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Ianai Silberstein

The Moral Agenda

From the Shalom Hartman Institute podcast by Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein-Halevi of December 12th, “Israel at War-Gazan Civilians”, I quote Donniel regarding his experience of touring the US during this time of war at home (Israel):

Here in North America, every lecture I get, at least one of the questions pertains to Gazan civilians. And while this is a moment of profound unity in the Jewish world, people standing together, our emotional experiences, and our moral discussion is not parallel. There are differences and they’re emerging.” Allow me to add another difference.

I am writing this from my desk in Montevideo, Uruguay. I could not be further away from both Israel and the United States. It is not only a physical distance; it is a distance of perception. We are not fortunate enough to host such as Donniel Hartman, but we do our share. Last Friday our community in Montevideo hosted close relatives of hostages and victims. We also hold zoom sessions with Spanish speaking Israelis to shed light (it is Hannukah after all) into this dark abyss.

We are shocked, bewildered, at loss, confused, hopeful, and uncertain, as probably most Jews all over the world. We seek all the insight and support we can get from every reliable source; and we have quite a few good ones in Spanish. However: no one here would even dare, let alone think, asking about Gazan civilians.

Much to my regret, I disagree with Donniel’s claim that “this is a moment of profound unity in the Jewish world”. It is, for sure, a moment of profound and urgent solidarity, but unity applies to the Jewish people only as an ideal. It does not exist. Even at times like these, of persecution, antisemitism, and a plain will of extermination.

Uruguay’s dwindling community (15000) is traditionally Zionist. In fact, this is one of the main reasons for its shrinking. Half my generation, for instance, has lived in Israel for over forty years now. Some of their children are fighting in Gaza. First, our concern turns to our families and friends: everybody has someone very close in Israel. That recurrent question in North America is unthinkable in this corner of South-America.

As a regular student at SHI’s summer seminars (CLP) I know very well how north-Americans look at Israel. The SHI has gone into great depth to explain Israel and Israelis to its students. Ideas and values that, here in Uruguay, we have learned from kindergarten. Israel is not about the Palestinian people or the Occupation; Israel is about us Jews. Period. In times of peril, and this is the most dangerous time in my lifetime (1957 on), there is no room for nothing else but “us”.

Of course, we have left wing, progressive Jews who in normal times write and fight for the Palestinian cause. However, in these times they have been in shock by how The Left has left them alone condemning us all by condemning Israel. Their “shock” at this betrayal of The Left has even fed journalistic material. No matter that all your lives you have supported progressive ideas and a Palestinian right to self-determination; when Israel reacts to a civilian massacre, all of us Jews are the same. As with the Nazi regime, antisemitism equals us all; it achieves what we cannot.

Of course Israel, the IDF, “who is capable, uniquely capable, of setting up field hospitals in any corner of the world within 24-48 hours, capable of trauma surgery, complex trauma surgery, in areas of devastation without water and electricity” could “set up three-four hospitals, and begin to start treating casualties, whether … justified or not.” Indeed, it could. But not yet, not under this government, probably, and not in this mood.

North-American Jews may complain about the Israeli silence regarding the moral agenda of the war. We Uruguayan-Jews, as many other Jews all over South-America, support one agenda only: defeating Hamas and rescuing the hostages. Moral considerations are not in place when you feel threatened to this degree. Perhaps it is that for North-American Jews their lives as such have been prosperous and safe. If the majority of Jews in the US are Reform, no wonder they are concerned about the moral agenda; after all, Judaism for many is mainly about “tikun olam”. For Jews in this southern hemisphere Judaism is still and above all, about survival.

Personally, I think defeating Hamas and rescuing the hostages are incompatible; by now, we can see it more clearly after the weeklong fairy tale brought by the “pause”. In fact, I think we will have to be very careful when we talk about winning or losing. What is winning, what is losing? Did Israel “win” or “overcame” Yom Kippur 1973, Lebanon 1982, the 2nd Intifada? In previous podcasts, if I am not mistaken, Donniel and Yossi also talked about humbleness. I agree.

As Jews we have always had a moral agenda and an ethic compass. That is why my wife and I are Hartman students and followers. We had Auschwitz, but then we had the Warsaw uprising. We stick to the later. The former is unacceptable. If, as Donniel so well puts it, “Zionism is about our being … the masters of our destiny”, this war is about precisely that. Lots of homework needs to be done before we address the moral agenda. It is there, as a Palestinian State is, but not today.

In his “History of the American People” Paul Johnson asks: “can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance atone for them?” A question can be asked about almost any nation. Certainly about the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Gaza is the cruelest war, maybe ever (not for me to tell). There are probably many but if a nation is constantly striving for morality and atonement, it is we, the Jews.

This intrusion into Donniel’s and Yossi’s conversation proves it. It is a privilege for me to “converse” with them.

As Hannukah ends, let us hope for miracles, light, and the will of our people.

About the Author
1957, married, a son and a daughter, a grandson. Very closely related to Israel, residing in Uruguay. Retired. Lay leader at NCI, the Masorti congregation in Montevideo. Served twice as President of the Board. Vice President of the Board of the Jewish school. Twenty-one years involvement in community affairs. Attended the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem several times over the years since 2009 for their CLP programs. Writer & lecturer.
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