Posted tagged ‘Gaza’

Abraham and Isaac are Us – Moriah is Jerusalem

September 27, 2014

In the past, I have been asked, “Can’t we read some other section from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah? The story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Isaac is so difficult to listen to. Indeed it is frightening.” While I have always appreciated these concerns, I have never acceded to these requests.

Why? Perhaps partly because, having been raised as a Reform Jew, for all of my childhood and much of my life this was the only Torah text to be found in our High Holy Day prayer book for Rosh Hashanah. You must remember that in those days, Reform Jews never considered the possibility of observing a second day of Rosh Hashanah and therefore needing a second Torah portion. In fact, the rabbis who framed the old UNION PRAYER BOOK intentionally chose this text in spite of the fact that in traditional synagogues it is read on the second day and not the first. Why? Because they had ideological problems with the traditional text for the first day. While it does include the birth of Isaac, it also includes Abraham and Sarah driving Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, out of their camp to live or die in the wilderness. That, they found that to be morally questionable.

30 years ago, when GATES OF REPENTANCE was published, it did include a second Rosh Hashanah Morning service, for those who choose to observe a second day. However, for that service, they still did not include the other traditional Torah portion but rather they inserted the story of Creation. Still I stuck with Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, partly because of nostalgia and partly because this is a story about Jews while the Creation story is about a time before there were Jews. Now, in this new prayer book,     MISHKAN HANFESH, they have chosen to include, not only today’s Torah text and the story of Creation, but also the other traditional Torah reading and a fourth reading as well.

But still, I am deeply tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. That bond exists not just because of nostalgia, nor even just because it is a story of the early days of our people, but also because of the presence in it of Mt. Moriah. For Mt. Moriah would later be called Mt. Zion, and upon that mountain would be built the sacred city of Jerusalem. This story is so compelling because, from the earliest times of our people’s existence – 4,000 year ago – it binds the generations of Jews – Abraham and Isaac and all the generations to follow – to the land of Israel, and particularly to the city of Jerusalem.

Granted, it is not an easy story. It is one fraught with danger and heartache, sacrifice and tears. But that is part of the price that we Jews have had to pay throughout the ages for the privilege of having a land of our own. Jews for 4,000 years have tended to agree that it is a price well worth paying.

Throughout the ages, we have called it the Promised Land, but more accurately we should have called it the Land of the Covenant. For, from the very beginning of the Jewish people – when Abraham and God first struck a deal which would establish forever the unique relationship between our people and God, a central part of that deal, that covenant, that brit, was that there would be this land which God would give us as homeland for all time.

So today we read from the Torah some of our earliest history and what do we see? Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah; standing and praying on the site of the very heart of Jerusalem; the site where both Temples would eventually stand.

As Abraham and Isaac stood on Mt. Moriah, there were others who inhabited that land as well; people such as the Amorites, Hittites, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. But all those people are gone. They have disappeared from the face of history and not a trace of them remains, other than some sporadic archaeological finds. But we Jews, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, remain. We still exist and throughout the centuries, whether living on that land or in exile, the bonds between us and that land have remained unbroken.

2,700 years ago, when our people were dragged into exile in Babylonia, the Psalmist sang: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember you not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.” For 2,000 years, while in exile after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, in our worship we prayed daily for our return to Israel. 69 years ago, on April 20, 1945, on the first Shabbat after the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, a British radio reporter shared with the world his recording of the surviving Jews singing “Hatikvah” – “The Hope”; the song that would become the national anthem of the State of Israel. Throughout our history, whether we were living on the land or off of it, we never forgot Jerusalem; the cords that bound us to the land of Israel may have been stretched but never broken. In the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet and philosophy, Yehuda HaLevi, “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west.”

What I speak of is a sort of mystical magnetism, yet I know that there are those among us who do not sense it. When considering vacation destinations, Israel may not even make the list and that is a shame. It is a shame because for most Jews – indeed, for most Christians – but especially for most Jews, once they have spent any time in Israel, they understand from whence I speak. They feel the magnetism. They become connected – in spiritual ways connected – to the land and its people. They come to understand that the Jewish people and the land of Israel are inseparable no matter where we live.

I share all this with you because this past summer has been a very difficult and trying time for Israel and for all of us who love Israel. Indeed, it has been a trying time for all Jews, whether we love Israel or not. While Israelis has suffered under the constant barrage of Hamas missiles, needing to flee with very little advanced notice into their bomb shelters, we all have suffered as we have witnessed, and perhaps experienced, the dramatic rise in the levels of antisemitism throughout the world as a direct result of Israel’s war with Hamas. But even as I say that, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it truly as a result of the war, or is there something else at work here?”

For years there have been those who have claimed that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being antisemitic. Of course, that is, at the least, a horrible overstatement. That someone criticizes Israel in no way automatically means that they hate Jews. We Americans, of all people, should understand that, for we are constantly criticizing our own government but that does not mean that we do so out of hatred. But perhaps what those who equate being anti-Israel with being antisemitic are trying to say, though saying it poorly, is that while there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel, just as there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize any nation, there are still those individuals and groups who use their socially acceptable criticism of Israel in order to mask their socially unacceptable attitudes of antisemitism. The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, expressed this eloquently when he wrote: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is antisemitc, and not saying so is dishonest.”

What we have been witnessing is a dark combination of the Thomas Friedman ‘anti-Israel / antisemitism’ formula side-by-side with a toxic, blatant, endemic antisemitism which has taken advantage of the war to come out of the shadows and reveal itself in the light of day.

When respected bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a resolution to divest from Israel, even in a limited fashion, and didn’t even consider framing a resolution in which they would take a stand against Hamas firing thousands of rockets directed at civilian targets in Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When the Metropolitan Opera insists upon producing and performing a work which seeks to justify the actions of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise ship and murdered a wheel chair bound American Jew who simply was on vacation with his wife, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When during the war, the news media gave extensive coverage to the suffering of the citizens of Gaza but gave only meager coverage to the extent of Hamas’ attacks on Israel, or to the multiple efforts made by the Israelis to forewarn Gaza civilians of imminent attacks so that they could get out of harm’s way, or to the various ways in which Hamas used the citizens of Gaza as human shields so as to protect their own fighters while creating a humanitarian crisis which they would then use as propaganda against Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke.

Yet we have witnessed the other type of antisemitism as well, and in frightening ways. When those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war besieged a synagogue in Paris, filled with Jews who had gathered for no other reason but to observe Shabbat, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in Berlin those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war started chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs, come out and fight alone,” that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in New York those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war took their demonstration to the streets of the Diamond District, knowing that most of the jewelry exchanges located there are Jewishly owned and operated, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When someone in our own community plastered a gruesome anti-Israel poster on every utility pole surrounding our own synagogue, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly.

What can we learn from all of this? We learn that there is a certain irony in the fact that while some or many of us may have, for whatever reasons, lost our sense of intimate connection with the land and the State of Israel, it is our enemies who remember and continue to recognize it. Of course, they do not see its positive values but rather see it as fuel for their hatred of us. We, on the other hand need to embrace it and trust it. As throughout our history, our connection to Israel has been an integral component of Jewish identity and of our unique relationship with God, it remains so today. As we believe, and I hope we believe, that our relationship with God has produced for our people an elevated values system; one which lifts up justice and living the ethical life, then we have to trust that it is that very same value system that serves as the foundation of Israeli society – that Israel truly is a Jewish state and not just because it is populated by Jews.

We need to embrace that perspective, for once we do so, we can begin to prepare ourselves for how to respond to Israel’s detractors. We can begin to formulate our answer to the question of whether or not in the recent war, and in recent history, Israel has been placed in the role of the victim or the villain.

In our search for that answer let me leave you with some thought-starting questions:

Which party in the recent conflict has been deeply invested in peace and historically and consistently committed to finding a two-state solution, and which party has consistently and adamantly refused to sit at a negotiating table?

If Israel is not interested in making peace with its neighbors then how do you explain its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, its 2000 offer to the Palestinians of 97% of the disputed territories, and its 2005 total withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza?

Which party in the recent conflict used its rockets to protect its children and which party used its children to protect its rockets?

Which party in the recent conflict invested billions of dollars in constructing bomb shelters to protect its people and which party invested billions of dollars in constructing terror tunnels?

Which party in the recent conflict made extensive efforts to forewarn civilians on the other side of coming attacks?

Which nation in the Middle East does the most to protect religious freedom, the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, and the rights of all minority groups within its borders?

If you honestly seek the answers to these and similar questions you will have begun the search to determine who indeed is the victim and who the villain. Hopefully, you will come to the conclusion that Israel truly is a Jewish state, in values as well as in name; that it seeks peace, not war, with its neighbors and prays for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side as friends rather than as enemies.

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Rockets, Bombs, & Blood: Reflections on the Gaza Conflict

November 24, 2012

I have done some traveling in my time.  I am by no stretch of the imagination as well-traveled as some, but still I have set my foot on the soil of several foreign lands.  From these journeys, I have not only learned much about those individual nations and their cultures but I have also come to receive some very important insights into people in general and the world in which we live.

The first, and most important, of these insights is that it matters not where you go, whether it be in the land of friends or the land of foes, in general, people are good and decent.  They may speak different languages and dress differently, they may pray in very different ways or not pray at all, but when it comes down to fundamental human character, they are not really any different from us.  Like us, just as we have some very good people and some very bad ones in our society, so do they in theirs.

I first came to this realization during a frigid December while walking the streets of Moscow, when it was the capitol of the U.S.S.R., or as Ronald Reagan liked to call it, “The Evil Empire.”  I learned it while watching these blood enemies of the American way as they stood in long lines waiting for a bus in the freezing cold, yet they automatically welcomed pregnant women and women with small children to the front of the line.  I learned it while watching a Soviet father, in the midst of winter, pushing his child on a swing in a snow covered playground.

I learned it in Israel, particularly in the Old City of Jerusalem, as I sat, drinking Turkish coffee, schmoozing and laughing with Palestinian storekeepers as we cordially bandied over the price of possible purchases.  I learned it there as I watched one Palestinian merchant playfully haggle with 8 year old Helene over the price of a tee shirt, and letting her get the better of him.  I learned it there while on a UJA – now United Jewish Communities – mission with Dick & Harriet Gottlieb and their children.  After hearing stern warnings by our tour guide to protect our wallets and purses from the thieving Palestinians, one Palestinian teenager walked up to Jason Gottlieb and warned him that his backpack was open.

The second of these insights is born of the first.  That insight is that we cannot confuse a people with their government.  We are blessed to live in a true democracy where here, maybe more than in any other country on the planet, our government does accurately reflect the will of our people, for we express that will through the choices we make in the polling booth every election day.  Yet it is easy for us to forget that we are in the minority; that most people on this planet are not so blessed; that the positions and policies of their government may not accurately reflect their own values and desires.  While their governments may be evil, doing evil things, the majority of the people may actually be good at heart.  If the politics did not get in the way, we might find the we could be good friends.

I share this with you because these are important things to remember especially when missiles are being fired and bombs are being dropped, and blood is being spilled on both sides of the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Good people, on both sides, suffered.

It is easy for us as Jews to demonize the Palestinian people, especially when hundreds of rockets have been intentionally aimed and fired at Israel civilians – our brothers and sisters, from infants to the elderly – by Hamas and related terrorist groups in Gaza.  But to do so would be an injustice, not only to the Palestinian people as a whole, and not even only to the possibility of forging a future peace, but also to our very souls.  For when we demonize a whole people on account of the actions of an evil few who may possess inordinate power, we bring ourselves down to the level of all those who throughout history have mindlessly hated all Jews, for ills, real or imagined, that they felt some Jews may have inflicted upon them.  I don’t know about you, but as a Jew, I do not want to be held accountable for the misdeeds of someone like Bernie Madoff.  So why should we hold all Palestinians responsible for the misdeeds of Hamas?

That being said, the situation facing Israel makes it all but unavoidable that there will continue to be many Palestinian people – Palestinians who are not members of Hamas, nor who wish to be – who will suffer and even die as a result of Israeli military operations against the terrorists.  We cannot forget that the death of the innocent is the greatest tragedy born of war.  This is not something to celebrate, as members of Hamas did upon learning of the Tel Aviv bus bombing, but rather it should be something over which to anguish; something that stabs at our conscience as we lament the fact that when we choose war, we should always be choosing it as the lesser of two or more evils.  For in war, there really is no glory.  Just human suffering which is part of the price we pay when we are convinced that we have been left with no other options but victory.

This is the place in which Israel has found itself; not just in this war but in all its wars, especially in its wars against the Palestinians.  There is no question but that Israel cannot ignore or tolerate malicious attacks upon its citizens.  No other nation would ever be expected to do so, so why are there those who expect it of Israel?  Look at the United States.  We experienced one day of attack – September 11, 2001 – and we wound up going to war in two countries; a war which if it ended tomorrow would have lasted for 11 years.  Israel was left with no choice but to go to war in Gaza.

There are those who claim that there is always an alternative to war but there are times when that is simply not the case, no matter how much we wish it otherwise.  Those folks are so ever ready to condemn Israel for what they call its “aggression.”  But in their condemnations, they are being, to say the least, less than honest.  Less than honest because they choose to ignore a long history of all of Israel’s serious offers to make peace with its enemies; offers that have been turned down flat.  Less than honest because while they are so ready to take up on Hamas’ complaints about the Israeli occupation, they conveniently choose to forget that Israel elected to totally withdraw from Gaza 7 years ago; that Gaza is not occupied – blockaded, yes, but not occupied.  Less than honest because they continually turn a blind eye to the true acts of aggression of Hamas against Israeli civilians and then treat the conflict as if the acts of hostility are one-sided.  Less than honest in that they ignore the fundamental fact that just as it takes two to tango, so does it take two sides to make peace.  When it comes to Israel and Hamas, there is only one side that is interested in talking about peace, and that side is Israel.  At best, Hamas is only willing to talk about a cease fire, and then, only when its military resources are depleted and it needs time to regroup and rearm.

When I originally penned these words, a cease fire agreement had just been announced.  At that time, I had no idea if it would actually take place or survive by the time I shared these words with you.  Now I know that it has taken place.  I still am unsure how long it will survive.  While a cease fire is preferable to active combat, it is definitely not the answer.  The Israelis call such conflicts which end in a cease fire “mowing the lawn.”  No matter how nice a job you do when mowing your lawn, and how good it looks right after you are done, you know that the grass is already starting to grow back and the lawn will soon once again need mowing.  A cease fire is not the answer because it does not put an end to the violence.  It only postpones its continuation.  Indeed, it only assures its continuation for it provides both sides with the breathing room to better prepare for the next confrontation, guaranteeing that the next confrontation will be more brutal and bloody than the last.  No.  Cease fire is not the answer.

So what is Israel to do?  As long as Hamas refuses to consider any long term solution, this cycle of violence will continue.  Not because Israel wants it to, but because Israel has been left with no other choice.

Of course, there is one obvious choice, other than giving Hamas carte blanche to attack Israeli civilians without repercussions.  That choice is an all out war and total victory; going against Hamas with the total might of Israel’s military and not stopping until they are either completely destroyed or unconditionally surrender.  Is that not what the Allies did with Germany and Japan in the Second World War?  That is an option, but it is an option that even Israel, in the heat of its anger, finds too terrible to consider.  And that is to the credit of the Israelis.

Even in the heat of battle, Israel has striven not to forget the price of human suffering that innocent Palestinians pay as a result of the terrorism of Hamas.  It has been out of that consciousness that Israel went out of its way in its efforts to minimize civilian casualties, which was just the opposite of the choices made by Hamas.  Food and medical supplies still flowed from Israel into Gaza.  Neither electricity nor fresh water were cut off.  Injured Palestinians were admitted into Israel and treated in Israeli hospitals.  Palestinian civilians received advance warning to evacuate areas that were targeted by the Israelis.  Israeli surgical strikes were, on occasion, delayed in order to permit civilians to clear the targeted area.

As Jews, we should be very proud of Israel for all its efforts to protect life at a time when it was being forced to take life.  As Jews, we should be Israel’s greatest advocates, spreading the word of all the good Israel attempts to do, even in the darkest of times; sharing with our neighbors that information which, somehow or other, the news media either tends to ignore or deems not to be newsworthy.

Most of all, let us pray for peace  – a true and lasting peace.  Let us pray with all our hearts and souls.  Let us pray that the day will soon arrive when Israeli and Palestinian will cease to view each other as enemy and choose to view each other as friend and neighbor.

Responding to a New York Times Editorial Calling Upon Israel to Show Restraint

March 6, 2012

In today’s New York Times, there is an editorial which calls upon Israel not to “doubt the President’s mettle” when he states that he will not stand by and permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons; that Israel should trust the President and refrain from a unilateral attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities.

In response to that editorial, I feel I must point out philosopher George Santayana’s often quoted statement: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” It is precisely this principle which Israel’s critics are forgetting or simply ignoring.

So what should have been learned from history?

1. When a national leader threatens to destroy the Jews, and has or is developing the means to carry out that threat, he should be taken at his word. This was Hitler’s stated intention throughout his rise to power yet few took him seriously. Well, we know how that turned out! Now Mahmoud Ahmadinejab is making a similar threat – that he will wipe Israel off the map – and he is moving forward with the development of the nuclear weapons to accomplish that task. So why should anyone, especially Israel, doubt his intention? She must act upon the premise that he means what he says and will do it at the first possible opportunity.

2. Talk is cheap, especially when it comes from a U.S. President who says he has Israel’s back and that Israel should refrain from engaging in self defense. But at the end of the day, how can we be assured that the President will follow talk with action? In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson kept assuring Israel that America would never let her fall. He did so when Egypt insisted that the U.N. remove its peacekeeping forces from the Gaza Strip, and the U.N., without a moment’s hesitation complied; when the Egyptian and the Syrian armies amassed their forces on the Israeli border; when the Egyptians and the Saudis threatened to close the Straits of Tiran, effectively blockading the Israeli port city of Eilat. But when the they announced that the blockade was in effect then Johnson announced that there was nothing that he could do. Israel found herself standing alone. So she conducted a preemptive air strike, destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground. Thus began the 6-Day War; a war which too many were all to ready to label as an Israeli act of aggression rather than self defense. In 1967 Israel thought that America had its back but wound up standing alone. How can she be expected to maintain confidence that this time will be different? How can she be certain that Obama will not bow to the pressure not to engage in another Middle East war?  After all, this is an election year and there will be plenty of Americans who will be more than ready to remind President Obama that one of the pillars of his last election was his promise to withdraw us from the war in Iraq. Perhaps if the President was to deploy the forces to the Middle East which would be necessary for the conduct of a strike against Iran then he would show in some tangible way his resolve to back his words with deeds. Talk is cheap, but not cheap when it very well may cost Israel countless Israeli lives or even its survival. If, at the end of the day, Israel is to be left to face the threat alone, as she was in 1967, then let her face it while she has a chance to counteract it.

Reconsidering a Three State Solution

June 19, 2010

With so much attention these days being directed toward the struggle between the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza, too little attention has been turned toward what is happening in the West Bank.  And for once, we can say what is happening there is good!

Recently, Tom Friedman wrote quite a revealing column (“The Ballgame and the Sideshow”, New York Times, June 4, 2010).  In it, he contrasts the two different approaches of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  While Hamas continues to operate under the ideology of “Judge me on how I resist Israel or America,” Abbas and Fayyad have assumed the approach of “judge me by how I perform – how I generate investment and employment, deliver services and pick up the garbage.”

Friedman goes on to point out how very successful has been the Abbas – Fayyad approach.  Since 2007, he informs us, the Palestinian Authority has partnered with Jordan and the U.S. in the training of  the new Palestinian National Security Force, and that the Israelis have been so impressed with the results that they have turned over to them the task of maintaining law and order in all of the major West Bank towns.  This, in turn, has triggered “an explosion of Palestinian building, investment, and commerce in those areas.”  Most telling of all, Prime Minister Netanayahu has reduced the number of manned check points in the West Bank from 42 to 12!  Why do we never hear about that in the world press?

It has become typical of the world’s perspective on Israel that while they are all to ready to condemn her for the Gaza blockade, no one gives even the slightest notice to all this progress in the West Bank, and particularly to Israel’s response to the Palestinian Authority’s peaceful endeavors by actually turning over law enforcement responsibilities to the Palestinian Security Force and so significantly reducing the number of check points.  There is a pitiful irony as we watch everyone anguish over the suffering of the people of Gaza, yet turn a blind eye to the progress in the West Bank; progress which so obviously stands as a model of all the good that could be brought about should Hamas  ever choose to change its tune;  should Hamas ever decide to place the well being of the people of Gaza above their desire to destroy Israel.

This leaves us with a difficult question.  Is the Two State Solution still a viable option in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  While the Palestinians of Gaza continue to suffer because of the actions of Hamas, should the Palestinians of the West Bank be forced to continue to suffer for them as well?

The time is fast approaching when we must seriously consider another approach – a Three State Solution, with two potential Palestinian states, one on the West Bank and the other in Gaza.  In the past, this idea has been floated and quickly rejected.  The claim has been that the Palestinians are one people and deserve one united state.  Admittedly, that would be the ideal.  But in this world, sometimes we have to settle for that which is less than the ideal.

Why a Three State Solution at this time?

First and foremost because it appears that the Palestinians on the West Bank are seriously moving in a responsible fashion toward the point where they will be ready to have their own state.  To keep them from that cherished goal because of the intransigence of Hamas seems unfair and unjust.  When the time comes that they have accomplished the task of creating those infrastructures which will have earned them the right to be considered a full partner in the community of nations, and a good neighbor to Israel, then they deserve to be rewarded for their efforts.

It would appear that while Palestinian unity is still a desired goal on the part of the Palestinian people, yet with every passing day, the ideological distance between the West Bank and Gaza grows greater.  Indeed, it would seem that their issues with Israel are but a sideshow compared to the differences between these two Palestinian entities.  As much as one could argue for the necessity of an international peacemaking initiative in order to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, one could equally argue the need for such an initiative to resolve the conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Therefore it would seem that the best – though not ideal – solution would be to look to the eventual establishment of two Palestinian states along side of Israel; one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza.  If matters keep progressing, it would appear that the West Bank Palestinian state could be established in the not too distant future.  As for the Gaza Palestinian state…

Yet there is always hope.  Perhaps the day will arrive when there will be a change of heart – if not of leadership – in Gaza.  Perhaps the people of Gaza will build and earn their own state, much as the people of the West Bank appear to be doing now.  And who knows?  Perhaps the time will come when the people of Gaza can be reunited with the people of the West Bank, and a three state solution will not be necessary, for a two state solution will become viable.  But until that time arrives, we must do all we can to encourage the people of the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority to continue in their state building efforts, and in their pursuit of a peaceful resolution of their conflict with Israel.

Moving Beyond Helen Thomas

June 10, 2010

It seems that the furor over the virulently anti-Israel statements made by Helen Thomas, the renown White House correspondent, is starting to fade.  And that is as it should be.  The sooner the better!

What she said – that the Jews should leave Israel to the Palestinians and go home, to Poland, to Germany, to America, wherever – was unquestionably outrageous.  It is completely incomprehensible how a person who for so long has carried the responsibility of bringing to the public an accurate reporting of all the news coming out our the White House could be so grossly ignorant of world history; could be so blatantly prejudice; and could be so journalistically naive as to ever make such a comment to a fellow journalist, nevertheless one with a camera and a microphone in his hand, simply boggles the mind!

Be that as it may, the Helen Thomas story is a small story at best.  For at the end of the day, who is she?  Is she responsible for formulating U.S. foreign policy?  No.  Do she possess a significant loyal following who hang on her every word and who transform her utterances into votes in the polling place?  No.  Yes, she is a known personality, but that is about it.  She does not have the power to change the world.  She does not personally pose even a minor threat to the security of Israel or the future of Middle East peace.  Sad to say, today, she has become an opinionated old lady who can no longer maintain the objectivity her job requires.

But in her day, she really was something!  She earned her place in the front row of Presidential press conferences.  She achieved something no other woman before her was able to achieve; she was the first woman to serve as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.  She challenged and earned the respect of 10 consecutive U.S. Presidents.  She has done so much to advance the cause and status of women in journalism.  Even in the heat generated by this recent diatribe, all the good that she has accomplished should not, and must not, be forgotten.

Helen Thomas made a stupid and bigoted statement.  And she has suffered for it.  So many of those who honored her in the past have denounced her in the present.  From all sorts of places came calls for her to be fired.  Many were truly out for blood.  And to her credit, rather than cause her employers the embarrassment of having to fire her,  she demonstrated the graciousness of resigning.  Indeed, if one were to think of the reactions on a proportional scale, then one would have to wonder why, if Helen Thomas’ 15 second utterance has generated so much anger and vehemence then when one considers all the outrageous statements made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran over the past several years, why have we not nuked that country back to the stone age?  The point is that even though what she did was indeed offensive, she has paid the price for her indiscretion.  Having forced her to step away from the public life which has been so important to her for all these years, it is pointless to skewer her further.

I especially am concerned about whether or not my fellow Jews and my fellow supporters of Israel will be able to let this matter go.  We have bigger fish to fry.  So let us not get fixated on the utterances of a 89 year old woman, no matter how public a figure she once was.  Let us not permit this episode to distract us from the real challenges which today face Israel; the ongoing challenge of achieving peace WITH security; the ongoing challenge of pursuing justice for Israel in a world which is all to ready to condemn her every action, with, and especially without, justification.  Wish as some may, Helen Thomas simply will not effectively stand in the eyes of the world for all those who openly despise Israel.  Whatever she said, she will not distract the rest of the world from looking to serious address the crisis in Gaza.  So let us not harp on her ridiculous interview, but rather let us focus on how we can address the issue of Gaza in a way which will protect our brothers and sisters in Israel while at the same time be far more effective in advancing the flow of humanitarian aid to the suffering people of Gaza

Good Out of Gaza

June 6, 2010

Ever since the Israeli boarding of the Mavi Marmara turned tragically violent, accusations and counter accusations have filled the air like the shells of an artillery engagement.  Who was is in the right?  Who was in the wrong?  Who were the villains?  Who the heroes?  Who the perpetrators?  Who the victims?  As some commentators have correctly pointed out – painfully so – there has been so much debate over issues of responsibility that no one, on either side, has taken the time to honestly lament for those who were killed or injured.  Yes, both sides have decried the bloodshed, but to be truthful, their outrage has been far more politically motivated than humanely so.  The dead and injured on both sides quickly ceased to be human beings, having been transformed into political pawns.  Sounds harsh?  Then consider this.  How many articles and news reports or releases have you seen that actually have mentioned these individuals by name?  Names do not seem to be important here; just numbers, as though we have been keeping some sort of macabre score card.

With all the heated rhetoric of the moment, it might appear as though the world is falling apart.  Maybe it is.  But then again, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe the Arab world will unite under the leadership of the extremists in Iran and make one more attempt to annihilate the “Zionist entity.”  But then again, after all the shouting dies down, few Arab nations will really be interested in aligning themselves with Iran and fewer still will be willing to actually go to war with Israel.  And all this will turn out to be just another one of those earth shattering momentary crises, as the world, and especially the Middle East, returns to the status quo.

But then again, maybe out of this painful tragedy some light might be shed.  Maybe what today may be perceived as possibly “the end of the world” may actually wind up turning out to be the birthing of a new future.

Let’s admit it!  The naval and land blockade of Gaza is not exactly new news.  Yes, pro-Palestinian supporters and sincere human rights activists have voiced their protests over the suffering of the residents of that besieged strip of land for some time now.  Israelis themselves have expressed their deep regret – indeed anguish – over what they have perceived as their need to impose such a stranglehold on Gaza and the suffering which it causes.  Yes, Israel has presented massive amounts of compelling evidence as to why they must control Gaza’s borders so diligently in order to prevent a steady influx of weaponry which would be directed against Israelis, and especially against Israeli civilian population centers.  The thousands upon thousands of rockets and mortar shells which have rained down upon communities such as Sderot, launched by Hamas from Gaza, have been pointed out to the world as proof positive of the very real dangers that the Israelis are attempting to address.  Yet, while everyone in the world has made note of this situation, expressed their concerns and regrets, still, at the end of the day, no one has really stepped forward with any real energy or creativity in an attempt to resolve it.  While everyone had an opinion, and many expressed their opinions, still beyond the talk, people just seemed willing to let the matter stand as it, accepting the simple alternatives of blockade or no blockade, with nothing in between.

But not any longer.  Now, as a result of this tragedy, everyone, including the Israelis, are looking at the blockade of Gaza with new eyes.  Everyone, including Israel, have come to the conclusion that the status quo simply will not continue to work.  Change is in the air.  Change is inevitable.  Maybe.

Today, outside of the Arab world, the critics of the blockade are no longer simply staying, :Lift It!”  They are recognizing that raw pressure will never succeed in budging Israel.  Indeed, seeing how serious Israel is about maintaining this blockade – even at the high cost we have witnessed – they are coming around to recognizing that there can be no change in this situation without seriously addressing Israeli security concerns as well as of the humanitarian needs of the residents of Gaza.  One need look no further than at the Obama administration, which has been coming down heavily on Israel as of late and has been talking more and more about Israel being a strategic liability rather than an asset to witness such a broadening view.  When the 7th vessel set off on its journey, the United States chose to join Israel in encouraging them NOT to attempt to run the blockade but rather to allow themselves to be escorted into the port of Ashdod, where their cargo could be inspected, off-loaded, and then sent via land to Gaza.  The Israelis even agreed to permit the transport into Gaza of concrete, which the humanitarian activists claim is for building homes but which Israel has seen Hamas sidetrack in the past to be used in the building of bunkers.

Perhaps the day is not to far off when such cargo ships can be inspected at sea; when the nations of the world will respect Israel’s responsibility to protect its citizens from the import into Gaza – into the hands of Hamas – of weapons intended to be used against Israel.  Perhaps the nations of the world will cooperate with Israel in the thorough conduct of such inspections.  Perhaps, if Israel could be convinced that by such inspections, Hamas could effectively be denied the receipt of more arms, then once inspected, she will permit these ships to continue on their journey and reach the Gaza shores, where the humanitarian aid could be delivered direct.

Of course, the wild card in all this is Hamas.  So far, Hamas has claimed that they will not permit the humanitarian supplied, off loaded in Ashdod, to enter Gaza.  It is obvious that the “breaking” of the blockade is a far higher priority for them than alleviating the suffering of their people.  But can they sustain that posture?  Any gains which they have made as a result of the recent events can easily slip from their fingers if they expose themselves to the eyes of the world as the true barrier denying the people of Gaza the help they need.  But, of course, that would only happen if the nations of the world would open themselves to admitting that in this situation, Israel may not be the only villain, nevertheless the primary villain.

Violence and bloodshed are essentially meaningless.  Lives lost in this way are certainly lost in vain.  They are lost due to the failure of reason.  But if the suffering born of these recent events results in laying the foundations for a more effective, humane, and mutually workable resolution to the challenge of getting humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza without arming Hamas at the same time, then perhaps the suffering born of this tragedy might result in having served some higher purpose.  Only time will tell.

Reflections on Peace Advocacy and the Gaza Floatilla

June 2, 2010

Israel has been on my mind a great deal of late – even before the crisis over the tragic interception of the Gaza Flotilla.  Prior to this most recent crisis, I had been anguishing over whether or not to officially add my name as a supporter of J Street.  It all started when one of my congregants approached me about it.  He had read some J Street material and wanted my advice as to whether or not he should throw in his support.  His questions brought focus to my own indecision on the matter.  So I went back on the J Street website, read their vision statements, and, like my congregant, found a great deal with which I could agree.  For, I too, am a big supporter of a two-state solution which needs to be arrived at through serious non-violent negotiations; a two state solution which would deliver to the Palestinians a nation of their own of which they could be proud, while at the same time would deliver to the Israelis a positive resolution to their security concerns.  However, all that being said, I still had an uneasy feeling that rightly or wrongly, J Street was identified as an influential Jewish voice, all too often critical of Israel.

In my struggle to resolve this question, I gathered, via email, a list of some 50 rabbinic colleagues whose opinions I value greatly; some of them ardent supporters of J Street, some opponents, and many whose positions  I simply did not know.  I shared with them my indecision and my questions, seeking their insights and counsel.  And we were off to the races.  Not all responded to my queries.  Many of those who did, did so privately.  Others shared their thoughts with the entire group.  Many and diverse were their opinions.  So many excellent points were made on both sides.  My eyes were opened to new perspectives on the issue. But in the end, I still remained undecided.  Yet in the process, I came to truly believe that J Street was often misunderstood and intentionally misinterpreted.  I found that more often than not, their statements honestly strove to be evenhanded and fair, but between sensationalist media, unscrupulous politicians, and Israel’s enemies, what came most to the public eye were, and are, their critiques of Israel.  I saw it  akin to the old media adage about “Man bites dog” over “dog bites man.”  It is not news when Jews support Israel or criticize the Palestinians, but when Jews criticize Israel, now that is newsworthy.

I also was brought to the realization that it would be great if there was a “J Street” like organization on the Palestinian side, equally dedicated to the peace process and equally willing to criticize both parties in an evenhanded manner.  But alas, while there are Muslim peace organizations, they usually speak in whispers and do not garner the type of support and prestige that an organization like J Street does within the Jewish and the general community.  This is a tragic unfulfilled need, for in order for an organization like J Street to most effectively address its mission, it really needs a real Muslim partner organization with which it could work hand-in-hand.

It was while my colleagues and I were in the midst of these discussions that we woke up one morning to learn of the violence which had taken place in the waters off of Gaza.

Many groups and world leaders were quick to make statements in response to that situation, even though the facts were far from complete and the story was still unfolding.  Among them were Jeremy Ben-Ami, the President of J Street, as well as Yaariv Oppenheimer, speaking for another Jewish peace organization – Americans for Peace Now.  Mr. Ben-Ami made the following remark which I found disturbing:  “We do know, however, that today is one more nail in the coffin for hopes of ending of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully and diplomatically and for preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.”  As for Mr. Oppenheimer, in an article published in the Israeli newspaper, MaAriv, he wrote a statement which I found equally disturbing:  “Tonight Israel marked a new low point in the way it chose to contend with its domestic and external policy dissidents.  A state that will not let its citizens protest, demonstrate and demand justice, a state that is busy composing loyalty tests for its citizens and passing laws to limit the freedom of expression, failed again in the real test and stopped a protest fleet of civilian ships at the cost of more than ten lives.”

Statements like these are precisely why I have discomfort with organizations like J Street and Peace Now.  While I share their ultimate vision of arriving at a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I cannot condone  their knee jerk reactions which immediately assume that Israel is in the wrong in whatever crisis arises.  I find myself scratching my head and wondering why Mr. Ben-Ami of J Street could not have ended his statement at the word “diplomatically” but felt the need to go forward with the assumption the Israel’s actions have done great harm to her fundamental “Jewish and democratic character.”  And as for Mr. Oppenheimer, just the simple fact that an article such as his could appear in a major Israeli publication like MaAriv gives far greater testimony in opposition to his premise for the Israeli democracy is alive and well as long as it permits those who so wish to publicly protest against the actions and policies of its government.

For my part, the events of the last few days have triggered an odd confluene of reflections.  It almost seems ironic that a short while back, I was re-watching the film “Thirteen Days”, about the Cuban missile crisis.  Every time I watch that film I am flooded with memories of the actual event.  As if it were yesterday, I recall my childhood conversations with my childhood friends, wondering whether or not the end of the world was upon us; whether or not the Russians would stage a nuclear attack.  It was indeed a frightening time, especially for children.  Yet with that danger being real and present, there was no question of the legitimacy of Kennedy’s use of a naval blockade in defense of our country; at least not among those of us us who were living under the threat of a missile attack.  Then my thoughts have likewise turned to the painful fact that as Americans, at this very hour, our combat troops have their boots on the foreign soil of two nations – Iraq and Afghanistan – ostensibly waging a war against terrorists who supposedly threaten the security of our nation and its citizens.  So one American President can conduct a naval blockade – in international waters – against another nation, in defense of our country, and it is considered appropriate and heroic.  Two American Presidents can send and maintain troops on the soil of two sovereign nations, having invaded both of them, in defense of our country against terrorism.  While there are those among us who protest this fact, those troops remain, yet we do not view the failure of our protests to achieve their goal as indicative of the demise of American democracy.

Then we have Israel.  Who in their right mind can question the very real danger posed to the security of the nation of Israel and its citizens by the terrorist actions of Hamas, coming out of Gaza?  Who can doubt that if the borders of Gaza were left wide open, there would be no question but that arms aplenty would flood into Gaza, all intended to be used against Israel, and specifically against Israeli citizens?  The threat of arms being smuggled into Gaza is a very real one and an Israeli government which would intentionally ignore that threat would be dramatically negligent, and perhaps even criminally negligent.  So while a blockade and a siege of Gaza is not a desirable course of action, especially from a humanitarian perspective, it – like the naval blockade of Cuba in the 60’s – would seem to be a necessary one in the name of national defense.  It is tragic but unavoidable that in defending one people from those who threaten its security, there very well may be loss of life – sometime, most tragically, innocent loss of life.  If any nation should understand that harsh reality, it should be the U.S., which has been faced with that very same situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  There is a certain hypocrisy when an American President (one whose election I personally supported and worked for, you should know) who is the Commander-in-Chief of combat troops on foreign soil waging active war in defense of our nation’s security, turns around and criticizes Israel for committing her troops in order to defend her people.  It is wrong to have two standards of behavior – one for the U.S. and another for Israel.  I cannot help but think that the children of Sderot – especially before the Gaza War – were holding among themselves conversations quite similar to the ones I was involved in as a child during the Cuban missile crisis.

I am not offering a wholesale justification for Israel’s actions of the past weekend.  She made plenty of mistakes, not the least of which was naively expecting her troops to encounter actual peace activists rather than violent opponents.  But it is far too easy for all of us Monday morning quarterbacks to provide Israel with our sage post facto counsel.  The hard truth on the ground is that Israel had every good reason to suspect that along with the humanitarian cargo on those ships was also a cargo of weaponry.  With that possibility, those ships did pose a very real security threat to the citizens of Israel and needed to be searched.  How Israel did go about that task will be a matter of  fierce debate in the coming months.  But in all of this, I cannot concur with Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street nor with Yaariv Oppenheimer of Americans for Peace Now, that the actions here constitute a threat to the character of Israeli democracy, nor that legitimate attempts to protect the physical safety of her citizens constitute a threat to the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

POSTSCRIPT: Two days after I published the above posting, the Office of the White House Press Secretary released the following statement from National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer:

“The government of Israel has stated its desire to avoid a confrontation and a repeat of Monday’s tragic events on the Mavi Marmara.  It remains a U.S. priority to provide assistance to the people of Gaza.  In the interest of the safety of all involved, and the safe transmission of assistance to the people of Gaza, we strongly encourage those aboard the Rachel Corrie and other vessels to sail to Ashdod to deliver their materials to Gaza.

“We are working urgently with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other international partners to develop new procedures for delivering more goods and assistance to Gaza, while also increasing opportunity for the people of Gaza and preventing the importation of weapons.  The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed.  For now, we call on all parties to join us in encouraging responsible decisions by all sides to avoid any unnecessary confrontations and to ensure the safety of all involved.”