Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rabbi Graubart on Torah, Israel and War

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 

Note: The essay below will not be the d'var Torah at services this Shabbat.  Instead we'll study several passages from the Torah which will hopefully help us better understand the current war.  Also, time permitting, we'll share some personal reflections on the conflict. And, of course, we'll pray for peace.  Please join us.

There are two large gaps in the Israel-Hamas war, and it's these gaps which help us better understand the conflict, and how we should respond as Jews.  The first is the suffering gap; Palestinians in Gaza are suffering more than Israelis.  Yes, Israelis have endured terrible losses - at this writing 53 soldiers and three civilians - terrible, tragic losses, that tear at our hearts as Jews. And Israel's citizens are still subject to constant alerts and attacks.  But no one could deny that in this conflict it's better to be an Israeli than a Gazan.  Israel, after all, still functions as an industrial society, while Gaza, in addition to the more than one thousand deaths, the deaths of so many children, has all but collapsed.  

The second huge gap is ethical.  The Israeli government - and, in taking the long view, we can add the Zionist movement in general - behaves far more ethically than Hamas.  This is true both in aims and methods.  Israel, since at least 1992 has made several attempts to live in peace with the Palestinians.  Virtually every time, these attempts have been stymied by terrorism, most often sponsored by Hamas.  Hamas aims for one Islamic totalitarian state in the territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.  For years it used suicide bombings against civilians as its principal weapon.  Nowadays it's missiles aimed at large popular centers, but the pattern is unmistakable.  Israel has at least tried to make peace, and it never intentionally targets civilians.  Hamas rejects the peace of two states and almost exclusively targets civilians.  So the ethical divide couldn't be clearer.  There's a gap, parallel to the suffering gap.

It's difficult for many people to hold both of these gaps in their hearts simultaneously.  They see the suffering gap, the dead Palestinian children, the ruined neighborhoods of Gaza, and they assume - precisely because of the victimization, the powerlessness - that the Hamas side is more just.  You don't have to be anti-Israel to be moved by this suffering. But sometimes, for some observers, the suffering itself serves as a kind of ethical validation. Gazans suffer far more, the feeling goes, so they must be the aggrieved party.  The notion of "human shields," of placing weapons in civilian areas, of rejecting Israel's right to exist, all this goes out the window when they see the suffering - along with ethical reasoning.

At the same time, there are many of us in the Jewish community who use our ethical superiority to absolve ourselves of any sympathy or responsibility for Palestinian losses.  We have every right to self-defense, we tell ourselves, and we stop there.  It's Hamas that puts its weapons in civilian neighborhoods, so it's their problem; it's their fault.  But this is also an ethical evasion. It's our Jewish army killing these people.  We may enjoy the ethical high road, but this is our fight, so we can't look away.  At minimum these non-combatants deserve our sorrow and our concern.
This week we begin a new book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, the final book of the Pentateuch.  Much of Deuteronomy's legislation supports the powerless. God commands us several times to uphold the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  The book offers a complex and inspiring system of giving to the poor.  Yet our reading begins with a few verses about justice, warning us, significantly "You shall not be partial in justice. Hear out the great and the small."  Smallness, in other words, is no more ethically validating than wealth or power.  The powerless are not by the fact of their powerlessness the aggrieved party.  Victimization is not evidence of righteousness.  Deuteronomy strikes a difficult but essential balance.  Our hearts must ache for the powerless; we must find ways to support them, to ease their lot.  But suffering - even great suffering - does not by itself make one a good or righteous person.

One of the reasons it's so difficult to hold these two essential gaps - the suffering gap and the ethical gap - in our hearts at the same time is how they play with our emotions.  For some well-meaning observers, Palestinian suffering so overwhelms their compassion, they can't see or hear any Israeli explanation.  For many of us, on the other hand, Hamas' history and tactics so outrage us we miss genuine Palestinian suffering. This terrible war has thrown a terrible dilemma our way, but we have no choice but to embrace it.  We must continue and affirm our ethical path - applaud the moral behavior of the IDF, support our brothers and sisters in Israel.  And at the same time, never, ever harden our hearts to some of the worst Palestinian suffering we've seen in this seemingly endless war.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Philip Graubart


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