Gaza 2014: Complexity Without Confusion

Israel: Complexity without Confusion
Rosh Hashanah 5775
September 24, 2014
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff

Friends, I have to tell you, this has been a very emotional summer for Fran and me.  One of the high points – aside from visiting our daughter Ilana in her new home in Minneapolis – was the amazing Temple trip to Israel in June and July, 38 pilgrims strong. We had the greatest time as traveled from Jerusalem to the Galilee and Golan, Tel Aviv, Masada and the Dead Sea. We learned about the impressive innovations coming out of the Technion Institute. Before a panoramic view of Jerusalem, we shared incredibly moving moments as Zoe Jacobs and Jordan Handler became B’nai mitzvah. We roamed the streets of the Arab shuk, and shopped in Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter – and just about everywhere else we went. We ate glidah (ice crème) on Ben Yehuda street and shared Shabbat in the homes of members of our sister congregation in Mivaseret Zion. At Masada, many of us took the cable car to the top, while some of us hiked up – some of us taking a bit longer than others. We visited a community center serving the needs of the Ethiopian community sponsored by our own Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest and toured one of my favorite places, Alyn Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital, where miracles are performed every day. We attended a play performed by men and women who were mostly deaf and/or blind. We floated in the Dead Sea and stood on the Golan Heights and gazed into Syria. Naturally, we ate great food just about everywhere we went. We learned and laughed a lot, saw Israel at peace and felt safe and at home.

It was just about when we were leaving that Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza, targeting the closer towns of Sederot, Ashkelon and Ashdod, but eventually reaching as far as Beer Sheva, Tel Aviv and close to Jerusalem. Actually, most of our group had left the day before the attacks, but ten of us stayed on for a couple of days in Eilat and Petra. There were moments when we were not sure when or even how we would be able to fly home. But fly home we did, right on schedule. Yet as we were ending our Israel adventure, for Fran and me, another Israel adventure was about to begin.

You see, a few days after we arrived home, we watched nervously as our son Nathaniel went to Israel for a two week seminar on Israeli education. Despite the fact that he called us each day with glowing reports, we were still horribly worried. And in those moments, we understood that our worry was a fraction of a fraction of a fractions of the fear shared by every Israeli that their son or husband or father, cousin, neighbor or friend might not return. Of course, Than returned, bringing with him a deepened connection to Israel and Judaism, a greater appreciation of the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian issue, and a heightened understanding of how greatly distorted is the view of Israel as presented to the world. Meanwhile, the war intensified and became a ground war, and what started out as somewhat clean became considerably messier and costlier on both sides.

Operation Protective Edge put us all on edge. For me, the events of the summer brought out so many different and sometimes conflicting emotions, emotions I continue to feel.

I was outraged at the kidnapping and brutal murder of three Jewish students, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah – outraged and ashamed for the horrific burning to death of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, an Arab teen, in an apparent revenge murder.  We who wanted to believe that Jews don’t do things like that, once again learned that the unthinkable is doable.

I was and continue to be fearful for the safety of Israeli civilians and soldiers alike, concerned about the trauma of the millions who had to run into bomb shelters at a moment’s notice. Ask Cantor Galit what it was like for her and her three young daughters getting to and being in the bomb shelters.

I am grateful for the US for the Iron Dome which saved countless lives.

I was and remain truly grieved at the loss of innocent lives, the horrible human suffering, and ongoing trauma on both sides of the Israel/Gaza border. My strong identification with Israel and surety of its moral obligation to defend itself shares a room in my broken heart with the Midrash we read again and again on Pesach. That’s the one about God’s grieving over the drowning of Pharaoh’s army even in their deadly pursuit, reminding us that we are all in God’s image and that no one’s blood is redder than anyone else’s, and that they are all our children.

I am frustrated by those who would hold Israel to an impossible moral standard applied to no other country, dumfounded by the claim of moral equivalency between those who use their concrete to protect lives and those who use their precious concrete to make tunnels by which to take lives.  I am again befuddled by those who see no difference between those who purposely target civilians and tragically sometimes get it right, and those who so often go to unheard of measures to avoid civilian casualties and tragically sometimes get it wrong. I am astounded by the fact that people understand that Hamas relies on a moral code to which it does not subscribe, understand and yet accept. I am dismayed by the hypocrisy of so many who deny Israeli’s right to do what it must to eliminate the threat of violence from beyond its borders as any nation-state would do.

At the same time, I’m distressed by the narrow-minded tribalism of Jews those who think that even acknowledging the suffering of Gaza’s children is treasonous to the Jewish cause. I believe that while most died because Hamas put them in harm’s way, too many were killed or wounded by tragic miscalculation. But regardless, I hope that those who simply dismiss such suffering as not their concern will look into the mirror on Yom Kippur, when they ask God’s forgiveness ahl cheit shechatanu lifanecha b’imutz halev, for the sin of hardening the heart.

Actually, as I see it, next week on Yom Kippur, both Israel and Hamas should be reciting their own al cheits, although not the same ones and in different degrees.  For one is guilty of killing b’zadon – intentionally while the other bishgaga, in error. One side has attacked the other b’ratzon by choice and the other attacked b’ones under duress. Of course, I don’t expect to see members of Hamas beating their breasts next week, but as Yossi Klein Halevy wisely wrote: “In public, in a political context, my contrition requires Palestinian reciprocity. In prayer, before God, I am required only to face myself.”[i] And believe me, many many Israelis are facing themselves and facing all that happened and asking if it all had to be as it was.

I am seriously concerned about certain things in Israeli society, like the growing racism within certain Jewish circles there. I am also upset about the official and unofficial encroachment onto land owned by Palestinians, like we saw again a few weeks ago and about which Rabbi Eric Yoffie pointedly wrote.[ii] While I believe that the settlements are not the root cause of the conflict, their expansion makes it harder and harder for a settlement to be reached.

Both the stance that Israel can do no wrong and the view that Israel can do no right are distortions. Neither position can be sustained except through the selective denial of facts that do not serve its cause. Neither position would live up to the essence of ethics as expressed by Hillel, not to do to others that which you would not want done to yourself. Those who say that Israel can do not right imperil Israel’s life. Those who say Israel can do no wrong imperil Israel’s soul.

Of course, we are all fearful of the growing anti-Semitism around the world– often in the guise of anti-Zionism. But while I am worried about the continued de-legitimization of Israel, I am heartened by how many friends Israel in fact has.  Certainly the vast majority of Americans stand by Israel. But as Halevy reports, “The largest pro-Israel demonstration this summer happened not in New York or Toronto but in a city without Jews – Calcutta – where thousands of Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense. This summer in China, social media was reportedly overwhelmingly pro-Israel.” He notes that it was Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel who issued one of the strongest condemnations of the link between Jew-hatred and Israel-hatred at a pro-Israel rally in Berlin before thousands of Kurds, Syrian Christians and Africans.[iii]

Israel is very popular around the world, but not always in a good way. Did you know that there were more foreign correspondents per square inch in Israel than in any other country, many of whom and their agencies have been found to be predisposed to the narrative that equates less power with more righteousness?

I am frustrated by the fact that the world puts Israel under this particular microscope when a wide-angle lens would allow more people to see the broader context and the bigger picture which would reveal the wonder and the gift that Israel is.  In the words of CCAR President, Rabbi Rick Block, “Israel is infinitely more than the sum of its conflicts. Israel is a thriving democracy where citizens enjoys freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and where relentless self-scrutiny is the national pastime.” Fulfilling the Biblical call to be a light unto the nations, Israel that has sent humanitarian aid and emergency relief missions to more than 140 countries and provided medical care to more than 700 Syrians wounded in a genocide to which the world seems mainly indifferent.

This winter, on a UJC mission to Israel, I met Pnina Tamano-Shata , the first Ethiopian member of Knesset. She had just had a meeting with the US Congressional Black Caucus who pressed her on anti-black prejudice in Israel. Her reply stopped them in their tracks. She told them that when Israel rescued tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, it was the only time in history that white people took black people out of Africa to free them, rather than enslave them. Israel is not perfect and there is so much that is objectionable, but know that whatever you think might wrong with Israel’s polices or actions, there are tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis who agree with you.

Part of the greatness of Israel is its raucous democracy. There is no livelier or more impassioned debate among the citizens of any land about the policies and directions of their government than there is in Israel.  And I dare say that there is no army in the world which has called itself to accountability as has the IDF. Quoting Rabbi Donnel Hartmann of Jerusalem, “I know that our society is at its core a decent and moral one and that our Army is committed to the highest standards of ethics on the battlefield. I know, however, that this does not mean that mistakes and wrongs did not occur. They did and do, and when they do, we demand an accounting from ourselves.”[iv]

One of the emotions I seem not be feeling these days is confusion. I certainly don’t know all the facts, but I don’t think I am confused by what I know. It seems to me that confusion comes, not from contemplating complexity, but from the need to see the world as either this or that and finding that some of your convictions are contrary to actual experience. Complexity understands that the world is most often this and that, not either/or but both/and. To live with clarity is to hold contradictions in one hand and see truth in them all. I certainly appreciate the Israeli technology in my cellphone, the incredible advances in science, medicine and agriculture that have changed the world for the better. But that does not mean I will not criticize what I believe to be racial or religious inequality or let the Israeli government off the hook for appropriating the amount of Arab owned land it has.

On the other hand, knowing that injustices were done to Palestinians in 1948 – as is described in Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land – and are still being done, does not diminish my ahavat yisrael – my love for the land and the people and the language and the culture. Painful and disturbing as it is, it does not compromise my convictions that Israel has as much right to exist and defend itself as the US and that the creation of a democratic and Jewish state after 2000 years of exile from our land was an act of redemption for a despised people and a testament to the human spirit. Israel is a blessing for the Jewish people and the world, a blessing for which both Jews and Palestinians have paid a tremendous price.

While you have heard about some American rabbis who have been hesitant about sharing their opinions about Israel, there is no such hesitation in Israel itself.

You might have read Rabbi Yoffie’ s article in the latest Reform Judaism Magazine in which he noted that, there is a lot more dissent among Israeli Jews than it seems is allowed in American Jewish discourse.[v]  In a way, that is frustrating, and in a way that is as it should be. We who vote here and not there, we who don’t see our eighteen year olds conscripted into the military, we who don’t have to gather our children when the sirens sound and get them into a bomb shelter within seconds, we whose children don’t know what such a siren sounds like, we who bear not the consequences of that for which we advocate, do not and should not direct the destiny of those who do.

But speaking with Israelis, especially colleagues within the Reform Progressive Movement over there, they don’t want us to be silent away. L’havdeel – au contraire. Critical and engaged is better than indifferent and distant. More and more we in the Diaspora are appreciated as being essential partners in the future of Israel, not only as donors or defenders but as partners and shapers. They ask our help in preserving Israel’s democratic and Jewish nature, fighting discrimination, promoting pluralism, and supporting civil liberties.

The tell us that we can make a difference because already have –  a transformative difference through the work of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of American, IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center and through ARZA’s representation in the World Zionist Organization. You see, while we can’t vote there to make a difference, we can vote here in the WZO elections and that has made a tremendous difference. As a delegate to the last two World Zionist Congresses, I saw how the strength of our votes for ARZA translated into support for democracy and pluralism, not just in Israel but throughout the Jewish world. There is another Congress coming up which means another election coming soon, and again we will be encouraging you to vote and when you do, to vote for ARZA.

Friends, I know that Israel is an emotional hot button for many here and I know that your passions about Israel run the gamut left, right and everywhere in between. I know, too, that speaking about Israel requires more dialogue than monologue. I know as well that many feel little connection with Israel and that affirming Jewish peoplehood is not high on the agenda. If you are in that category, I would ask you to give that deeper consideration.  As the world seems to be developing, I believe that our fate as Jews – and probably more so the fate of our children – will be intricately linked with the fate of Israel. We can’t afford not to look. We can’t afford not to think and not to feel. We can’t afford not to take a stand. For as we have said many times, as long as we care, as long as we feel connected to the past, present and future of Jewish people, wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.

And so, dear friends, I pray this night that the New Year now beginning will bring a secure and just peace to Israel, to the Palestinians, and to all those whose lives are hounded by the dogs of war. May our lives and our world be protected from hatred, violence and fear, blessed with greater love and understanding one of the other; and may compassion come with healing on its wings. May there be faith without fanaticism, wisdom without borders, compassion without compromise, love without end and peace everlasting.

[i] At Rosh Hashanah: Grief, fear, hope | Yossi Klein Halevi | The Blogs | The Times of Israel


[iii]At Rosh Hashanah: Grief, fear, hope | Yossi Klein Halevi | The Blogs | The Times of Israel



2 thoughts on “Gaza 2014: Complexity Without Confusion

  1. Hello Rabbi Rossoff,

    Alice sent me the link to this blog. She felt your high holy day sermons were as good as anything David ever did and coming from Alice that is saying a lot. I concur. There is so much to think about here. I am so glad I was able to read them. thank you.


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