David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam

What next in Gaza? A plea for restraint

I’m writing this as an open letter, rather than an article or a d’rash.

Let me say at the outset, I believe that Israel needs to fight this war, and that it needs destroy the tunnels. The reasons for the war are powerful, and they transcend the divisions between the right and the left. But it’s pretty hard to support the way the war has unfolded.

Yesterday it was reported that Israel blew up the power plant in Gaza, and that that means there won’t be any sewage or water treatment. That’s on top of bombing (unintentionally) another school and killing twenty or more (and this time I have not heard the IDF saying it could have been a Hamas missile).

The loss of the power plant could threaten lives in Gaza in a new way. And even though the IDF says it did not intentionally strike the plant, and I believe them, outside groups assume the strike was intentional and are calling it collective punishment.

I very much doubt that that is a military goal of the IDF. But too much of what’s been happening in Gaza is seeming like collective punishment of a civilian population. If an attacking army causes massive casualties to civilians as an inevitable consequence of the way they conduct a war, whether that be through bombs or epidemics or starvation, that can become a kind of collective punishment, even if that was not the army’s goal. It could even start to edge toward the definition of war crimes, God forbid.

Let me stop the reader here and say, clearly: Hamas is definitely and intentionally committing massive war crimes against Israel and against its own people. Israel is not.

But legally and ethically, something more is demanded of Israel — and in this case, it coincides with Torah law, which demands that in the siege of a city one side must be left open, so that people who wish to can flee.

I know Hamas has done what it can to make sure there are no places to flee — hiding rockets in schools, launching them from the roofs of people’s homes, using millions of tons of concrete to build tunnels and not one bomb shelter, even though it intended, in its wickedness, to start another war.

But there’s still a problem with how Israel is fighting this war.

Yesterday morning’s school bombing and the bombing of the playground two days ago may have been accidents, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if Israel has been exercising “restraint” by warning civilians to evacuate buildings before it bombs, or that Israel is exercising restraint because it isn’t killing everyone in sight.

It doesn’t matter because Israel has not designated areas where civilians can be safe. At some point, when civilians die in schools and on playgrounds, it becomes the same thing as intentionally killing them. I know Israel is also trying to give windows for humanitarian aid to get in. And I know that bombs can go astray. But certain places need to be off-limits to bombing — places of refuge for non-combatants, and places that sustain the resources essential to life.

I don’t know how to fight a war, and I don’t want the IDF to let soldiers be killed, God forbid, in order to be “nice”. But I wonder if Israel needs to return fire every time rockets are launched, and whether that actually makes Israeli civilians or soldiers safer.

The bottom line is that Iron Dome gives Israel the power to restrain its response, because it gives the government the breathing room to exercise restraint. And in this conflict, that seems to be the one power that Israel is not exercising. This is terrible and horrible, not just “tragic but unavoidable”.

What would have happened if Israel had declared particular schools and shelters off-limits to attack? Imagine the worst: that Hamas would have put all its rocket launchers in those places of refuge. If it did, then this is what would have happened next: everyone, not just Israel’s supporters, would see Hamas for what it is, and there would be an overwhelming international outcry against them, even from the West Bank. The war would end more quickly, I believe, and Israel would be the victor on all fronts, not just military.

That’s the kind of thing Israel has the power to do because of the breathing room afforded by Iron Dome. That’s being powerful, not weak, not liberal, not “compassionate to the cruel”. I don’t know if it’s too late for Israel to start trying to do that, but I think we, and Israel’s government, have to ask the question.

I appreciate what Noah Efron wrote when he said, “there is no place for righteousness in this conflict“. But even though I profoundly sympathize with what he said, I think he’s wrong, and that morality is not just subject to luck, even in Gaza.

I hate having to write about these things, because they distract from the issue I care most about, which is what is happening to the planet. But every war is also a war against the Earth. There is no such thing as a “green” war. And every war takes away resources, time, and most importantly attention away from the biggest problems facing humanity.

I want to be able to reach out to teach every kind of Jew, rightwing or leftwing, to talk about Torah and ecology. Issues related to Israel’s security polarize us. But this war transcends the divisions between the right and the left. There are times so bad, God forbid, that not speaking up is sinful. I am afraid and heart-sickened that this may be one of those times.

About the Author
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of, 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.