Tuesday, July 29, 2014

When Will American Rabbis Go Beyond “Feeling Sympathy” for the Gazans?

As the extent of the brutal and inhuman bombing of Gaza becomes known, it is hard for Jews who consider themselves relatively decent not to speak out.  Some American rabbis are beginning to express sympathy with the innocent victims of the IDF onslaught and to imply, ever so gingerly, that Israel should reconsider what it is doing, from a “Jewish” standpoint.

These expressions of sympathy are inevitably accompanied by expressions of support of Israel, unquestioned faith in the purity of its motives, blind acceptance of the morality of the Israel Defense Forces and the truth of the IDF spokespeople, as well as ritual  condemnation of Hamas.  Even as  we slaughter Gazans and bomb refugee camps into the stone age in ways that the Palestinians never did, and never could do, it is important for our own self-image to imply that we are, deep down,  more moral than they are.  After all, we deliberately and openly arrest Palestinian civilians in reprisals for the murder of our civilians,  whereas the terrorists kidnap soldiers.  We kill civilians and express (occasionally) regret; but when  they fight and kill our soldiers, they aren’t legal combatants of an occupied population under attack but terrorists. We invade; they infiltrate.

I gave up on orthodox rabbis years ago.Their morality is entirely tribal, with the added moral smugness about how we Jews are different from them.  The dean of American modern orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, was simply incapable of understanding why Arabs would oppose Zionism,  and he actually raised the halakhic question of whether those who oppose the Jewish state (“the mobs of Nassar and the Mufti”) should have the law of Amalek applied to them, i.e., to wipe out their men, women, and children. And he was considered one of the more liberal of the modern orthodox rabbis!   One can pity and excuse the Rav for these sentiments – I really like to believe that in cooler moments he would have rejected his own inference -- but no decent human being cannot be revulsed by them.  In Israel, the religious Zionist rabbis range from the enlightened colonialists to the Judaeo-fascists. Moral chauvinism is almost part of the “DNA” of modern orthodoxy; expecting orthodox rabbis to rise above it would be like expecting the Pope to endorse abortion.

So when I read a piece by a well-intended conservative rabbi who believes “that our hearts should grieve, that we should not be able to sleep at night, for the hundreds of Gazan non-combatants who died horrible deaths this week, yesterday, today, and are dying right this minute,” I asked myself: Should I be happy, or at least relieved, that finally, American rabbis have broken their silence? After all, unlike Rabbi David Seth-Kirshner, this rabbi doesn’t adopt the terrorist reasoning behind the Hamas suicide bombers and Osama Bin Laden that makes  civilians into combatants if they elect a government hostile to one’s interests.

No, I should not. For if is the best our rabbinate can do, I can only grieve for American Jewry,  whose hearts have become so hardened that only when there is mass slaughter of innocents and wanton destruction is their sleep disturbed. Where was the rabbi when the people of Gaza were put under a long and callous siege, the calories of their food counted, their movements restricted, solely because they had democratically elected representatives that were not to Israel’s liking? Where was the rabbi when the Israeli government rounded up released Hamas prisoners and government officials on the West Bank who had nothing to do with the murder of the three Jewish students? Where was the rabbi when the ongoing occupation led to the deaths of many Palestinians, at a time when Hamas was “relatively quiet”? My God, the rabbi throws in suicide bombing into the mix? How many thousands of Palestinians civilians have been killed by Israelis, since the last suicide bomb went off, well before Hamas became the recognized government in Gaza? 

It seems to me that the good rabbi, like many other good American Jews sleep peacefully through the moral nightmare of Palestinian existence – in refugee camps, the diaspora, under occupation, and even within Israel. It takes the noise of 120 one-tonne bombs to disturb their sleep. 

How have we Jews gotten to a situation where we can “sleep” so soundly? How have we excused ourselves by saying that Israel is existentially threatened, when, on the contrary,  the only existential threat is Israel for the Palestinian people?

I have yet to read a piece written by a rabbi of any denomination that achieves the moral clarity of Haaretz’s Gideon Levy , Amira Hass, former  M.K. Avraham Burg, and others. These are the Jews  that keep me Jewish during this long, long night of hardened hearts --  along with the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace, God bless them, and the many Jews and non-Jews fighting for justice and human rights.

In the honor/shame culture that is contemporary Judaism, expressing sympathy for the most egregious victims of our post-Holocaust neuroses, ultra-nationalism, moral chauvinism, and lethal weapons, is apparently the best our rabbinical leadership can come up with.

How moral we Jews are for unanimously condemning the pouring of kerosene down the throat of an innocent Arab youth and burning him alive!

And that is one of the most depressing lessons of these terrible times

7 comments:

rebmoti said...

Two comments: 1) any rabbi who spoke who wrote as Gideon Levy does wouldn't make it to the end of his/her contract. Rabbis, unfortunatelym don't have tenurse, and the richest Jews (often Republican, often super-Zionist) call the shots.

2) Are you aware of Rabbi Brant Rosen? His blog, shalomrav (rabbibrant.com) and his book about his journey to Palestinian solidarity are must reading. They also put him way way outside what every other American rabbi is willing to say.

Geoff Kl said...

as you claim to be an orthodox jew, you could have at least not printed lashon hora against a deceased gadol until after tisha b'av

Ash Mayer-Thibault said...

Aren't some Haredi (ie "ultra-orthodox") rabbis actually much more sensible to the Palestinian side of the story than the "modern orthodox" ?

Jerry Haber said...

rebmoti,

I would prefer rabbis say and write nothing about Israel and stick to preaching musar/morality and teaching Torah than to say the things that some rabbis have been saying. Silence won't cost them their job.

I know Rabbi Rosen personally and respect him tremendously. I included him within the rabbinical council of JVP that I mentioned in my post.

Jerry Haber said...

Ash,

I initially had a comment about haredi rabbis, but I took it out because I haven't seen haredi reactions of moral outrage, just more anti-Zionism. Frankly, I don't look to the haredi rabbinate as a beacon of moral leadership, either, but I would be very interested if any reader can send me some moral musar written by haredi rabbis lately concerning Israel's actions.

Sue said...


As a Jewish woman and the daughter of a Jewish refugee, I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Both my mother and I feel that Israel’s behaviour is of the same nature and severity, if not scale, as that of the Nazis in the last war. Israelis have killed 2000 Palestinians in this conflict, most of them women and children with nowhere to escape to, compared to 4 Israeli civilians. Whilst claiming victimisation, Israel is a brutal aggressor, killing Palestinians with impunity, and relying on the guilt that the West still feels over its failures in the last war, to stifle effective protest.

I am no supporter of Hamas. They are clearly provocative and their behaviour is also reprehensible.

However the Palestinians have been forced to live for decades in circumstances that most of us would find unintolerable. They need a viable state of their own.

Israel must stop seeing itself as the perpetual victim and face up to its responsibilities, which include getting on with its neighbours.

The way it is behaving towards the Palestinians is triggering a worldwide rise in anti-Semitism, which will affect us all.

I believe it is encumbent on Jewish rabbis, to help Israel to see the mote in its own eye, and exercise moderation and compassion, in a way that will promote peace and harmony in the Middle East. Without this, there can be no worthwhile future for either Israelis or Palestinians.
Cordelia

Sue said...

As a Jewish woman and the daughter of a Jewish refugee, I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Both my mother and I feel that Israel’s behaviour is of the same nature and severity, if not scale, as that of the Nazis in the last war. Israelis have killed 2000 Palestinians in this conflict, most of them women and children with nowhere to escape to, compared to 4 Israeli civilians. Whilst claiming victimisation, Israel is a brutal aggressor, killing Palestinians with impunity, and relying on the guilt that the West still feels over its failures in the last war, to stifle effective protest.

I am no supporter of Hamas. They are clearly provocative and their behaviour is also reprehensible.

However the Palestinians have been forced to live for decades in circumstances that most of us would find unintolerable. They need a viable state of their own.

Israel must stop seeing itself as the perpetual victim and face up to its responsibilities, which include getting on with its neighbours.

The way it is behaving towards the Palestinians is triggering a worldwide rise in anti-Semitism, which will affect us all.

I believe it is encumbent Jewish Rabbis, to help Israel to see the mote in its own eye, and exercise moderation and compassion, in a way that will promote peace and harmony in the Middle East. Without this, there can be no worthwhile future for either Israelis or Palestinians.
Cordelia