Sitting in my home this weekend and reading about the trauma the people of Israel have endured under rocket attack in recent days, I never felt closer to Israel — or further away.
I was reminded of the story of the hen and the turkey reading the Thanksgiving Day menu the farmer had posted, calling for the next day’s dinner to feature “scrambled eggs and the traditional holiday meal.”
“From you he wants a contribution,” the turkey said ruefully to the hen. “From me he wants total commitment.”
What can we on the sidelines of the Zionist enterprise do for our brothers and sisters who are fully engaged against an enemy that seeks their destruction — and ours, as Jews, as well?
It should go without saying, but needs to be said at a time when moral equivalency reigns, that the first thing we can do is show full support for an outcome that allows Israeli children, and their parents, to sleep at night without fear of rockets from Gaza destroying them and their way of life.
That’s one of the key messages that Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York, has been making, virtually non-stop, since the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas started last week.
In numerous media interviews, sometimes as many as a dozen back-to-back on the radio, Aharoni says he emphasizes two points: that Israel’s goal is to remove the threat posed by Hamas rockets to the life of Israeli citizens and to the state’s economy, and that the government has authorized its army to act without limitations of time or scope.
He makes the case, largely unchallenged, he says, that “when one’s enemy doesn’t play by the same rules,” the conventional methods of waging war are obsolete. Taking advantage of the fact that Israel’s army tries to avoid harming civilians, Hamas soldiers do not wear uniforms, mingle among the civilian population, regularly use human shields, and stockpile their weapons in schools, mosques and hospitals.
Hamas, Aharoni asserted, “is an enemy that doesn’t value human life and nurtures the cult of death.”
Further proof: Hamas, whose charter calls for the murder of Jews everywhere and the destruction of the Jewish state, has never provided bomb shelters for its citizens, preferring the benefits of victimhood when innocents in harm’s way are killed by Israeli rockets. And the fact that Hamas targeted Jerusalem, with its hundreds of thousands of Arab inhabitants, not to mention the holy mosque in the Old City, underscores an obsession with obliterating Israel, damn the consequences.
As for accusations that Israel uses “excessive force” in its effort to stop Hamas and their rockets, Aharoni voices exasperation: “What is the alternative” to fighting back? he asks, after Israel has endured thousands of missiles long after leaving Gaza completely in 2005.
This is not about a conflict culminating in peace talks, “this is a dead end,” he says. “They’re just interested in inflicting harm on us. So you do what you have to do to defend your people.”
And though Israel’s government and society may be flawed, like any other, it’s more than alright to champion Jerusalem’s cause for the simple reason that we’re Jewish.
That was one of the messages Bret Stephens, foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, offered up to 100 high school juniors and seniors who are part of the Write On For Israel program on Sunday morning at the Kraft Center of Columbia University. (Write On is a two-year advocacy-through-journalism program for high school students sponsored by The Jewish Week.)
Yes, he said, when you get to college you will be challenged to choose between your pro-Israel credentials and democratic values. But that’s a false equation and a sign of “massive hypocrisy,” he noted, because Israel is the only state in the Mideast that embodies the values of women’s equality, gay rights, concern for the environment, a free and open press, and the other liberal democratic principles we tend to take for granted in America.
Equally important, he said, is “the harder, deeper point” that beyond supporting Israel for its “performance record” as the start-up nation that made the desert bloom, “you should” connect with Israel “because it’s yours — it’s your birthright.”
In giving these young people, who are being educated about the history and complexity of the Mideast conflict, permission to feel complete loyalty to an imperfect Israel in the same way they show greater love to their family and friends than to others, Stephens was making an important statement. And one, it seems, that is being challenged, at least implicitly, by other voices in the Jewish community.
Daniel Gordis, a frequent writer on the Mideast who is based in Jerusalem, took issue with a message his friend, Rabbi Sharon Brous, sent to her Los Angeles congregants last Friday, entitled “Heartache.” Her words expressed empathy for Israelis, who “have the right and the obligation to defend themselves,” as well as “the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and in the West Bank,” who “have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives.
“We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator — and we are scared,” the rabbi said, urging her readers not to “dig in our heels” or “diminish the loss on the other side of the border, even to gloat. This is not the Jewish way.”
“On the surface, a lovely and innocuous message,” Gordis wrote. “But what’s deeply troubling is that every single expression of sympathy for Israelis immediately coupled to a similar sentiment about the Palestinians. Absolute balance, even on a week like this, has become a supreme commandment. ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor who attacks thee as yourself.’”
Why, he wonders, can’t we just say “that at this moment, Israel’s enemies are evil? That they’re wrong?”
Coming to the defense of Rabbi Brous is David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, who accuses Gordis of “a rigid moral absolutism” and asserts that “we should be applauding … that capacity to manifest empathy beyond one’s own without surrendering a sense of love and belonging to the Jewish people.”
Perhaps the rhetoric has overtaken the intention in this emotional argument. Judaism does indeed teach us to care for “the other,” and respect if not love all humanity. But what about those whose actions reflect the opposite of humanity, whose mandate is to glorify death, to murder and obliterate? It is Judaism that instructs us to “choose life” and defend ourselves, not turn the other cheek.
I save the last word here for Rachel Klapper, a graduate of the first Write On For Israel class a decade ago, now living in Israel, with a husband who has been called up to serve, along with tens of thousands of his countrymen.
In a message to the current Write On class, e-mailed this week, Rachel noted that “our sages told us Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh LaZeh, that every Jew is dependent on each other,” and thanked the students for their efforts: “Every single thing you do with the purpose of standing up for Israel,” she wrote, “makes all the difference to us.”
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