Owing to my previous post about Roger Cohen’s recent Iran columns, I feel obliged to make clear that his column this morning is way beyond anything I’m comfortable with. Cohen today advocates talking with not only Hezbollah and Iran, but Hamas, without preconditions beyond renouncing violence–not even recognizing Israel. Okay, that’s a tactical call and plenty of Israelis have called for the same thing. (And it’s inevitable: At a recent lecture at Northwestern, Prof. Elie Rekhess made multiple Freudian slips in referring to Israel’s refusal to talk to “the PLO.” Elie laughed about it each time it happened, pointing out that Israel has previously been in the position of refusing to talk to a potential negotiating partner on principle, only to ultimately negotiate.)

But what’s really difficult is this part of the column:

One view of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it’s designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.

The argument over recognition is in the end a form of evasion designed to perpetuate the conflict.

Israel, from the time of Ben Gurion, built its state by creating facts on the ground, not through semantics. Many of its leaders, including Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, have been on wondrous political odysseys from absolutist rejection of division of the land to acceptance of a two-state solution. Yet they try to paint Hamas as irrevocably absolutist. Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?

Of course it’s desirable that Hamas recognize Israel before negotiations. But is it essential? No. What is essential is that it renounces violence, in tandem with Israel, and the inculcation of hatred that feeds the violence.

Speaking of violence, it’s worth recalling what Israel did in Gaza in response to sporadic Hamas rockets. It killed upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and children; caused damage estimated at $1.9 billion; and destroyed thousands of Gaza homes. It continues a radicalizing blockade on 1.5 million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land.

At this vast human, material and moral price, Israel achieved almost nothing beyond damage to its image throughout the world. Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel’s actions.

Yes, that’s a read. But it utterly fails to take into account Israel’s good-faith negotiations with the PLO and its withdrawal from Gaza, or the fact that there is a good deal of diplomatic activity taking place in the wake of the Gaza offensive. (Do bear in mind, however, that I agree that Israel did more harm than good to its  own cause in the Gaza war.) Furthermore, it doesn’t address the serious dilemmas presented by Hamas. I agree with realpolitik up to a point, but diplomacy can’t abandon all sense of principle. Don’t official statements mean anything? The Israeli government has, for fifteen years, officially worked for a two-state solution and negotiated for it. Hamas rejects a two-state solution. Who are the moderates here?

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I received this email today from the president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, Daniel Polisar. People have sometimes told me I’m eloquent. I’ve got nothing on this. It’s beautiful, and it sums up all the reasons Israelis should be proud of their children.

An excerpt:

As I left to return home before the start of the Sabbath, I understood the answer to the question I had been asked by a young woman 6,000 miles away. Yes, on the tactical level it can be a handicap to love life when your opponent loves death. But in the end, it is that love of life that will enable us to prevail. We will defeat those who love death, because we love life so much that we Israelis—from teenage girls to senior officers in wartime—know how to give comfort to those who have lost a loved one, and to say, “We are with you.” Our love of life enables us to confront tragedy, and emerge with the pride and resolve, the hope and the faith, that Dalia showed.

We love life so much that we educate our children to love life, though surrounded by enemies who hope, pray, and work for our deaths. It is this love of life that enabled the Jews to return to our homeland and rebuild a state after 2,000 years, and it is the sense of mission stemming from this love that will sustain the Zionist dream long into the future. We love life so much that we refuse to have our sense of morality dulled by enemies who seek to force us to kill women and children in order to defend our families. Though our principles limit the IDF’s effectiveness, they provide us with intangibles that more than compensate—the confidence and the strength to pursue our aims secure in the knowledge we are acting justly, and the unity that comes from a society acting in accordance with its most cherished values. And yes, let no one err, we will win because we love life so much we are willing to brave death, if necessary, to ensure that our people can lead free lives in the country we have established against all odds. In the end, it is this love of life that will enable us to prevail—not only in the war in Gaza, but in all the challenges we face in the years and generations to come.

We are arriving at the point (or likely we passed it already) when we have to ask real questions. Is this war winnable? It’s not just people on the left, it’s even David Brooks in this morning’s New York Times:

Many Israeli leaders seem to have taken the momentum of the past weeks and concluded that they can force through a permanent solution to their quandary. That’s the perfect way to dilute the psychological effect, and to lose control of the endgame.

In one scenario, Israel finishes a quick ground assault with a lightning effort to clean out the tunnels in the Philadelphia Corridor. Then it withdraws from Gaza, at a time of its own choosing, to let the psychological reverberations begin. In another scenario, Israel’s assault drags on. The suffering of the innocents in Gaza magnifies. The meaning changes.

The architects of the first scenario understand the rules of the new game. The architects of the second miss the core concept: psychology matters most.

Remember that Hamas, like Hezbollah, does not share our quaint notions of keeping military units away from civilians, and that they will proclaim victory even when–or particularly when–the kill ratio is 100:1. There is no way to beat people who will use a culture’s own love of life against itself. There is no way to win against people who have nothing left to lose. All they can do is win.

gaza1

A Palestinian man mourned at a hospital mortuary in Gaza City on Monday over the bodies of his two sons and a nephew, who were killed by an Israeli tank shell early Monday.

And because of that, we also have to look squarely, honestly, painfully at pictures like this from this morning’s Times. What can one say to this father? What can one say? “Vayidom Aharon,” “And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). There is nothing we can say. Nothing. Be silent and look at this picture.

As the accompanying article tells it, this was a family that was ordered to flee but had nowhere safe to go. Hamas is holed up everywhere, and Israel goes after them wherever they are.

I have lived in Israel. I am a rabbi. Most of all, as it relates to this picture, I am a father who sees little boys just like my own. I can only imagine the anguish this father is experiencing. Is any cause worth this price?

Enough. Enough with the rockets. Enough with the killing. How many children must die before we, people of good will and good sense, Jews and Arabs, stop this madness? To my Arab cousins: Israel is here, it is not going away, and it wants peace. You’ve seen what its army is capable of. Stop. To my Israeli brothers and sisters: Too many of our children are growing up in death and terror. Too many of us have been the father in this picture.

This needs to end. How?

First, thanks for your concern for our personal safety- we really don’t feel any at all, as we are still out of range, plus we know that the sirens and miklatim (shelters) defense system for the most part work, so even if 12% of the Israeli population is presently a target, the likelihood of actually getting hit is very small, it’s still far more dangerous to get in a car, and we do that every day. The trauma, however, is very real. Many kids are visibly anxious, shaken and distressed. Certainly living in a war zone- (much of Israel proper right now) and hearing the sirens and explosions and running for shelter with parents shrieking to run faster is not the family dynamic we all dream of when we bring children into this world. 

That moral equivalency of humanitarian plight on both sides. To be sure, children are innocent on all sides, but parents can choose to celebrate life or death. How many people do you know  would invite mass murderers to set up their rockets in their living room and store their wepaons arsenal under their kids’ bunkbeds? And say what you want about our leaders (I’m certainly no fan of them) and how well they internalize lessons from the past, but ours are looking to protect civilians everywhere- in Israel and Gaza- while Hamas are nothing but a bunch of terrorist thugs. A lull of 24 or 48 hrs. would not givetime for both sides to reassess our values and goals and try their hand at diplomacy, but time for the enemy to extend the range of their grads. 

And Israel lusts for peace. All of Israel. We gave back every last square inch in Gaza, and it was turned into a rocket launching pad. Beersheva and Gedera are new, but Sderot was targeted every day, every week, for yrs. If I’m happy about anything about this mess, it’s that we Israelis woke up and remembered that we had all but forgotten our Sderot brethren. Sure, we bought their jewlery and their Challot, we visited them en masse for very celebrated weekends together, and then we abandoned them, we didn’t internalize their hardship, we forgot to comiserate, we didn’t beg them to move in with us.

Dear Amy,

Thank you for writing to me. It means a great deal that you confided in me about the conflicted feelings in your heart about what’s going on in Israel and Gaza. 

I don’t have any answers for you, other than to tell you that I’m thankful that you’re conflicted. I would be worried if you weren’t. 

I do think it’s important to remember that Israel withdrew from Gaza four years ago, and did not get the peace it hoped for, and that Israel has a deeply humanitarian ethos at its core–witnessed by the fact that Israel is sending food to Gazan civilians even as its planes target Hamas. But others can tell you about the history and politics and military strategy and human rights issues far better than I. What I can offer is my own experience dealing with this sense of turmoil as a Jew, an American, a citizen of the world, and a person of faith.

It seems to me from your letter that one of the main roots of your discomfort is a question about identity: With whom do you identify most? Are you first and foremost a humanitarian, and therefore chiefly identify with the suffering children of Gaza, who have never known hope? Or are you first and foremost a Jew, and therefore primarily connect with the suffering children of Israel, who can’t go to school for fear of rocket attacks? I hope your heart aches for both of them, because you cannot be a good Jew unless you are a good human being. My heart aches for Gazans confined to a densely-populated hell hole, who have lost so much they no longer have anything to lose. And my heart aches for the Israelis of Sderot and Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beer Sheva, who have worked so hard to achieve a normal life, and now watch as a fourth generation grows up knowing war and terror.

Yet we have to act. We cannot be paralyzed by seemingly mutually-exclusive longings. So how does one go about that process of discernment?

For me, the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis is very helpful as a means of reflection. As you may remember, Jacob dressed up as Esau in order to fool his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s special blessing. After this, Esau wanted to murder Jacob, and so Jacob fled. Twenty years later, Jacob returned, only to find Esau approaching him with 400 men. At this point, the Torah relates that “Jacob feared greatly and it troubled him.” (Gen. 32:8) The great medieval French commentator Rashi picks up on the redundancy in the verse: why did the Torah need to state that Jacob both feared greatly and it troubled him? One phrase would have been sufficient. Rashi states:  “He feared that he would be killed, and it troubled him that it he might have to kill others.”

At this moment, we can sense the paralysis of Jacob, and it feels like our own paralysis. What are we supposed to do? What is Israel (the name Jacob would later assume) supposed to do? Rashi answers the question in the next line of his commentary, when he says that Jacob prepared to meet Esau with diplomacy, war, and prayer. There are many lessons here, but chief among them is that when we are forced into a no-win situation, we prepare for all possibilities and pray that our decisions are right and just. And by prayer I don’t mean a superficial utterance, but a deep introspection conducted with a sense of humility. The answers to these questions are impossible, truth elusive. Yet we live in a world of time and space, and so we must act.

But I haven’t yet answered the question of how one chooses with whom to identify. As I stated earlier, one can’t be a bad human being and a good Jew. So how do I choose in a case like this?

It is clear to me that while I deeply sympathize with the plight of the people of Gaza, I identify with the people of Israel. Why? It’s an accident of my birth that I was born a Jew. Like you, I could just as easily have been born a Palestinian. And when I was your age, the arbitrariness of that identity grated on me and made me chafe at it. Why should I feel a kinship to Jews when the only reason I’m Jewish is because my parents and grandparents and ancestors were Jewish? In this day and age, that’s not a good enough reason to maintain an identity.

I still believe that. If the only Jewish identification a person has is through their genes, then they’re scarcely better than the enemies of the Jews who defined us the same way. But that genetic identity can lead to a larger sense, a sense that I am connected to people before and after me who shared and will share a story, a language, and a culture. And that story, language, and culture are thick and complicated and beautiful and challenging. They are inspiring. And so the bond I share–the bond we share–through the accident of our birth and the consciousness of our education is powerful, and for me at least, inescapable, and worth defending.

That doesn’t mean I give Israel a blank check. If the Bible teaches us anything, it is that we Jews are imperfect, and our leaders especially so. But even when I might disagree with the decisions of the Israeli government, I am acting on my care and concern for Israel, my bond with Israel, a bond that I don’t feel towards Palestine.

My teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg once said of the failure of American Jewish religious denominations to speak out against the Holocaust in the early 1940s, “It doesn’t matter which movement you belong to, as long as you’re ashamed of it.” Taken from a different angle, one can answer the question, To whom do I feel most connected?, by answering the question, “Which actor in this conflict are you more proud or ashamed of?” I don’t feel a sense of pride or shame about Hamas; I do feel that way about the IDF. So if I disagree with or critique the Israeli government, it is out of a deep love and loyalty to the state and, more important, the Jewish people.

The name Israel was given to Jacob because he had wrestled “with God and with men, and proved able.” This is perhaps the greatest legacy of the Jewish people, that there is always a question to be asked. Our eternal struggle against idolatry is the struggle against complacency and surety. We must always be wrestling. But we must also know who we are. That is the challenge, and the beauty, of your birthright.

With prayers for peace in Gaza and Israel,

Rabbi Josh

I’ve been waiting to write about Gaza, and in the meantime Haaretz has run two pieces that capture my sentiments. The first was an op-ed by historian Tom Segev in yesterday’s paper. The second is an editorial from today, which I’m copying in full below. Both uphold Israel’s right, and responsibility, to respond to the rocket attacks. Both also question the wisdom of carrying on a lengthy operation, and essentially ask the question: If the Israelis learned anything from the Lebanon experience, how are they showing that now?

Define the objectives in Gaza
By Haaretz Editorial
The government launched a military campaign in Gaza yesterday. In the first wave of aerial assaults, more than 200 Palestinians were killed and Hamas’ retaliatory fire killed one Israeli civilian from Netivot. Hundreds were wounded on the Palestinian side, as were dozens of Israelis. “This is the time for battle,” the defense minister said in highlighting the new reality that has taken hold in recent weeks in Sderot, Ashkelon, and the western Negev.

It is possible to understand the logic of the Israel Defense Forces response. It did not need the inflammatory rhetoric of the news media, which often acted like cheerleaders competing with one another. Nor did it need the winds of the election, which propels the sails of headline-hungry politicians. The residents of the western Negev, who have lived in fear on a daily basis, petrified elementary school children, and the constant violation of a soverign state’s territory – these are what provide legitimacy for the operation.

But understanding is no substitute for wisdom, and the inherent desire for retribution does not necessarily have to blind us to the view from the day after. The expression “time for combat” still does not elucidate the goals of the assault. Does Israel seek to “just” send Hamas a violent, horrifying message? Is the intention to destroy the organization’s military and civilian infrastructure? Perhaps the goal is far-reaching to the point of removing Hamas from power in Gaza and transferring rule to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas? How does Israel intend to realize these goals? The aerial assault on its own, as one may recall from the Lebanon War, cannot suffice. Does the IDF plan on deploying thousands of soldiers in the streets of Gaza? And what will the number of casualties be at this stage?

A public that has learned from experience cannot assume once again that the government knows what it is doing, particularly since its leaders have struggled in formulating a consistent stance in recent weeks. That same public knows well, and not only from the Lebanon experience, that working toward long-term goals that would completely change the landscape in the region, like toppling Hamas from power in Gaza, is liable to turn out to be a wild fantasy. It would be best to make do with immediate goals and with measured, calculated accomplishments that could restore quiet, particularly the cease-fire Israel enjoyed for five months, which enabled Gaza residents to lead reasonable lives.

Israel’s violation of the lull in November expedited the deterioration that gave birth to the war of yesterday. But even if this continues for many days and even weeks, it will end in an agreement, or at least an understanding similar to that reached last June. Hamas’ terms for calm have not changed: a cessation of the attacks on Gaza and the organization’s activities in the West Bank, a reopening of the Gaza border crossings, and a release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel’s demands will also remain as they were: a halt to rocket attacks on its towns. It would behoove both sides to enlist every possible mediator – from Egypt to Qatar to the United States and Europe – to implement those terms. One may assume that the military message Israel sent was fully understood. It would be best not to turn it into a disaster that would preclude a future agreement.