Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
July 25, 2014 • Parashat Masei
I have been reticent to speak or write about the current situation in Israel. In trying to articulate exactly why I've been so hesitant, I came up with three reasons. There may be more.
First, it is still very emotional for me. Every time I read about the conflict, in particular about casualties, it touches an already raw nerve. I'm usually a news fiend, checking Facebook constantly to see what people are reading and posting and discussing, but I've had to stop.
The second reason has to do with what typically happens when we talk about Israel. If you saw the Daily Show recently, you know what I'm talking about. Jon Stewart started to speak to his previous coverage of the Israel/Gaza conflict, but as soon as he uttered the word "Israel" or "Hamas", four other correspondents jumped up around him and shouted him down. That's often what it feels like to talk about Israel these days. It's less an exchange of ideas and more a series of emotional outbursts. There has been so much nastiness and misinformation online, too, and especially on social media. Friends I otherwise respect have posted Facebook updates that make me angry and concerned. Yet another reason I've had to take a hiatus.
Third, it often feels like I have nothing to add to the whirlwind of punditry and journalism that publishes opinions and reports on the conflict every minute. Either I'm saying what's already been said, or I'm saying something that will be obsolete momentarily.
In spite of these reasons, I want to share some thoughts with you tonight, to give you a sense of how I've been thinking about Israel and the conflict. I share these thoughts not because I expect you to agree. Perhaps you will find something in my words that resonates with you. Perhaps you will, in reacting against what I say, clarify how you think and feel.
First: there is no question in my mind that Israel is justified in using force in its own defense. I feel that's especially true given the revelation of the Hamas tunnel network, and their plan to send Hamas fighters dressed as IDF soldiers into Israel to massacre Israelis. [Since I wrote this, new details have come to light – surprise – indicating that Israel knew about the tunnels for about a decade already. Read J.J. Goldberg's round-up of Israel news on the topic here and here.]
Second: there is no question that civilians are dying in Gaza. Saying that and feeling deeply saddened by it does not undermine Israel or our support for Israel. Rather, it confirms our humanity. And there's no way we can credibly claim the moral high ground, as we like to do in this conflict, unless we care about Gazan civilian deaths.
Third: Yitzhak Rabin used to say, "We shall fight terror like there's no peace process, and pursue peace like there's no terror." As far off as peace may seem right now, I do stand with Israel and the USA in continuing to aggressively pursue a negotiated resolution. If we stop aspiring to peace, even in the midst of war, then what have we become? Power and self-defense are not ends in themselves. Israel exists both to protect Jewish lives and to cultivate a nation rooted in Jewish values. Let's stay committed to both and resist the false choice of taking only one or the other.
Fourth: In this week's haftarah, Jeremiah denounces the Israelites' idolatry and blames that for their defeat by foreign powers. This is a classic move by many of our prophets. Jeremiah castigates Israel for trusting in "wood" and "stone" – that is, the works of their hands – rather than the spirit of God. So even as I stand behind Israel's use of force in Gaza against Hamas – even as I support Israel being a sovereign power despite the cost of exercising that power, both for Israel's youth and for innocent Gazans – even then, I continue to stand behind the need for a peace process. Because, as strong and exemplary as the IDF is, military force is a necessary but insufficient tool for bringing a lasting resolution to this conflict. Let me say that again: military force is necessary but insufficient for bringing about a lasting resolution to this conflict.
Fifth: It is altogether fitting and proper (as a great American once said) to mourn Israel's fallen heroes. Some have suggested, in recent days, that American synagogues should read the names of the Gazans killed in the conflict when we say Kaddish as a community. I know this idea is coming from a goodhearted place, a humanitarian place, but it doesn't feel quite right to me. I believe there is a time and place for reading those names, each of them suggesting a story of loss and a family forever changed – a peace vigil, a news story, a worship service of their faith. But here, our first responsibility is to mourn our own, locally and globally.
Let that not be taken as a call to care only for Jewish lives, to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. No. Quite the opposite. As we mourn our own, let it be a reminder that all humanity lives in concentric circles of loyalty and affection, starting with the self. Let it also remind us that empathy and care for the other start with proper care for the self.
As we mention these 35 names [the number has risen already since last Shabbat], let us also feel gratitude for their sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish people, for us. And let us feel responsible in our own ways to the greater good of the Jewish people (e.g. Stop the Sirens). May we honor their memories by working toward the peace they died fighting to achieve.