October 27, 2023
A consistent theme in my messaging about the terrible situation in Israel and Gaza has been about locating, assessing, and holding on to our humanity in the face of the barrage of challenges to it. I have tried to stress that, at its core, our human values, our Jewish values, are not just for fair weather. The question is, though, how do we hold on to them?
In the days since Oct. 7, our world has gone mad. The Israeli government has thus far shown remarkable restraint in Gaza, though that seems a terrible thing to say given the thousands of civilian deaths that have already occurred (even if the Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry numbers cannot be trusted) and the scale of destruction. Anyone with a sense of justice and decency should decry the devastation and the humanitarian crisis being wrought on Gaza. The problem is, it’s easy to say what Israel shouldn’t do. But ask critics of Israel what she should do and you’ll be met with silence. Inaction is not an option.
The best option is a global effort at diplomacy, with world leaders coming together in a concerted effort to avert a calamity that will affect everyone; thus far though, these same leaders have, for the most part, been steering their countries to one side of the conflict or the other, with little sage statesmanship to be found (President Biden has thus far proved a notable exception to this). Though we don’t yet know where this situation will lead, this is how large-scale wars begin: in a vacuum of far-sighted leadership. Civilians everywhere pay the price.
On the home-front, here in the US, people have also found their fault-lines. The grotesque, pro-Hamas demonstrations on college campuses, for example, and the stunningly lackluster responses of the university administrations, not to mention other “Free Palestine” rallies across the country, have intruded on the Jewish community’s time and space to grieve and mourn what is arguably the most hideous act of anti-Jewish terrorism the Western world has seen in the modern age (with the caveat that there are some measured, thoughtful, responses from that community too). This, in turn, drives the fault lines deeper: us against them. How, in heaven’s name, can our emotional response not meet theirs? Surely, we must meet such insensitivity, such thoughtless and ignorant hatred, with insensitivity and hatred.
Unless we don’t. Unless we choose a different path. Unless we take the leadership role so lacking on the world’s stage.
I say this for two reasons. First, we must be able to discern that continuing the same cycle of hatred meets hatred serves nothing (except our egos). The question that we must be asking is: how do we move forward? How do we break the cycle? How do we look ahead rather than perseverating on the past? How do we bequeath to the next generation something better than what we have?
Second, we, who are not in Israel or Gaza or the West Bank, have a different view of the conflict. Among the countless heartbreaking stories that I heard this past week was the following: an Israeli family with three school-age children from one of the Gaza border communities, who survived the massacre intact, was taken to a makeshift camp for the displaced and evacuated communities. During the attack, they had spent 18 hours locked in their safe-room with no food or water. Upon arrival, at the entrance to the camp, there was a mountain of donated food-stuffs that Israelis sent to support the families. The parents told the kids to help themselves, thinking that they would come back with their arms loaded with chips and candy. All three kids came back with cans of fish and beans and such. When asked why, they said “what if the terrorists come back? What will we eat?”
That is not our reality. My kids are not going to sleep at night with the after-effects of trauma. I am not, moment to moment, concerned about the real possibility of an imminent barbaric attack on my family. No Palestinian Brooklynites are worried about IAF bomb strikes on their Flatbush apartment or armored vehicles rolling into Bay Ridge. Removed by a degree of separation from the horrors unfolding in Israel and Gaza, we have the luxury of perspective. And this luxury affords all of us the opportunity to model another way. I do not begrudge Israelis their righteous indignation. In my heart, I share it. I cannot imagine what it feels like to be a Gazan parent right now, with nowhere to run to, death and destruction all around me, not knowing how to keep my family safe. And, however sickening the expression of it is, I can understand the frustration and indignation of the Palestinian-American demonstrators. But being removed from the direct conflict, all of us, together, can and should show the world that there is a better way. How we create this is an open question.
Some will call me naïve; I have an answer to that charge that I will perhaps take up in the near future. Right now, it’s time for solutions. As the sage Hillel taught us, Im lo achshav, eimatai? If not now, when? It’s not too soon. What I’m proposing is a difficult but achievable shift in mindset, from the tribal to the global, with our religious values informing our actions, all in the name of Adon HaShalom – the God of Peace.
In the meantime, none of this precludes supporting our brothers and sisters in Israel, which is our immediate imperative. With particular urgency, we must see the return of the hostages. Here, please find a very simple link (set up by the National Council of Jewish Women) to contact your elected officials and indicate to them how important it is to you to have the hostages released. As per my colleague Rabbi Shlomo Segal, “say something specific about one, two, three, or more of the hostages. List their names, ages, and some other info about them so that your email appears to be personal.” If you need it, here is a link which can be helpful in that regard, with personal information about many of the hostages. We must keep the pressure on. This issue cannot fade into the background. 224 individuals, each with their own family and story and life, are being held in the hellish tunnels of Hamas.
Additionally, below are some officials at the red cross you can write to.
Porter, Gregg <email@example.com>;
Petzold, Roxana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Waldman, John <email@example.com>
With deeply-felt prayers for better days ahead, days of unity and reconciliation, I wish you all a Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.
Rabbi Sam Levine