Responding to a friend about Israel

One of my former students shared a post on Facebook the other day that reflected his feelings of intense sadness about what is going on between Israel and Iranian-backed Hamas, and especially about the suffering of the civilians in Gaza. In the post, I was struck by the tension he struggles with between his Jewish identity and his sense of compassion and humanity (which are at the core of Judaism).

Many of the reports of the current conflict have been distorted, and I believe they have impacted how many people view the situation. I want to share a few thoughts in response to some of the questions my student raised and the statements he made.

In his post my student refers to “The Occupation of Gaza.”

There is no Israeli occupation of Gaza, because Israel pulled out of Gaza nine years ago. They did so with one goal – that it would be a step toward peace.

When Israel pulled out of Gaza, greenhouses and infrastructure were left intact, with the hopes that it would give the residents of Gaza a jump start on building an economy and turning the area into a beautiful seaside oasis. While there were still Israeli-imposed restrictions placed upon Gaza, it was a first step toward peace that allowed for movement toward coexistence for both the residents of Gaza and Israel.

Unfortunately, Hamas, the globally-recognized terrorist organization, came to power in Gaza. Hamas destroyed the greenhouses and much of the infrastructure Israel left in place. Instead of helping the citizens of Gaza, Hamas smuggled weapons and made the destruction of Israel a higher priority than the well-being of the Palestinians.

Gaza is occupied, but for the past nine years, Israel has not been the occupying force. Hamas has been the occupier.

Israelis and Palestinians deserve peace and security. Hamas wants no part of that effort. Hamas does not want the State of Israel to exist. My hope is that the residents of Gaza will allow the PA to reassert itself, overthrow Hamas and quickly move toward peace. Both sides deserve it.

In his post my student stated that “The occupation is the problem.”

The ongoing occupation of the West Bank is no good for anyone. Peace is the best option. I hope we will see the establishment of a two-state solution that ends this conflict. But a two-state solution needs to be between two parties who truly want to live in peace.

Time and again there have been many examples of Israel’s willingness to trade land for peace. Sinai is one example. So many of us hoped Gaza would be the next. Sadly, for too many supporters of Palestinian causes, “end of the occupation” is code for the destruction of Israel. With that as a starting point, there is clearly no desire for peace.

In his post, my student wrote that “otherwise progressive, judicious and humanitarian individuals are not showing enough compassion for civilians in Gaza”.

My heart breaks for Palestinian civilians who have been killed this summer. It is horrible and tragic. Even more heartbreaking, these deaths were part of the Hamas strategy. Hamas stockpiled missiles. Hamas used concrete to build tunnels, not schools or hospitals. Instead of helping their own people, Hamas terrorists used much-needed resources to prepare to attack Israel. Hamas then used civilian locations as a base of operation in order to draw Israeli fire and then point to the cruelty of the IDF.

In his post my student wrote that many of us have made “meaningless statements about how ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’ without talking about the massive civilian casualty death toll which that defense has brought.”

To this I would argue that it is not an either/or. It is not either defense or horror at the loss. It is both.

But my heart also breaks for the Israeli parents who have, time and time and time again, had anywhere between 15 and 90 seconds to get their children into bomb shelters when the alerts came. While in Israel in July, I watched people who were too far from a shelter simply lay down, cover their heads and hope. I received emails from friends who reported that they had grabbed their children and ran to a bomb shelter for the third time that night.

I see the suffering on both sides. And I believe with all my heart that Israelis and Palestinians deserve peace and security. But I am also not naïve. Peace will not happen as long as Hamas is able to terrorize by showering missiles on Israel and then waiting for Israel’s response. Using civilians as human shields was a part of the Hamas “strategy,” and it has worked far too well. Iran-backed Hamas does not understand that people are not “strategy.”

My student ended his piece by writing that he will not apologize for his opinion and won’t hide from people who disagree with him.

I’m thrilled that this is the case. I know he struggles and is willing to take the time to learn and grapple with these issues. And I hope that when the facts and realities are laid out before someone like him, someone who thinks and feels and is compassionate, he will be one of the strongest supporters of Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Cohen was ordained in 1993 by the HUC-JIR and has served Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel since 1993. An avid technology geek, for fun he writes for the tech blog Gear Diary.
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