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Shmuly Yanklowitz

Why I, as a social justice activist, reject the calls for ceasefire

(Photo: Shmuly Yanklowitz)
(Photo: Shmuly Yanklowitz)

As a social justice activist, I’ve been in the trenches for decades with allies on countless causes supporting vulnerable populations. It’s been disheartening, and even terrifying, to see what side many of them are taking now after Hamas’s brutal terrorist attacks leaving more than 1,400 murdered and more than 230 people held hostage, led to the evacuation of more than 130,000 civilians, and called the entire country into war.

A war against a terrorist army that actively pursues your people’s total annihilation requires that your first priority be to protect your country. There must be humanitarian aid (Israel is allowing 100 trucks of humanitarian relief each day) and concern for civilian casualties, but at the same time, the Jewish state cannot continue to share a border with a terrorist-run government. As Rabbi Yuval Cherlow recently argued, minimizing casualties is so important, but it cannot take precedence over the pursuit of survival and lasting safety for all in the region. And as Golda Meir stated, “You cannot negotiate with people that have come to kill you.” The status quo is no longer something that either Israel or innocent Gazans can endure.

It would be much more comfortable to sit on the sidelines in a place of ideological purity and wave a banner against the violence that Israel feels morally mandated to carry out. But I’ve had to face the fact that doing so will only perpetuate more evil. When the Allies were fighting the Nazis, their concern was to do what it would take to protect the world and not to endanger everyone by allowing Nazism to live on with a righteous banner of pacifism.

To be clear, Hamas is distinct from the Nazis. But it signed on to share their fate when it acted on the same motivation to annihilate the Jewish people. What we are after is not revenge (the Torah explicitly forbids revenge! Leviticus 19:19), but a safe future for the Jews and gentiles who live in Israel and beyond its borders.

And yes, anyone supporting the war against Hamas must confront the fact that military action always remains fraught. How will we feel if or when the number of civilian casualties becomes abominably high? Are we sure we are able to get humanitarian aid to all we possibly can while also cutting off resources to Hamas? And even if Hamas can be defeated, what prevents another terrorist organization from cropping up in its place? Already, Hezbollah has aligned itself with Hamas, striking Israel from the North. I don’t have the answers, and it’s humbling, scary and overwhelming.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in Israel. I have countless family members, friends, and colleagues there (or going from bomb shelter to bomb shelter as rockets continue to be sent from Gaza). My experience with Israelis and Palestinians alike has led me to conclude that we must pursue justice wherever the opportunity is present. That means we must condemn the vigilante violence that we’ve seen from settlers, and it means we must remove Hamas from being a threat to the Israelis and replace Hamas with new Gaza leadership (that is neither Hamas-led nor Israeli-led but responsibly led by Palestinians who value life and dignity). A former Hamas member and son of one of the co-founders of Hamas, Mosab Hassan Yousef, talks about the brutalities of Hamas and how he believes that the people of Gaza will celebrate Israel after it removes Hamas’ oppressive terror reign over the people of Gaza.

It’s been lonely to see the very partners in our progressive campaign work oftentimes joining “Free Palestine” rallies that call for freeing Palestine of Jews “from the river to the sea.” They often don’t understand the complexities of the situation yet unhesitatingly call for a ceasefire that will leave Israelis at risk and the hostages unprotected. All this has only made us more appreciative of those who have reached out to us, and of the U.S. government, which has had, and continues to have, Israel’s back. Even longtime peacemakers in Israel have rejected calls for a ceasefire because they understand how much has changed in the new reality. Dennis Ross just wrote: “There are no easy solutions to Gaza, but there is only one path forward in this war. An outcome that leaves Hamas in control will doom not just Gaza but also much of the rest of the Middle East.”

Universities have allowed faculty members and students to condone Hamas’ attack while condemning Israel with the absurd claim of dismantling “white colonialization.” It’s hard to believe that such educated people don’t know just how many Israelis are Sephardic—Mizrachi, Ethiopian, Yemenite, etc. (i.e., not white). Furthermore, colonialization implies that the land is not your place of origin and that you have another homeland where you are coming from. Nothing could be farther from the case for the Jewish people, whose historical homeland is the Land of Israel and who have no other home country they can return to. In addition to the indigenous Jews, there were the countless refugees expelled from Arab countries and the survivors who fled from Europe. “To reduce this incredibly complex struggle of two peoples for the same land to a colonial war,” wrote Thomas Friedman, “is to commit intellectual fraud.”

If Israelis are deemed colonizers, then the only terrifying conclusion intended is that all must be annihilated or deported so the indigenous can remain and return. You can act with barbarity toward colonizers since the resistance is deemed legitimate, even noble.

To my Jewish colleagues around the world who are reeling emotionally, I urge restraint in our rhetoric and continued optimism for peacemaking and bridge-building. As a rabbi, I am guided by the Jewish tradition’s values and the Torah’s teachings that tell us that we have a moral mandate to reduce suffering and stand with the oppressed. Israel is a tiny minority, and the only democracy, amidst a large often-hostile middle east. We must do all possible to bring the hostages home, especially the children and elderly, such as 9-month-old baby Kfir Bibas, 5-year-old Emilia Aloni, and 84-year-old Elma Avraham and over 200 others.

The goal here must be peace. We dream of Palestinians and Jews one day living peacefully with dignity side by side. But it seems now that it’s going to have to get worse before it gets better. Our goal is to protect Israelis and Palestinians from Hamas, a group that will hold the people it governs as human shields rather than encouraging them to evacuate to safety, because Hamas in truth has little to no regard for human lives, Palestinian or Jewish. Our goal is to equally protect Americans from fundamentalist radical Islam that deems the Judeo-Christian West an enemy that must be destroyed.

It is not in spite of my being a social-justice activist, but precisely because of it, that I support the rights of self-defense for the Jewish people. We pray for a world where all who claim to care about the welfare of all human beings will also hold those values true for the Jewish people.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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