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David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam

There is a just war to be fought, but is this that war?

Image grab taken from AFPTV video footage shows Palestinians looking for survivors in a crater following a strike in Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 31, 2023. (Fadi Alwhidi/AFP)
Image grab from AFPTV video footage shows Palestinians looking for survivors in a crater following a strike in Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 31, 2023. (Fadi Alwhidi/AFP)

“Is this the war that I have chosen?” I can imagine the prophet asking.

It would be justice for Hamas to be completely eradicated. But how can this happen without killing thousands of innocent Gazans? Without cutting off hospitals and patients? How can this happen, without leading to the deaths of the Israeli hostages?

It’s not just about the Geneva Conventions. The Torah also requires that if one is making war on a city, one side of the city needs to be left open, so that anyone who wants to escape the fighting can flee. Telling Gaza civilians to flee south without establishing a way for them to flee safely, telling them to flee south while still bombing the south, telling them to flee when they don’t have enough time and means to flee, violates both a Torah command and the Geneva Conventions and fundamental human rights.

Let’s imagine the IDF manages to kill 500, or 1500 Hamas people, with half of them being military/terrorists. Another 7000 plus people killed would then be civilians. Already at this point, at least two, maybe three thousand children have died. At what point is the cost too high? How does one calculate this?

Hamas shouldn’t be allowed to stay in power. But it also can’t be true that it’s ok to kill ten or more Gaza civilians to eliminate one or fewer Hamas fighters, so what is the limiting ratio that makes it “ok”? No number of children dead will avenge Hamas, may they be uprooted. And beyond the moral quandary, it is completely obvious that this kind of death ratio is exactly what Hamas wants, exactly how Hamas plans to win. Is it really necessary and in Israel’s interest to react exactly how this enemy expects and hopes for?

Of course, as soon as I question this war, my mind immediately goes to the images and descriptions of what happened on October 7. How could there be a pause in attacking the perpetrators? How can I let myself write down these questions, let alone publish them? How could it even help, when it’s hard to see a way out of the quandary?

But actually, there is a way, or at least there was one, though I doubt it could ever happen. Let Gazan civilians from the north into Israel, into some kind of refugee/displaced person camp, in a well-secured zone where they can be safe. They could flee north through the Erez crossing—something that might be possible where traveling south is near impossible. It could be administered or funded by any combination of the UN/US/world/Israel/UAE/whomever. Something that would remain possible, whether or not Egypt allows Gazan refugees through Rafah to take shelter in the Sinai, which Egypt should also do.

Yes I know how stupidly naïve that sounds. Yes it would be tremendously difficult to figure out how to create refuges for Gazan civilians in Israel in a way that was safe for Israel. It would be so so hard. But shouldn’t it be even harder to kill several thousand children? If that’s not harder, then something is wrong in our neshamas.

And yet, Israel isn’t doing that. I suspect it would never do that, and not because it doesn’t care about children. I imagine there are two reasons, one immediate and one long term. The immediate: it would be close to impossible to make a DP camp for Gazans politically acceptable to Israelis, after they have been so devastatingly traumatized by Hamas’s vicious attack. The long term: letting Gazans into Israel would tacitly admit that Gaza’s refugees have a connection to Israel and a reason to be in Israel.

But that would be a boon, not a bust. It would start to solve another moral quandary, a quandary that has been with Israel since its founding. And therein lies the foundational fault that makes this war not the war that needs to be fought, even though the cause is just, even though eradicating Hamas is a goal that is in everyone’s interest, both Israeli and Palestinian. Because the only long term path is one in which  refugees can start to come home, starting with some of the villages inside Israel that they were expelled or fled from. Because fleeing a war zone is never and should never have been treated as abandoning one’s home.

I don’t have any delusions that my writing will change anything. I’ve held back for that reason for many days now. I don’t even know if I can handle the blowback I might get from this piece. But after Jabaliya, I feel like cannot not write.

We have an obligation to know and think about who is dying. That is what it means to be fully human, and it is also what it means to be truly of “the seed of Avraham” — Avraham who abjures God in the Torah portion Vayera that, “It would profane You to kill the righteous,” that is, the innocent, “with the wicked” (Gen 18:25). The reprisal attack against Hamas has already had a terrible price in innocent human lives. Even if we think this war is necessary, especially if we think it’s necessary, don’t we have a moral obligation to know who is dying over “there” for our cause?

There is honor in defending human life and Jewish life, even by means of war. But there is no honor in bombing or starving civilians. When an air strike kills and buries or burns or dismembers a child, as has happened to many in Jabaliya and elsewhere in Gaza, what does it matter to that child’s mother or father that their child was collateral damage, that the pilot didn’t wish for their child to die?

Cutting off water and food and fuel and electricity to all Gazans will soon turn into collective punishment, war crimes, and worse. It makes sense to wish that Hamas be uprooted and annihilated. But that cannot be the way. The only hope for a just outcome on that path would be for Israel to achieve its goals easily and immediately — something that seems near impossible. What seems harder, pausing so that food and medicine can reach families, so that places of refuge that Israel will respect can be established, so that children can be saved, is actually the easier path, the only just one, the one waiting to be taken.

 

 

Postscript: To those who would geshrei that my words of protest are undermining Israel, or undergirding the waves of anti-Jewish hatred arising within pro-Palestinian protests: 1) I am sharing these words in a space dedicated to the Jewish world, and 2) I have done as much as anyone I know to directly fight against antisemitic and extremist anti-Israel rhetoric on the left, and will keep doing so. And I probably have more credibility to do that than most, coming from a pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli perspective.

About the Author
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. David is also the Shmita scholar-in-residence at Abundance Farm in Northampton MA. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and an acclaimed English translation of Eikhah ("Laments"). David also teaches nigunim and is a composer of Jewish music and an avid dancer.
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