The response of Jewish American progressives, especially of American rabbinical students to the Gaza war is encouraging, in that it shows that young American Jews have open and questioning minds. It shows that tomorrow’s leaders of American Jewry follow the rabbinic tradition of questioning every truism. But following the rabbinic tradition carries with it an obligation to fully investigate the answers to questions. One cannot simply respond tl;dr (“too long, didn’t read,” in the lingo of social media)
To address Israel’s human rights record, they might, for example, speak to a 19-year old Israeli soldier currently in Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, with shrapnel wounds to his lower body. He was wounded while transferring humanitarian aid to Gaza’s beleaguered civilians.
They might also investigate why Gaza’s civilians are suffering. Of the hundreds of rockets that Hamas fired daily at Israel over the last 10 days, about 10 percent have landed inside the Gaza strip, killing many of the dozens of Gazan children who lost their lives in the current conflict.
To argue that “Israel’s choices come from a place of power” while ignoring Hamas’s actions is to shirk responsibility and reduce moral choices to a quick numbers game. In this kind of tl;dr-influenced thinking, the only questions that matter are those that can be answered in a Google search: How many dead on each side? If you argue, as Trevor Noah and John Oliver did, that the side with the most dead holds the moral high ground, you have effectively abandoned the moral high ground to robots and computers.
The relevant moral question is not who has power, but how is that power used? Whatever else it may have done, Hamas has not used its considerable power to better Palestinians’ lives or to address their lack of human rights. It has reduced the Gaza Strip to worse poverty than ever, with Palestinians’ lives dependent on the type of humanitarian aid Israel is transferring to them, as well as on generous donations from Qatar. Instead of using those Qatari millions to improve Palestinians’ lives and rights, Hamas has siphoned off money, re-directing humanitarian aid to its own projects, including the extensive tunnel network it built under civilian neighborhoods.
When asked about the glaring absence of any mention of Hamas from the rabbinical students’ open letter, Frankie Sandmel, one of the signatories, replied, “I lack standing to try to influence how Palestinians respond to oppression.” The moral abdication inherent in this reply is deeply troubling. First of all, Hamas itself is oppressing Palestinians by firing rockets that fall in Palestinian civilian neighborhoods and by stealing humanitarian aid for a tunnel network that does nothing to help Palestinians.
And second, other groups in this conflict also have rights. The tunnel network that Hamas built is designed to allow its operatives to fire missiles at Israel without exposing themselves to being killed by Israel. In killing those who fire missiles, Israel is exercising a deep moral responsibility: the protection of the rights and lives of its citizens. In the past hour alone (writing on May 20, 2021 at 4 p.m., 10 hours before the cease fire that was to come), dozens of missiles have been fired at Israel’s south, including several that sent me running to the safe room of our house. This is a 3-by-4 meter in-house bomb-shelter that my kids have started to call home. They haven’t been allowed out of the gate of our yard for the past 11 days; we are terrified of them being caught on the street by an incoming Hamas-fired missile, and unable to find shelter in time. (For those concerned with animal rights, our dogs are also deeply traumatized by the repeated warnings and missile fire.)
The statement that “Israel has the right to defend its citizens” is not just a mantra repeated by old white men scorned by progressives. It is a deeply important moral claim on which the lives of millions depend, mine included.
The highly influential publisher of Israel’s Haaretz daily, Amos Schocken, wrote recently that Israel ought to focus on passive defense and avoid any attacks on Gaza. His rationale is that any attack on Gaza runs the risk of hurting civilians and Israel can simply shoot down rockets. While this claim might qualify Schocken for standing among the early Christian martyrs, it is disconnected from reality and deeply amoral. In 10 days, a dozen civilians have been killed in Israel by missiles that the IDF, for all its efforts, could not shoot down, or by bits of missiles remaining after the anti-missile protection system activated. Does Israel have no responsibility to these civilians? As I write, the Israel Air Force is dismantling the tunnels from which Hamas operates. This is the only moral response to the hundreds of missiles launched by Hamas. In the last hour, dozens of red alert sirens have sounded in civilian communities throughout southern Israel. We, the citizens attacked by these missiles, have a right to government action that will dismantle Hamas’s abilities to fire at us.
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Ironically, Israel’s ability to dismantle Hamas’s tunnels is threatened by none other than well-meaning Jewish senators such as Jon Ossoff, who led 29 Senate Democrats in demanding an immediate ceasefire. Had a ceasefire been established on Ossoff’s schedule, Hamas’s ability to fire missiles at will would have remained intact, endangering the rights of both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.
The only morally defensible course of action, given the current reality, was to allow Israel the time needed to dismantle all of Hamas’s tunnels, to destroy its missile-launchers, and to demonstrate that violating rights by claiming weakness does not pay.
After Hamas is soundly defeated, the time for reconstruction will come. Those concerned with human rights and Palestinian oppression will have the moral high ground to demand, at that point, that aid be directed in ways that promises a bright future for Gaza’s civilians, and for the civilians of Israel’s south, all of whom have suffered from Hamas’s oppression.