti-Zionist themes, but also into antisemitism with memes that advocate for violence against all Jews. “Eradicate the Jews” is a popular one. Most people simply throw up their hands and see all this as an endless “cycle of violence.” While that does seem to be the end result, learning the details and the nuances can help us not only understand the causes, but also help us see, God willing, ways out of this situation. Bear in mind, that there is also hate that right-wing Jews frequently post
Finally, let’s make it clear that the winners are extremists on both sides of the conflict. The losers are the moderates, the peacemakers, and the children.
Let’s hope this conflict de-escalates quickly; that Israelis don’t have to sleep in their bomb shelters, that Hamas ends their attacks and that innocent Gazans do not have to lose their lives and homes due to this violence.
Let’s hope that new leaders emerge who chart a different course; one that breaks the cycle of violence and paves a new road towards peace.
For us, let us stand with our families and friends in Israel. Let us understand the nuances and complexities of this moment as we work together to stand with Israel, moving her closer to the vision that Isaiah prophesied almost 3 millennia ago that swords can yet become plowshares, and nations shall not know war anymore.
Oseh Shalom Bimromav — may the One who makes peace on high, help us make peace, despite the complexities down below.
B’Shalom,
Rabbi David Lerner
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About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, ClergyAgainstBullets.org and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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