Michael Bernstein

Taking Yes For an Answer: The Existential Need for Coexistence

It is a time of heartbreak. News flashes about sirens and intercepts over Israeli cities have been superseded by official reports releasing the names and faces of Israeli soldiers killed or severely injured during fighting in Gaza or assaults from tunnels. Mainly young, all the children, brother or father of someone, now bereft.  And all along the mostly nameless, faceless count of Palestinians, often caught defenseless, first from the air, then in the ground assault, mounts.  They too leave behind grieving family, some of whom suffer the loss of many at a time.

The media battle as it plays out is one we have all seen before.  Every picture at the same time a potential heart-stopper and a potential cudgel.  The so-called refs getting called out with accusations of bias, some with good reason, others with equal vitriol from both sides.

In the end, as Zionists, we are unshaken in our conviction that the State of Israel is a project essential to the identity, well-being, and very survival of the Jewish people.  Seeing violence in the streets of Europe and elsewhere only reinforces this core belief.   We are used to feeling alone on the world stage and condemned for our very existence, let alone the measures we take in self-defense.

But we aren’t.  While there are many who are deluded by propaganda or clouded by their own hate, we should not forget that Israel, the Jewish state, is widely recognized as a legitimate actor in the world.  Even as protests turn ugly in the street, Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions is advocated in some very unfortunate places, and disturbing images of suffering in Gaza are everywhere in the media, Israel has received explicit support and acknowledgement of its need to defend itself from many, many quarters.  Germany, France, and Italy are among the European powers whose governments have expressed solidarity with Israel along with strong statements from Canada, the UK, Australia and, yes, the United States.  Though explicitly trying to broker an eventual two-state solution, the US administration is a staunch supporter of Israel through official statements, resources and participation in world bodies. And that’s not counting the enthusiasm within the legislative branch from both parties.  Even Egypt, albeit for its own reasons, has firmly blamed Hamas for being the initiator and instigator of the continued bloodshed.  The core value that Israel must defend itself is supported, even if these world leaders also show empathy and respond to the high numbers of casualties and tremendous devastation being borne by the Palestinians.

It is the Palestinian individual in Gaza who is mostly powerless to affect his or her fate.  Mercilessly and callously expected to be a pawn by Hamas and not given any reason to hope for anything better by anyone else.  And that’s if they survive a constant bombardment that is very real.

We face an enemy as committed to killing Jews as the Nazis, but we do not face them powerless as we faced the Nazis.  There is no room for complacency or naivete, but there must be room for understanding what it means to have power and the responsibility that goes with it.

Though at great cost, Israel will prevail against Hamas’ threats.  Ultimately I believe that the existential reality laid bare in this conflict is the dire need to escape the trap that Hamas has baited – to escape the inevitability of being drawn deeper and deeper into the business of killing Palestinians.

The war shows how necessary is finding a way to strengthen the voices of coexistence, not because of Hamas, who hate the idea, but despite them.  Terrible losses are being taken, each in their own way, on both sides.  They are not morally equivalent any more than they are numerically equivalent.  But they are tragic and will become no less so by being multiplied.

There is no moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas, but that does not mean there is no moral imperative.  Israel does not send pamphlets and use explosive warning charges just  to impress the international community.  If we did, then we would have no business bragging on how these practices makes Tzahal “more moral”  or more concerned with life than other armies.  And it would be  a terrible reason to put so many ground troops in danger in such costly close quarters combat, to sacrifice the lives of our very best, just to make a point.  The only reason for roof knocks and risking soldiers is because we truly do believe that it is a tragedy when the blood of human beings is spilled because, all things being equal, our blood is not redder than theirs.

We can no longer  imagine as a people what it would be like not to be the arbiters of our own state, to wield a sophisticated and powerful army, to have a place, however challenged, at the table of world affairs.  We are called upon to continue to make our case to those who don’t yet understand, and ignore those who never will.  I support the government and IDF as the focus moves from rocket filled skies to Hamas’  tunnels whose murderous threats no Iron Dome could thwart.

However, at the same time, I believe we have to take yes for an answer — understand that Israel has been accepted by and large as a legitimate state with legitimate requirements of defense.  And use that confidence to find the strength, inspiration and urgency to foster peace and dignity for Palestinians along side all of the citizens of Israel.


About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga. Michael received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is an alumni of the Rabbis Without Borders second cohort. and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Michael specializes in Jewish philosophy, especially that of Emmanuel Levinas and focuses on how to see the directives inherent in Jewish tradition as meaningful, ethical, and relevant.
Related Topics
Related Posts