To the friendly Orthodox rabbi who praises war crimes

Dear Rabbi _____:

I write to you in a state of considerable uneasiness. I know that you, as an Orthodox rabbi, are well versed in the ethical teachings of our shared religion. What is more, I have personally experienced your mild disposition and natural generosity on several occasions in the past. But for precisely those reasons, I feel I must question you about your recently-expressed choice of “heroes.”

“My heroes” was — after all — the phrase you used to describe two young men who are now serving in the reserves of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in an “open letter” of which you were kind enough to email me a copy. Perhaps silence would be a more courteous response than criticism. Yet since you publicized that letter, I fear I would be less than honest if I did not similarly publicize my bewilderment over the moral decisions your letter appears to embrace. To put it bluntly, you express pride in your connection to two young men who, as far as I can tell, have voluntarily taken up arms in a violent and criminal enterprise.

Indeed, that much is evident from your own words. You write, in the letter, that your two “heroes” are currently stationed “someplace in the Jordan Valley.” You further claim that their task there is “protecting the Jewish people.” But surely you realize that this is a contradiction in terms: no one can be “protecting the Jewish people” in the Jordan Valley, all of which, according to a unanimous holding of the International Court of Justice in 2004, is occupied Palestinian territory.

It is true that some brave Israeli Jews join with indigenous Palestinians in protests against Israel’s occupation of their land — but we both know that the IDF does nothing to protect them; if anything, it does the opposite. That means that the only Jews these young men can be “protecting,” so long as they wear the uniform of the IDF, are the invaders of that tortured region — not its rightful inhabitants.

That is not “protection.” It is aggression.

In a similar vein, your letter describes these young Jews (both of them American-born, I believe) as “protect[ing] the Homeland.” Whose “Homeland” are they protecting? Not their own, certainly. And I seriously doubt whether the indigenous Palestinian public of the Jordan Valley has asked the IDF for protection. Do you really believe that Jews in Israeli uniforms are “protecting the Homeland” of people who are neither Israelis nor Jews, and who seek only an end to the occupation of their land? If not, why praise the attackers and implicitly demonize their victims?

Let’s not mince words about this. After all, there’s really no secret about the sort of apartheid your “heroes” are helping to advance. According to a recent report of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, over half of the occupied Jordan Valley has been designated by Israel as “restricted state land,” making it officially off-limits to some 80,000 of its rightful owners. That’s the real reason your “heroes” are there: soldiers are needed to effectuate the eviction of innocent people from their homes and from the land they live on. On top of that, the IDF has long made a practice of terrorizing the Palestinian inhabitants, using fully 45% of the Jordan Valley as “military firing zones” while adding 64 minefields to the area, further threatening its civilian population. And that’s not even counting the 12% of the region that is occupied by illegal Jewish settlements.

Your letter doesn’t address any of these facts. Instead, you complain about “fringe groups” who have “grabbed the headlines by falsely depicting IDF soldiers in a negative light.” I do not know which “fringe groups” you have in mind, but that hardly matters: to anyone conversant with the facts, it is obviously the crimes committed by the IDF, not some rogue critics, that tend to cast the army in a “negative light.” Whoever reports such facts — whether he belongs to a large faction or a small one — is telling the simple truth. Your letter does not.

Nor are you content with valorizing apartheid in the Jordan Valley. You quote Rabbi Yisroel Gustman as insisting that a Jewish soldier killed in Israel’s bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982 “died defending the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.” Perhaps the rabbi actually believed that at the time. No one could believe it today. Current historical scholarship shows that Israel’s aggression was planned a year in advance and was designed to head off a political settlement with Palestinian leadership, not to “defend” the Israel-Lebanon border. Between 17,000 and 20,000 Palestinians and Lebanese, overwhelmingly civilians, lost their lives to Israel’s warmongering in that invasion. It is no honor to the dead to lie about who was responsible for their deaths; nor does falsifying the record of one of Israel’s ugliest atrocities whitewash its current crimes in the West Bank.

You complete your letter with the story of an Israeli officer who reportedly told the parents of an Orthodox Jewish recruit that “Tefila [prayer] time is off limits to me. I can be court-martialed if I interfere with it, whether it takes 10 minutes or an hour. This is the new IDF.”

Alas! If only “the new IDF” respected the human rights of Palestinians with a fraction of the zeal it invests in its soldiers’ prayers! Your letter appears to endorse the priorities of the Orthodox Union’s Rabbi Avi Berman, who boasted in January 2009 that handing out t’fillin to Israeli soldiers as they joined in the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Gaza civilians (300 of them children) would help the Israelis “build a sense of comfort” around their role in that slaughter.

It’s bad enough that rabbis like Avi Berman — and apparently you, too — are prepared to praise war crimes. But you don’t stop there: you’ll even encourage the use of Jewish prayers (and religious objects used in the prayers, like t’fillin) as a way of rationalizing murder and land theft. Somehow you cannot see that in praising the soldiers who carry out such crimes you are actually demeaning Judaism, not defending it.

And that, finally, is why I have to respond to your letter. Judaism matters to me. And it follows that Judaism’s cooptation by a criminal military enterprise must matter as well. If we religious Jews are to look at ourselves in a mirror, we — you and I both — must know how to distinguish the righteous application of our Torah’s principles from the cynical manipulation of Jewish tribal solidarity.

Perhaps the young men praised in your letter have been duped into believing that doing Israel’s dirty work in the Occupied Territories is a worthy task. But the facts tell a different story. And to praise crime as a religious achievement, as your letter does, is to make every reader you influence complicit in the betrayal of a precious religious tradition.

Rabbi, I know you are capable of much better.

About the Author
Michael Lesher is an author, lawyer and Orthodox Jew who lives in Passaic, NJ. His most recent book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014).
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