Rabbi Sharon Brous vs. Rabbi Daniel Gordis: War and bickering

As the missiles were flying last week between Israel and Gaza, verbal missiles were flying between two prominent Jews: Rabbi Sharon Brous in Los Angeles and Rabbi Daniel Gordis in Jerusalem. 

The crux of their dispute: What is the appropriate Jewish response when the Jewish state is at war? 

Gordis kicked off the brouhaha with a piece on the Times of Israel Web site titled, “When Balance Becomes Betrayal,” castigating Brous for her statement about the war in an e-mail she sent to her congregation. 

Evidently, he was so offended by Brous’ attempt to “balance” her support for Israel with her humanitarian concern for the welfare of innocent Palestinians that he characterized it as a form of “betrayal” or abandonment.

His accusation was clearly incendiary, and by making it so personal and public, he risked undermining his own message of Jewish solidarity in times of crisis. But if Gordis went too far with his charge of betrayal, Brous, in my view, didn’t go far enough by failing to condemn the evil of our Hamas enemy.

I’m friendly with both rabbis and understand where they’re coming from. Gordis feels that, especially during times of war, supporters of Israel are not duty-bound to show empathy for those who attack the Jewish state. 

Brous doesn’t see the two impulses as mutually exclusive. She strongly supports Israel’s right and obligation to defend itself, but also sees “a real and profound need for all of us to witness with empathy and grace.” 

There’s something compelling in each of these views. Gordis appeals to a type of familial loyalty that one feels especially when under threat. If Jews are like family, he seems to be saying, isn’t it OK to be a little overprotective? Can you blame him for not mustering any empathy for an enemy who’s bombing children’s bedrooms or trying to kill them on the battlefield?

At the same time, Brous has a big enough heart to remember, even in times of war, the suffering of innocent civilians in the enemy zone and the need to seek peace, no matter how hopeless the situation.

So, while Gordis leans tribal and Brous leans global, which way do I lean?

When I see Jews under attack, I lean toward knowing my enemy.

My personal views — the fact, for example, that I’m a peace-lover who loves interfaith dialogue and who prays for world peace — are secondary.

It is the nature of the enemy that shapes my view of the conflict — in particular, the extent of their Jew-hatred.

Am I being myopic and absolutist? Well, let’s see.

The Hamas charter calls for eliminating the Jews and destroying the Jewish state. Is it myopic and absolutist of me to believe that Hamas really means it?  

When I see a Hamas member on YouTube proudly proclaim that Hamas uses women and children as human shields when they send missiles into Israel, is it myopic of me to call that evil?

Or when I hear a Hamas spokesman “bless” the bombing attack on a civilian bus in Tel Aviv, is it absolutist of me to believe in his absolute hatred of Jews?

This is the belief that trumps all others: I believe with perfect faith that jihadist terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah really mean it when they say they want to destroy Israel — and that if they could, they would. 

It’s a belief that is terribly inconvenient and unattractive. It forces me to use words like “evil” and “hate” rather than words like “hope” and “love.”

But it has one redeeming feature: It concentrates the mind on the Jew-hatred that’s at the root of the conflict.

Why is this important? Because, as the great sage Maimonides taught, evil and ignorance go hand in hand. The hatred of Jews is an evil rooted in ignorance.

Even if it takes a hundred years — and so far it has — Israel’s Arab neighbors need to learn that Jews are not their enemies. Their real enemies are the jihadist leaders who’d rather kill Jews than build decent societies for their people.

The simple truth is that it is in their interest — economically, culturally and spiritually — to be friendly with Israel and seek peace with the Jews.  

The appropriate Jewish response to war? To fight when we have to. To pursue peace when there is a real opportunity. To educate ourselves and the world about the true nature of our enemies. And, long term, to build cultural bridges with our Arab neighbors who seek the same. 

The inappropriate response? To bicker with one another while others are shooting at us.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

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