Sermon on Shabbat Chazon, 2 August 2014, by Rabbi Jason Holtz

The benefit of saying two contradictory things is that you’re bound to be right at least once. King Solomon benefits from that logic from having said both “Gam zeh ya’avor. This too shall pass,” and “Ein chadash tachat haShamesh. There is nothing new under the sun.” When I look at Israel-Gaza conflict, it is easy to say, “This is nothing new.” After all, rockets coming into Israel from Gaza is nothing new. There was a somewhat similar conflict in 2012 and 2008, and the Israeli-Arab conflict generally goes back decades.

Last week, I spoke about Israel and Gaza over the last ten years, with a particular focus on the current, on-going crisis. This week, I would like to expand the context beyond those ten years, while at the same time continuing to focus on the present tragic situation. There are three points in particular that I want to make. The first point is the notion that the current conflict is attributable to an Israeli Occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The second point is that the Israeli response to Hamas rockets and Hamas tunnels leading into Israel is disproportionate, and the final point I want to talk about is the role of anti-Semitism in all of this.

Point One—Some say that the conflict is caused by Israel occupying Gaza and the West Bank, and Hamas is fighting to end that. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. That’s what they say, right? Except words do have meaning, and people can be right or wrong, and not everything is completely subjective. So, is Hamas fighting for Palestinian freedom or are they fighting to destroy Israel, or at least cause as much harm to it as possible? The answer is both, I suppose, but I suspect it’s more against Israel than for Gaza. I’m not just questioning Hamas’s tactics—they will not benefit Gaza. Rather, I’m questioning Hamas’s motivation. I sincerely believe that given a choice between harming Israel or benefiting Gaza, they would choose harming Israel. A big reason that Israel is fighting against Hamas is because of tunnels that Hamas constructed that lead from Gaza into Israel. Militants use these tunnels to infiltrate Israel. The extent of how these tunnels can be used is just now becoming apparent, but their existence was known prior to the conflict. The Jerusalem Post cites a 2012 paper that was written for the Journal of Palestine Studies titled Gaza’s Tunnel Phenomenon: The Unintended Dynamics of Israel’s Siege discussing their existence. The author of the article, Nicolas Pelham, discovered that the tunnels were constructed with the assistance of child labour, as children are particularly able to fit in small spaces. In the process of constructing the tunnels, at least 160 Gazan children were killed. Hamas wanted these tunnels so badly, that they were willing to conscript children to work in a deadly environment. Hamas has used so many of the resources in Gaza to build a war machine. To do so, they robbed the Palestinian people of everything else those resources could have gone towards. Not only that, but they used children to build that war machine and those children died in the process. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin put it this way, “Hamas is responsible not only for the deaths of the children sent to dig tunnels, but also those who could have been healed and educated if the cement from Israel had been used for schools, clinics and housing rather than to create a subterranean military apparatus.” Now that Hamas is having its war, it is Palestinian civilians who are suffering the highest price. The political leadership of Hamas is residing comfortably in Qatar, while militants use one group of civilians—Palestinians—as human shields to target another group of civilians—Israelis. So what is Hamas’s goal? Gaza and the West Bank are no more important to them than Israel proper. They want Israel and Israelis gone, and a few thousand dead civilians, Jews and Muslims both, seem to be just fine by them.

They say, “Context is everything.” The context is that Israel is in a tough neighbourhood, and that neighbourhood has always been a tough place. It didn’t just go downhill recently. There are those who claim that the reason for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Now, I’m not a fan of the settlements. I don’t see the point to them. I see them as an obstacle to a two-state future, and I don’t know how we can simply have an indefinite policy of ruling over millions of people. I supported the removal of all of the settlements from Gaza in 2005 when I was living in Israel. I do not, however, understand how Israel’s presence in Gaza or the West Bank is in any way the source of the conflict. The reason I am so convinced that Israeli Occupation did not lead to Palestinian attacks on Israel is because the Israeli-Arab conflict, of which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just a part, began long before Israel was ever in the West Bank or Gaza. Prior to 1967, Gaza was Egypt and the West Bank was Jordan. The pre-1967 borders were based on the outcome of a 1948 war, a war that began because Arab governments refused to recognize the UN Partition plan that allowed for a Jewish state in the Middle East. Those borders, in existence from 1948-1967, meant that no Israeli soldier or civilian was in or had any control over the West Bank and Gaza. Yet, in 1967, Egypt set up a naval blockade in the Straits of Tiran, leading to the southern Israeli port city of Eilat, and they amassed troops on the Israeli border. The resulting war led Israel to control these areas, or occupy them, if you prefer that language. Either way, Israeli occupation did not lead to war. War led to occupation. The inability of other Middle Eastern governments to recognize the right of Israel to exist led to a war that Israel won. When people say that Israeli occupation is the reason for so much tension in the Middle East, the response is so simple. The tension is much older then the occupation. The occupation is a result of aggression against Israel, not the cause of it.

Just like the Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti, and Algerian armies before them, Hamas is not simply trying to create a Palestinian state. They are trying to destroy Israel. That objective has been demonstrated time and time again in both word and deed. By word, it is part of Hamas’s charter. I quote from the opening of their charter, “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.” Fortunately Hamas does not speak for all Muslims. However, this is what Hamas believes. There will be no Jewish state in the Middle East. By deed, the attacks are indiscriminately aimed at every single Israeli—not simply military targets.

Point Two—Proportionality in war. If you look at much of the media reporting, it typically contains mention of how many Palestinians have died, how many Israelis have died and sometimes how many rockets have been launched into Israel and how many Israeli operations having taken place in Gaza. Many more Palestinians have died than Israelis, and many of the Palestinians were civilians—not Hamas militants. That should disturb all of us. Any loss of innocent life is tragic. The death ratio, if you want to call it that, almost always leads to a discussion of proportionality. It’s easy to see why some people think Israel is not acting proportionately. Hamas fires a rocket and it doesn’t kill anyone. Israel responds by bombing a Hamas target in the West Bank, but because that target is in a populated area, not only is the target destroyed, but there are civilian deaths too. So if you look at the death toll, many more Palestinians are dying than Israelis, and some say, that means Israelis aren’t acting proportionately. But what does proportionately mean?

Hamas is launching rockets into Israeli cities. Hamas has built a whole web of tunnels whose purpose is to infiltrate Israel. Of course Israel has not only the right, but also the obligation to stop those rockets. Every government has the obligation to stop attacks that target its innocent civilians. If Israel stopped all military action against Gaza, Hamas would just go right on shooting their rockets, building their tunnels, infiltrating Israel and on and on. We know this because of how many times Hamas has broken a cease-fire. In fact, Hamas has in their charter this phrase:

[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. For renouncing any part of Palestine (Including all parts of Israel proper) means renouncing part of the religion; the nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its faith, the movement educates its members to adhere to its principles and to raise the banner of Allah over their homeland as they fight their Jihad.

I suggest we take Hamas at their word, because it’s not just their charter, it’s their actions that say loudly: They do not want peace. They want war. Israel can’t stop that by simply holding their fire.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles recently asked members of his synagogue to imagine for a moment that they were the Israeli Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister, he said, you are responsible for the safety and security of every last person you see, day in and day out. The decisions you make will affect how safe they are. Knowing that, and knowing that there is a militia firing hundreds of rockets a week at your country and cities, what do you do? At the moment, you know that there is an Iron Dome that is largely effective, but it is significantly expensive to operate. In fact, just yesterday, I read that the United States Senate agreed to grant Israel a quarter of a billion dollars to keep it running after the past several weeks. While some of the costs are shared with the United States, not all are. Furthermore, it’s not perfect. It’s success rate is somewhere between 80-90%, and that goes down to 0% for the rockets aimed at locations very close to Gaza. Some rockets do get through, and if they land in the middle of a city, people die. Odds are that the more rockets that are fired and the longer this goes on, with only the Iron Dome and bomb shelters for protection, the more innocent Israelis will die. And even when the rockets don’t reach their targets, can you imagine travelling to work, looking at the sky and seeing a rocket coming towards you, and then being shot down. You feel lucky this time, but what about next time? There is a psychological toll. So, you are the Israeli Prime Minister. What do you do? You protect your people. What choice do you have? That’s why they elected you.

A reasonable cease-fire seems ideal for the short-term, because that means Hamas stops firing rockets and that is the ultimate goal for Israel, from a security standpoint. Egypt proposed a quiet-for-quiet deal, and Israel accepted because it fit that goal. However, Hamas rejected the offer. Another cease-fire was proposed, backed by the United States, Qatar and Turkey. This cease-fire called for a lifting of a blockade on Gaza and freedom of movement for Gazans. Nothing in the proposal addressed Israel’s security concerns. If anything, it heightened those concerns. The blockade was limiting the inflow of weapons into Gaza and the freedom of movement was regrettably restricted, because Gaza has a history of trying to infiltrate and strike against Israel. They are not only Gaza’s borders, they are Israel’s too and every country has the right to control its own borders. Gaza’s other land-border, by the way, is with Egypt. Like Israel, Egypt considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization, and has no desire to have open borders with an area that is controlled by terrorists. So, not unsurprisingly, Israel could not accept that cease-fire because it did nothing to increase Israel’s security. Quite the opposite, actually—it is filled with even greater risk. Just yesterday though, a breakthrough seemed possible. A 72-hour cease fire was announced. No sooner did it go into place, though, that Hamas ambushed Israeli soldiers, taking one of them captive. So, as Prime Minister, that leaves only a military option. Now, I am not a military tactician, so it’s hard for me to comment, blow-by-blow, so to speak. However, I know this: Israel has a heavily armed air force and navy. I imagine that if Israel wanted to wipe Gaza and its entire population off the map, it could do so rather quickly without ever sending in any infantry. Yet, Israel doesn’t want to do that for a moment. Its goal is security, not obliterating Gaza. Israel sent in ground troops, knowing that some would die, because the objective for the infantry was destroy the tunnels—not destroy Gaza. Meanwhile, from the air and sea, Israel is doing what it can to destroy rocket launch sites, weapon caches and other strategic targets. It’s tragic that they are located where they are—in heavily populated areas. The alternative, though, is a heavily armed Hamas firing rockets into Israel and sending militants into Israel through tunnels, with absolutely no resistance whatsoever. Is Israel’s use of force proportionate? Well, I’m sure when Israel analyses this war at the end, it will second-guess a wide variety of decisions. Before I mentioned Rabbi Wolpe’s thought exercise of being the Israeli Prime Minister. Now let’s try it as an Israeli military officer. Israeli soldiers are dying defending Israeli citizens who are also dying and in continuing danger. You are told that a building in a populated area has a 95% chance of housing rockets that will be used in the conflict or that there are militants there. Do you order a strike? What if it is a 90% chance? 75%? 50%? Perhaps the lower you go, the less likely you are to order that strike. But know this—if you don’t order that strike, you risk the lives of your soldiers and civilians that might be targeted by the rockets and militants. It’s easy to second-guess the IDF from afar. It’s much harder to be that Israeli commander, knowing that lives are on the line and mistakes on way or the other are deadly. So are Israel’s responses proportional? Given the Hamas threat, by and large, they seem appropriate to me.

Final point—Anti-Semitism is a big part of the dispute. It is certainly Hamas’s primary motivation according to their charter. Here are three quotes from that document:

1. For our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging and grave.
2. Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them) until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!
And finally, this line speaks for itself:

3. Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.

Some Hamas spokespeople state that the charter no longer speaks for Hamas, but they have yet to actually revoke it. On the contrary, its members frequently speak and act in complete accordance with it.

A big problem, though, is that the anti-Semitism is not limited to Hamas. Anti-Semitism is shading much of the discussion and feelings about the Israel-Gaza conflict. At an anti-Israel demonstration in Frankfurt, Germany, signs read, “You Jews are Beasts.” In Paris the demonstrators shouted, “Death to the Jews!” In Belgium they said, “Slaughter the Jews!” In Gelsenkirchen, Germany, it was, “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas!” Of course, there can and should be open discussion, not just about the conflict but about the broader Middle Eastern situation. Criticizing Israel is not the same thing as anti-Semitism. I’d be an anti-Semite along with nearly every Israeli if that were the case. Yet it’s hard to ignore the anti-Semitic tone in many of the public demonstrations. It’s not just words, either. In Brussels, a 90-year old Jewish woman was refused treatment from a physician because she was Jewish. The doctor told her to go to Gaza and that will get rid of the pain. Since the conflict started, anti-Semitic incidences in the UK have doubled above “normal” levels. While that is serious, and as a percentage increase it sounds high, it seems as though the actual numbers in the UK are still fairly low, especially compared to Continental Europe. There, things seem much worse. The cover of Newsweek says, “Exodus: Why Europe’s Jews are fleeing once again.” The accompanying article begins:

The mob howled for vengeances, the missiles raining down on the synagogue walls as the worshippers huddled inside. It was a scene from Europe in the 1930s—except this was eastern Paris on the evening of July 13th, 2014…Two weeks later, 400 protesters attacked a synagogue and Jewish-owned businesses in Sarcelles, in the north of Paris, shouting “Death to the Jews.”

My mentor at Syracuse University was Professor Laurence Thomas who teaches Philosophy, Political Science and Judaic Studies. When he is not in New York, he is usually in Paris. He recently wrote this on his blog:

The unexpurgated truth is that France is not the place for Jews that it once used to be a mere generation ago. Indeed, pro-Palestinian support in France has become so strong that it would seem that the French no longer care that Jews, too, are people and deserve a place to live. And that reality is far too close for comfort to Nazi Germany.

I can’t help but note that the protests and the outrage against Israel seems to be so much greater than against groups and countries that certainly must be worse. Even if one doesn’t like Israel, Syria is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. How is it that there are violent riots in the street against Israel but not Syria? The war rages on there, yet the focus of the world is not on Syria, it is on Israel. Just open up the newspapers or turn on the television if you don’t believe me. Syria is a conflict with a hundred times or more the number of causalities, with the death toll increasing significantly faster. Hamas, for all we know of them, is not receiving nearly the same scrutiny from the UN Human Rights Commission. Even the Secretary-General of the UN has admitted in the past to the unfortunate bias against Israel there. The definition of bias is a prejudice against a person or a group. How can there not be bias?

I don’t want to be alarmist, but I mention the anti-Semitism for this reason: Anyone looking at the conflict and the surrounding emotions and debate has to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is a significant factor. It is a major ingredient both in the conflict itself, but also in the global discourse and reaction to it. There is simply no other way to explain what is going on.

There’s a rather bleak sermon for you. It’s a rather bleak Shabbat even if there weren’t so many problems surrounding Israel. Today is Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat prior to Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in Jewish memory. The Haftarah that the ancient rabbis chose for today matches the mood. It is the same with the Haftarot from the previous two weeks. The whole Jewish calendar, actually, has been anticipating the sorrow of Tisha B’Av for weeks now. Yet the rabbis ensured that the experience did not end with Tisha B’Av. It continues on next week with Haftarot of Consolation, offering reassurances that in the end, everything will be OK. Despite Av containing such a sad day, Jews actually call the month Menachem Av, an Av of Comfort. We are in a period of sorrow and sadness now for the whole tragic situation that claims innocent lives on both sides, and that robs so many people of a normal, peaceful existence. Still, let us pray that this Av really does turn into a Menachem Av that has the beginnings of lasting change, when Israelis and Palestinians will have freedom, security and peace. Then we can finally move on from saying, “Ein chadash tachat hashamesh, there is nothing new under the sun,” to “Gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass.” Let’s not give up on the ancient prophetic belief: lo yisa goy el goy cherev, v’lo yilmadu od milchama—nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore.