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Rabbi's Week In Review - 5/17/2021

05/17/2021 02:57:58 PM


This has been a troubling week in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has again turned violent. There is nothing new about this (the last violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly Hamas, occurred in 2014). What is new: the riots and violence that have arisen in Israeli cities between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians particularly, where Jews and Arabs have lived together in relative harmony. It has brought on a real threat of civil war within Israel.  

Before sharing thoughts on the present conflict (in this longer-than-usual blog), I do feel compelled to provide some of my own background as it relates to Israel. My first and long-time Hebrew School teacher, Tzivia Gaba, along with her husband, Joe, zichrona livracha, of blessed memory, were halutzim — Israeli pioneers. Our connection to Israel as Jews was central to our instruction. Receiving a solo on “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” for the school assembly was the highest honor. (I know, anyone who is aware of my present lack of singing prowess is surprised by this news.)

My first visit to Israel was in 1975 with the Kansas City Pilgrimage. I would later visit Israel six times in seven years on various missions. I was in Israel during the height of the second Intifada, when you could roll a bowling ball down Ben Yehudah Street in downtown Jerusalem and not hit anybody. We visited with the emergency response team in Tel Aviv, visited cafes where terrorist bombings and loss of life had occurred, and witnessed a response to a bomb scare. I was on the Israel and Overseas Committee for Jewish Federation.

Two of my sons participated in high school semesters in Israel, both during the Intifada. My eldest son was with his fellow students in the Café Hillel in the German Colony in Jerusalem one night, and the following night, an Israeli surgeon and his daughter were murdered by a terrorist bomber in the same Café Hillel. My youngest participated in a summer exchange program with Israeli high school students in the Gezer region.

I am aware that discussing Israel is never a winner these days. Regardless of where you land on the issues, invariably some quadrant of our Jewish community will respond with acrimony. Yet it is out of my own experience and my love for Israel that I feel obligated at this time to address the crisis facing Israel. 

There are people within our Jewish community, people whom I both respect and love, who will disagree with me regarding my perspective on the conflict. I do not doubt for a second their love for Israel or that they have the best interests of the Jewish people at heart. I ask in return that they do not doubt my love for Israel or that I have the best interest of our people in my heart.

I burn for peace in Israel and for Palestinians, and when peace is finally realized, I think Israel should still be around to enjoy it. While we now seem so far from peace, I think there is an understanding of what peace would look like, at least under a two-state solution. The great challenge is to find leadership on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides who want peace and have the courage needed to work for peace.

The narrative from some in our Jewish community is that the current conflict started when Hamas launched rockets into Israel. I am not a fan of Hamas. There is no excuse to fire rockets at civilian Israeli targets, nor do I think they are interested in much more than establishing their own power vis-à-vis Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, particularly after Abbas canceled planned Palestinian elections. While there is no justification for their action, this is not where present tensions started.

Daniel Seidemann, an attorney and founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, is an expert on Jerusalem politics and dynamics. He has stated that the Israeli government has made two of the most destabilizing policy decisions: (1) allowing religious extremist Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah — all with the backing of the Israeli state, and (2) changing the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. 

The former decision, according to Seidemann, was part of the Trump plan to surround the Old City of Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods and displace long-held Palestinian neighborhoods in the process. The latter decision, also part of the same plan to change the status quo at Al-Aqsa Mosque, involved Israeli police raiding the mosque using rubber bullets and stun grenades, disrupting and preventing prayer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. What ensued from this point are Hamas rockets and Israeli bombardments into Gaza.  

What also ensued: rioting in many of Israel’s mixed cities with a significant number of Israeli Arabs, including Lod, Acre and Haifa in addition to Jerusalem, and the burning of synagogues and Arab businesses, beatings, shootings and lootings. These are cities where Jews and Arabs have lived in relative peace for years. The riots have been fueled by recent events and by Jewish settlers moving into more economically depressed neighborhoods to assert a stronger Jewish presence. Israeli Jewish extremist groups have been organizing on social media to travel to these mixed cities in order to carry out violent attacks against Palestinian homes, businesses and citizens.

Actions over the past few years by Prime Minister Netanyahu have been building to this moment. Passage of the Nation-State Law established inequality between Jews and Israeli Arabs as a legal fact. One must also entertain the idea that Netanyahu’s actions are at their core a desperate attempt to hold on to power.

His inability to establish a stable coalition government and his legal troubles — facing charges of bribery and fraud — seem to compel him to provide a distraction. He has courted right-wing extremists into government, particularly Kahanists who embrace violence. He has pushed a policy of annexation of land in the West Bank and Jerusalem. This policy, which has sought to solidify an occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, has lasted more than 50 years.  Pursuing this policy has never brought us closer to peace or made the lives of any Israeli — Jew, Arab or otherwise — more secure.

I would add to the list Netanyahu’s proclivity toward authoritarian rule. Delegitimizing legal systems in Israel, severely limiting human rights, attacking the press as well as organizations that dare to protest Israeli government policy, are all threats to what we have historically identified as our democratic Jewish state. It all seems sadly similar to threats within our own country — the lust for power no matter the cost to the country and its citizens. In this context, bombing offices in Gaza housing the Associated Press, Al Jazeera and other press outlets seems to have no other purpose than to stifle the press and avoid transparency — a definitively authoritarian, anti-democratic act.

The quote usually attributed to Einstein, defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, seems particularly apt here. To defend against Hamas rocket attacks in 2014, buildings in Gaza were bombed and tunnels were destroyed.  

Further, a Jewish response to the present conflict, which takes on a defensive posture, does nothing to solve the problem. What history should teach us is that we need a different approach if we are ever going to live in peace. The added crisis of violent unrest in Israel’s mixed cities brings in a new disturbing element that will not be solved with old arguments. As journalist Tzvi Jofre asserts in The Jerusalem Post, IDF is winning the battle, but with all the internal strife in Israel, Hamas is winning the war.

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, states, “All of us who care about the future of Israel and Palestine, and of Israelis (Jewish, Palestinian and other) and Palestinians should be putting our money, advocacy energy, and organizing into working to end occupation, investing in organizations both here and there that are doing so, and supporting the extraordinary activists on the ground who are devoting their lives to this work.”

May the prayers for peace we recite daily be realized speedily and in our lifetime.

Sat, June 19 2021 9 Tammuz 5781