Gaza and Jewish values: The thoughtful Jewish voice most Americans never hear

Gaza and Jewish values: The thoughtful Jewish voice most Americans never hear

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Henry Siegman on Democracy Now

WASHINGTON, August 4, 2014 — The current conflict between Israel and Hamas is taking a terrible toll in  human lives, mostly Palestinian civilians, many of them women and children.

In one instance, artillery shells slammed into a U.N. school, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens as they slept. The building was the sixth U.N. school in the Gaza Strip to be rocked by explosions during the conflict. Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, declared, “I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces.  This is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”

After that, on Aug. 3, Israel once again shelled a U.N. school sheltering some 3,000 people in southern Gaza. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was “appalled” by the “disgraceful” attack and declared:  “The coordinates of the school, like all U.N. facilities, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israel Defense Forces. We once again stress that Israel must do more to…avoid civilian casualties.”  U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon called the shelling “a moral outrage” and a “criminal act.”

Hamas, for its part, has shown contempt for the people of Gaza by firing thousands of rockets into Israel and by hiding its arms in schools and mosques.

These rockets have increased in range, if not in accuracy, and have terrorized Ashdod, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Eilat and, for the first time, Ben Gurion Airport.  Hamas’ Islamic fundamentalist rule has alienated the Arab world, and countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have not rallied to its side.

Israel, of course, has a right to defend itself from incoming missiles. It is less than clear, however, how a country with nuclear weapons and the most powerful army in the Middle East, enhances itself by what appears to be indiscriminate attacks upon civilian areas with casualties, at this time, numbering more than 1,800, most of them civilians, many of whom are children. Even if Hamas has stored weapons in a school, what is gained by bombing it if more than 2,000 people have sought refuge within its walls?

More importantly, Israel claims to be a “Jewish” state. Judaism values human life and believes that men and women of every race and nation are created in God’s image. How, then, should such a “Jewish” state conduct itself?

Many thoughtful Jewish voices have been highly critical of the heavy human toll in Gaza, voices which have been heard by too few Americans. Consider a representative sample of these voices, and the anguish felt by these men and women about what is being done in the name of a state proclaiming itself “Jewish,” meaning what is being done in their name.

Rabbi Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project and for many years national director of the American Jewish Congress, lamenting the massive loss of life in Gaza, states: “When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we’re watching on television, that is really a profound, profound crisis—and should be a profound crisis in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and its success.”

Responding to Israel’s claim that its assault is necessary because no country would tolerate rocket fire from Gaza, he notes that, “What undermines this principle is that no country and no people would live the way that Gazans have been made to live. Couldn’t they (Israel) have done something that did not require that cost?  And the answer is, sure, they could end the occupation.”

In Siegman’s view, “Israel’s assault on Gaza…was not triggered by Hamas’ rockets directed at Israel but by Israel’s determination to bring down the Palestinian unity government that was formed early in June, even though that government was committed to honoring all of the conditions imposed by the international community for recognition of its legitimacy…Where, exactly, are Israel’s borders? It is precisely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to identify those borders that placed Israel’s population at risk. And the reason he has refused to do that is because he did not want the world to know that he had no intention of honoring the pledge he made in 2009 to reach a two-state agreement with the Palestinians..On July 12, Netanyahu made clear he had no interest in a genuine two-state solution.”

In this connection, David Horovitz wrote in The Times Of Israel:  “…the uncertainties were swept aside….And nobody will ever be able to claim in the future that (Netanyahu) didn’t tell us exactly what he thinks. He made it explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank.” The Israel Defense Force (IDF), Netanyahu said, would remain permanently in the West Bank,

Writing in the Jewish journal Tikkun, Rabbi Michael Lerner declares:  “For those of us like myself who care about the well-being of all people on the planet, not just my own Jewish people, but all peoples, the high toll of Palestinian civilian casualties is horrifying…This high toll will likely lead to more Hamas terrorists…None of this would have happened if Israel had been serious about negotiating an end to the occupation. But as Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear…he never intends to give the Palestinian people an independent state of their own.”

Rabbi Lerner urges Israel to stop the invasion and the bombing of Gaza. “Instead,” he states, “Israel needs a generosity strategy, not only agreeing to a Palestinian state in the West Bank but convincing the U.S. and its Western allies to provide a massive reparation fund to support the new Palestinian state…sharing Jerusalem as the capital of both an Israeli and Palestinian state, and ending the teaching of hatred and racism in its schools in exchange for Palestinians doing the same, but also agreeing to allow 20,000 Palestinian refugees a year to move to Israel  for the next 40 years in exchange for Palestinians allowing Israelis living in the West Bank to stay in their settlements as law-abiding citizens of the new Palestinian state, subject to the Palestinian law and court system (just as Palestinians living inside the pre-67 borders of Israel are subject to Israeli law and Israeli courts).”

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, a long-time Zionist, is dismayed with Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians: “I am a Zionist because the story of my forebears convinces me  that Jews needed the homeland voted into existence by U.N. Resolution 181 of 1947. What I cannot accept, however, is the perversion of Zionism that has seen the growth of a Messianic Israeli nationalism claiming all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, that has, for almost a half-century now, produced the systematic oppression of another people in the West Bank;  that has led to the steady expansion of Israeli settlements on the very West Bank land of any Palestinian state;  that isolates moderate Palestinians in the name of divide-and-rule, that pursues policies that will make it impossible to remain a Jewish and democratic state…that blockades Gaza with 1.8 million people locked in its prison and then is surprised by the periodic eruptions of the inmates;  and then responds disproportionately to attack in a way that kills hundreds of children

All of this, Cohen declares, “As a Zionist I cannot accept. Jews, above all people, know what oppression is…No argument, no Palestinian outrage or subterfuge, can gloss over what Jewish failure the killing of children in such numbers represents…The Israeli case for the bombardment of Gaza could be foolproof. If Benjamin Netanyahu had made a good-faith effort to find common cause with Palestinian moderates for peace and been rebuffed, it would be. He has not. Hamas is vile, I would happily see it destroyed. But Hamas is also a product of a situation that Israel has reinforced rather than sought to resolve…This corrosive Israeli exercise in the control of another people, breeding the contempt of the powerful for the oppressed, is a betrayal of the Zionism in which I still believe.”

David Grossman, the respected Israeli author of such books as “The Yellow Wind” and “To The End of The Land,” poses this question to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his predecessors: “How could you have wasted the years since the last conflict without initiating dialogue, without making the slightest gesture toward dialogue with Hamas, without attempting to change our explosive reality? Why, for these past few years, has Israel avoided judicious negotiations with the moderate and more conversable sectors of the Palestinian people, an act that could also have pressured Hamas? Why have you ignored for 12 years the Arab League initiative that could have enlisted moderate Arab states with the power to impose, perhaps, a compromise on Hamas?  In other words: why is it that Israeli governments have been incapable for decades of thinking outside the bubble?”

The anguish of the Palestinian people under attack stirs Grossman. He states that, “If we put aside for a moment the rationales we use to buttress ourselves against simple human compassion toward the multitude of Palestinians whose lives have been shattered in this war, perhaps we will be able to see them, too, as they trudge around the grindstone right beside us, in tandem, in endless blind circles, in despair…There is no military solution to the real anguish of the Palestinian people, and as long as the suffocation felt in Gaza is not alleviated, we in Israel will not be able to breathe freely either…The Palestinian majority, represented by Mahmoud Abbas, has already decided in favor of negotiation and against terrorism.  Will the government of Israel, after this bloody war…continue to avoid at least trying this option?…Will it keep dismissing the possibility that an agreement with West Bank Palestinians might gradually lead to an improved relationship with the 1.8 million residents of Gaza?…I believe that Israel still contains a critical mass of people…Jews and Arabs, who are capable of uniting resolve the conflict with our neighbors…If we do not do this, we will all…continue to turn the grindstone of this conflict, which crushes and erodes our lives, our hopes and our humanity.”

The widely read  American author Naomi Wolf, much of whose family was lost in the Holocaust, writes: “I mourn genocide in Gaza because I am the granddaughter of a family half wiped out in the holocaust and I know genocide when I see it. People are asking why I am taking this ‘side.’ There are no sides. I mourn all victims. But every law of war and international law is being broken in the targeting of civilians in Gaza. I stand with the people of Gaza exactly because things might have turned out differently if more people had stood with the Jews in Germany. I stand with the people of Gaza because no one stood with us.”

Wolf notes that, “I went to synagogue last Friday and had to leave because I kept waiting for the massacre in Gaza to be addressed…Nothing. Where is God? God is only ever where we stand with our neighbor in trouble and against injustice. I turn in my card of faith as of now because of our overwhelming silence as Jews…I don’t mean Israelis, a separate issue…about the genocide in Gaza. I want no other religion than this, seeing rather than denying my neighbor under fire and embracing rather than dismissing those targeted with annihilation and ethnic cleansing.”

Those quoted here are the tip of an iceberg of Jewish anguish and concern about the growing loss of life. They believe that what is under assault in Gaza is not only innocent Palestinian lives, but Jewish ethical and moral values as well. They are saddened that Jews, who have been victimized for so long by others, would act in such a manner. It is their intent to uphold the ancient Jewish belief that to save a single human life is to save the world.

Whether one agrees with their analysis or not, these men and women deserve to be heard.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.