November 17, 2018

Rabbi Mordecai Finley: Peace and protection

I have tried to figure out why Rabbi Sharon Brous’ thoughts left me empty when I read them. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis has written, there is nothing objectionable in them. In fact, as I read her e-mail word-for-word many times, I found that I agreed with her completely regarding empathy for Palestinians. I have uttered nearly those precise words, word-for-word. 

I think what disturbed me was what she left out, her exhortation on what to feel, and her timing. 

Here is a small example of the first: “I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives.”

This seems to be a nuanced expression of two sides of an issue — on one hand, on the other — but what exactly is the issue, at least in passing? There is no ethical statement here. I know that my friends on the  left are not reticent to offer ethical critique when it is due, but why not here? These words make it sound as if two groups of people have suffered from a natural disaster, unnamed. 

What is left out is the ultimate source of Israeli and Palestinian suffering. Many of us believe that while various Israeli governments have made mistakes, some of them wretched, the ultimate source of Palestinian suffering, since the attempt to eradicate the Jewish state in 1948, has been implacable hatred. 

Another example of what is left out:  The idea “that the best way for Israel to diminish the potency of Hamas — which poses a genuine threat to Israel — is to engage earnestly and immediately in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority” is a strategy that is at least questionable. 

This seems to imply that success of the negotiations, which would supposedly diminish the potency of Hamas, is entirely up to Israel. What if the Palestinian Authority (PA) refuses to negotiate earnestly? And what if the PA does sincerely give up the right to return, does agree to border adjustments, etc., and this does not diminish the potency of Hamas, but rather strengthens Hamas (as it likely will, in my opinion)? Those who call for the eradication of the Zionist Entity enjoy a great popularity. What if Hamas wins the next round of elections in the West Bank?

I would agree that a long-term strategy is to engage in earnest and immediate peace negotiations, realizing that the PA must also negotiate earnestly (why is the condition that PA must negotiate in earnest left out?). And we must realize that even earnest bilateral negotiations with the PA might not bring around Hamas, and its supporters — the Muslim Brotherhood and the theocratic thugs in Tehran, to name a couple. 

My second problem with the words of Rabbi Brous is her exhortation on what to feel. We are told that it is critical to witness with empathy and grace. By implication, we are told to escape our “deeply entrenched narrative” and not diminish the losses on the other side, and not to gloat. 

This is not moral advice on what to do; this is advice on how to feel, on what attitude to have. We asked to be balanced in our feelings, to see things from a universalist approach, as Rabbi Gordis has described it. To paraphrase a recent post by Rabbi Michele Sullum in support of Rabbi Brous, the universalist approach is the perspective required of the angels. When the Egyptians are drowning at the Sea of Reeds, God rebukes the rejoicing angels, saying that the Egyptians are God’s children, too. 

I don’t have children in Tsahal, as does Rabbi Gordis, but our daughter lives on a moshav — a cooperative agricultural settlement — about seven miles from the border of Gaza, in the hard-hit Eshkol region (she will be inducted into the Israeli army soon). She was on the moshav until the last day of shelling, when she took the bus up to Tel Aviv to military headquarters for further classification. The bus blown up by Hamas was only about 10 blocks from her.  

When they are trying to kill my daughter (really, and as a symbol for all Israelis), I wish for our leaders to acknowledge our dread, the crushing fear in the core of our being that one of those mortar shells will land on one of our children. When they are shooting at the children of Israel, I need a Miriam, a Moses to address my emotions, not God’s recommendation to the angels. Remember: God does not rebuke Miriam and Moses for rejoicing that God has destroyed the Egyptian army. God did it for them. That rejoicing is enshrined in our daily liturgy. Universalism has its honored place in our tradition. So does attachment and concern for one’s people. There is a time for each. 

There is no joy or gloating in Zion, no dancing in the streets, or in any part of the Jewish world that I can see, at the death of Palestinians. There is the simple relief that many of those who have been trying to kill Israelis have been killed themselves.

There is a resolute will to fight terror and not tolerate Israeli citizens living under the threat of terror. Here is how I feel:  I am enormously grateful to and proud of the bravery, skill and conscience of the Israeli military forces, air, sea and ground, who have dealt a heavy blow to Hamas in defense of our people, all the while trying as much as is humanly possible to minimize civilian casualties 

Third:  The timing of the exhortation on how to feel, for empathy and grace, made me cringe. I will tell you what is obvious:  There were people trying, God forbid, to kill our daughter. It felt horrible. Our nephew is in Tsahal; he was on the border. They were trying to kill him, too. And Tsahal was trying to kill those who were trying to kill our daughter. Those who were trying to kill our daughter often place their rocket launchers among civilians. I feel sorry, very sorry, for those civilians.

My sadness for them is not greater than the dread that they would kill our daughter. Those innocent Palestinians should blame Hamas, not Israel, for placing their rocket launchers in civilian areas and shooting them at my daughter (my daughter here symbolizing all my people in Israel. They are my family). I wanted to kill those firing mortars at our daughter with my bare hands. I was ripped with dread and anger. During the bombings, I was nowhere near able to witness with empathy and grace. Was I really supposed to?

Now that there is a cease-fire, I feel deep empathy for the suffering of innocent Palestinians (though the celebrating and gloating sicken me). They are victims of Hamas, too. But while the rockets were being fired, that instruction for empathy left me empty.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

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