Friday, December 15, 2023 – ג׳ טֵבֵת תשפ”ד
Two weeks ago, I spent a week in Israel which exactly coincided with the temporary ceasefire. It was surreal, tense, and of course full of hope that each day would bring an extension. A few more hours or another day of quiet with no rocket fire and no soldiers being killed. The sight of hostages being returned filled everyone with just a glimmer of hope only to be shattered when Hamas violated the cease-fire. Of course, few were surprised. Hamas has been violating cease-fires for decades and they do so whenever they feel it is the right time and they can get away with it. So, after 9 weeks of fighting it is with a bit of skepticism that many of us view the incessant calls for a ceasefire coming from the U.N. and an array of progressive voices.
Many of us in the Jewish community are feeling strongly about what is happening in Israel and in Gaza. So many of us care deeply about the welfare and the safety and security of the Jewish State and feel a sense of closeness with our extended family members in Israel. As a community, we often exhibit different visions and expressions of that love. Some express that in forms of solidarity with our siblings in Israel while others express their love and concern through criticism of Israel’s response.
The situation in Gaza is disastrous, to put it mildly. In addition to the many thousands who have been killed and the hundreds of thousands displaced, Gaza is running dangerously low on medical supplies, fuel, food, and water. Now, with rain falling this week, the pictures of Gazans trudging through ankle-deep mud with nowhere to go are heart-wrenching.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Jewish values call for preserving human life at almost all costs, and for reminding us that it is upon us, as Jews, to take care of the vulnerable in our midst. We must hold our universal values of care for all those created in the image of God and for all humanity. Our concern for all of God’s children must be a core concern, but that cannot come at the expense of the well-being and security of our own people. However, the logic of those calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire is insufficient and sadly, simplistically unsophisticated in that there is rarely any mention of Israeli security needs, vulnerabilities, or the need for Israel to take preventative precautions. Need we remind the progressive world that on Simchat Torah, Hamas terrorists broke into Israel, brutally murdered over 1200 people, brutally raped women, and took 240 hostages. They broke a 28-month cease-fire in the most brutal and barbaric way possible.
Yet, somehow those calling for ceasefire demonstrate a clear inability to allow for doubt. They seem unwilling or unable to understand why many of us are skeptical of a ceasefire. What do they know that others don’t? Why is their lack of doubt perceived as evidence of strength?
Everyone should have some level of doubt. While I know in my heart that Hamas has to be fully vanquished, I, of course, am worried and terribly frightened of the price needed to be paid, by both Israel and the Palestinians. In his 1967 book Israel: An Echo of Eternity, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel frames the issue of doubt in the following way:
“Many political issues which claim our involvement are afflicted with a degree of ambiguity. In this crisis the issue was clear and lucid: the brutal threat and the deadly danger to the existence of a people and a state.”
We are living in a time of great political ambiguity, but as Heschel states, we can no longer afford to let Hamas continue to terrorize us.
So, what is the actual problem facing Israel?
The call for a ceasefire is a call for a one-sided cessation of fighting. It is not a call for Hamas to put down their weapons, release all hostages, and come to the negotiation table as the Jordanians and Israelis did in Rhodes in 1949, or as was brokered after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The call for ceasefire has no provisions to respond to constant rocket fire from Hamas and does not take into consideration Hamas’s central commitment to the death and destruction of Israel.
On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to demand a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, a pronounced demonstration of global support for ending the Israel-Hamas war.
Put another way – the UN held an emergency meeting to remind terrorists everywhere that there are few consequences for massacring, raping, and abducting civilians (all war crimes according to international law of war). A ceasefire would embolden Iran and its aims to destabilize the Middle East, and would potentially set a precedent for more terrorist attacks across the world.
Even U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an outspoken critic of Israel, asserted on Sunday that there is no possibility of having a “permanent ceasefire with Hamas.”
“Setting aside the fact that it was Hamas, not Israel, that caused the Gaza crisis in the first place, the very notion of calling on Israel to observe a ceasefire so soon after it has suffered such devastating losses is not only hypocritical but morally bankrupt,” wrote Con Coughlin, the defense and foreign affairs editor of the British newspaper The Telegraph. “Yet, just because it is Israeli cities and towns, and not Western capitals that find themselves under attack by Islamist terrorists, a different set of rules seems to apply — where the emphasis is on ending hostilities at the earliest opportunity, rather than helping Israel to achieve victory against its bitter foe making the uprooting of Hamas from Gaza as beneficial to the west as it is to Israel.”
Unless Hamas decides to surrender, its resounding defeat can be accomplished only through military means, followed by a lengthy de-radicalizaiton process and complete rebuild of Gaza.
The majority of the Israeli left – who feels the pain of the Palestinian plight – also realizes that there can be no peace without victory over Hamas. To be clear, victory means that Hamas is incapacitated and can no longer harm Israelis or extend its totalitarian and fundamentalist control over innocent Gazans. It does not mean resettling Gaza or bringing back a pre-2005 reality of Gush Katif, nor does it mean leveling Gaza as some have advocated. We also must acknowledge that Hamas as an extremist ideology cannot necessarily be defeated. All that can be won is to remove Hamas from being a military threat to Israel and a governing power over Gaza.
So, if the articulated position of the progressive left is simplistically unreasonable because negotiating with Hamas is impossible given its extremist and murderous intentions vis a vis Israel and Jews, what can it mean to be a liberal Zionist at this moment? It is critical that while Israel is at war, and still deeply traumatized by the massacre of October 7, we as members of the largest Jewish Movement in North America should clearly articulate what it means to be a Reform and liberal Zionist today.
To be a liberal Zionist today means that we feel a strong and unbreakable connection to our people in Israel who have been killed, kidnapped, displaced, and traumatized, and who feel lonely in a world that seems to be turning its back on the Jewish people. We liberal Zionists are like the Biblical Joseph who sought his brothers’ wellbeing and worried about their “shalom,” how they were doing, their sense of feeling safe and secure in the knowledge that their brother cared about them and had their backs when they were in need. To be a Zionist today is to feel deeply, along with our Israeli brothers and sisters, the aftershocks of the massacre of our fellow Jews, and that we feel compelled to come together in unity.
And to be a liberal Zionist is to say that from our place of solidarity with our siblings and people. For every human being to have the right to life and dignity. And here’s the thing, that shouldn’t be so difficult.
Professor Sara Yael Hirschorn framed this question succinctly:
“Liberal Zionists can acknowledge that both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered at the hands of corrupt and callous leaders who have not sought peace. A liberal Zionist can hold two ideas in their head at the same time in this historical moment: both that Israel can and must do what is necessary to defend herself and that a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian issue is the only way to avoid permanent war. Liberal Zionists can see merit in the Palestinian cause but full-throatedly declare that liberation cannot come by raining rockets over coastal Israel, murdering families in their homes or taking grandmothers and babies captive.”
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof stated clearly the essence of the matter in a column a few weeks ago:
“We can and should despise Hamas, a repressive, misogynist, and homophobic force that uses Palestinian civilians as human shields. And we can understand how Israel, traumatized by savage killings and rapes by Hamas, is determined to strike back. But just because Hamas is indifferent to the lives of Palestinian children does not mean that Israel or the United States should be reckless as well.”
We should not be indifferent to the lives of Palestinian children or Palestinian adults who have now been displaced and have had their homes destroyed.
There is a distinction: Hamas deliberately killed and kidnapped children on Oct. 7. Israel is not deliberately killing Palestinian children; it is simply bombing entire neighborhoods with far too little attention to civilian life. There is a moral difference there, but I wouldn’t want to try to explain it to grieving parents in Gaza.”
I do want progressive American Jews to internalize this distinction. This distinction is, in fact, critical to understand and is at the crux of the matter. We don’t know when the war will end, or even when Israel’s goals will be achieved. It is perfectly legitimate to maintain a healthy skepticism of Netanyahu and his motives and to question whether absolutely everything in our power is being done to preserve human life. But, all the ceasefire calls in the world will fall on deaf ears without an understanding of these complex realities.