Sermon Delivered by Rabbi Jason Holtz on 26 July 2014

The situation in Israel and Gaza is intolerable. Concern over Israel and Gaza transcends politics. It’s about justice, peace and the suffering of millions of people. Dozens of Israelis and hundreds of Palestinian civilians have died within the past month. Thousands have been injured. I’m always pro-innocent people caught up in a war zone, whether they are Jewish, Arab or something else. Our shared humanity trumps all ethnic or religious differences. I am a proud Zionist Jew—not because of historic circumstance, but because I believe in Israel. Not in everything Israel does, but as a whole, absolutely. I want to be pro-Palestinian. By that, I mean that I want there to be a thriving, independent and peaceful Palestinian state. What I can’t stand is a Palestine bent on doing as much damage to Israel as possible. What I can’t stand is a group like Hamas, a popularly elected group and the de facto government in Gaza.

Let’s gain some perspective on the current situation and go back almost a decade. I lived in Israel in 2004 and then again from 2005 to 2006. Ariel Sharon was prime minister. He was a former military general who had a reputation for right wing, hawkish views. For most of his political career, he championed Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. He was elected prime minister during the second intifada, at a time when suicide bombers were frequently and with great success blowing up busses, restaurants, and shops. The anxiety and tension was palpable. He was not elected to bring peace and build a Palestinian state. He was elected to enact tough measures that would promote security and safety. He did that but that’s not all. He did what no one expected. He removed every settler from Gaza. If they wouldn’t go willingly, he had the Israeli army remove them. It was very controversial amongst Israelis. If you supported Ariel Sharon, you wore a blue ribbon. If you wanted to keep the settlements, you wore an orange one. To be honest with you, I wore the blue ribbon. I wanted to remove the settlements. I thought that while there was no guarantee of peace without the settlements, it was the surest shot. I saw it, like many others, as a pro-peace move, albeit a very painful one. Some of the settlers were born and raised there. People who had spent their whole life there were removed. Sharon had his way in 2005 and Gaza became 100% Palestinian—no Israelis, no Jews. Not only that, but Israel gave the Gazans 3,000 greenhouses. Border crossings were opened and commerce was encouraged. Sharon wanted to show everyone that peace was possible. He even dismantled some West Bank settlements at the same time to show that the same thing could be done there if it worked with Gaza. Israel wanted peace and it was being led to peace by its most hawkish former general.

So what happened? The Palestinians held elections and chose Hamas. Not just Israel, the US and the EU, but even neighbouring states like Egypt recognize them as a terrorist organization. Since that time, over 4,000 rockets and mortar shells have come into Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Over 2,000 rockets have come just in the last few weeks. The targets are not Israeli military bases. The targets are Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Be’er Sheva and Eilat. These are cities where people live, work and raise their children. In nearly a decade in power, Hamas has spent its resources on stockpiling Iranian weaponry smuggled into Gaza. That’s why Israel now insists on a blockade. There wasn’t always one. Gaza had much more open borders once so that construction equipment could move in and repair old infrastructure or build new infrastructure. Yet look at how much concrete went to building a web of tunnels and bunkers that have only a military and smuggling purpose. How many schools or hospitals were never built because resources were diverted elsewhere? More than wanting a thriving, independent Palestine which Sharon tried start, Hamas-led Gaza wanted an all-out war with Israel. I don’t know why, but their level of hatred is unparalleled. I’m convinced that if Hamas had the capability, they would attempt a second Holocaust. They fire rockets at Israel, month in and month out. More than wanting an independent Palestine, they want Israel to suffer. And they are willing to bring suffering to their own people to do it. That is a big part of the evil of Hamas. Gazans have suffered for years, if not decades, and Hamas is exacerbating that suffering. We seldom use the word evil anymore, but I can’t think of any other appropriate term. They have obviously been stockpiling weapons and preparing for a war with Israel, and yet they haven’t built any bomb shelters for the Palestinian population. Just the opposite: they use civilian sites to house arms and militants. How do they explain placing the opening to their tunnel network near homes and mosques? These tunnels are meant to bring in arms from Egypt and send militants into Israel. Of course they are a threat to Israel, and when Hamas attacks Israel, Israel has no choice but to try and go after them. Hospitals and schools double up as armouries. Ambulances are used to ferry weapons and terrorists around. Meanwhile, Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshal, is safe in Qatar. Somehow his safety is taken care of. When Israel sends warnings, and it does, Hamas goes on the radio and tells people to stay put, in harms way, because Israel looks bad when innocent Palestinians are killed. Hamas is assuredly guilty of a double war crime, targeting civilians and then using civilians as shields. It’s a sick game that Hamas is playing—attacking on one hand, and knowing that they’ll gain diplomatic points on the other when Israel is forced to respond and civilians get hurt and killed.

This is not a conflict between moral equals. It truly is a struggle between right and wrong. Israel conducts war very differently than Hamas. Whereas Hamas wants to kill every Israeli it can and is willing to use the Palestinian population as a shield, Israel takes extra precaution to limit the damage in Gaza. That doesn’t mean that mistakes or wrong decisions aren’t made. But that’s not Israel’s policy. And when mistakes do happen, Israel demands a reckoning from itself. So how does Israel respond to these attacks? With remarkable restraint. Believe it or not, the rockets didn’t begin this month. Nor do they only come during periods of heightened tension such as in 2008 or 2012. They come every single month. Just in this year, as an example, there were 22 rocket attacks in January, in February it was 9, in March it was 65, in April it was 19 rockets and 5 mortar shells, in May it was 4 rockets and 3 mortar shells, and in June it was 53 rockets and a single mortar shell. These rocket attacks are almost always aimed at civilian targets, not military ones. The reason that there hasn’t been more death on the Israeli side is because Israel and the United States invested heavily in defending against these rocket attacks by building shelters, early warning systems, and the Iron Dome, which is capable of shooting down many of the rockets.

In the last month, things have gotten much worse. More rockets come from Hamas and in return Israel retaliates. What did they expect, that Israel would simply allow rockets to fly into its cities without a response? The scary thing for many Israelis is that while the Iron Dome and bomb shelters are largely effective right now, the rockets are getting more and more advanced. Whereas they used to only be able to reach towns close to Gaza, now every major city in Israel is within striking distance. Israelis are understandably not willing to accept living in a condition where early warning sirens go off constantly. A cease-fire has been proposed multiple times. Israel accepted it multiple times, but Hamas has not. Israel was willing to accept a quiet-for-quiet deal. This is what Egypt suggested. Hamas would not agree. They said that in order for the rocket attacks to stop, Israel would need amongst other things to release prisoners held on terror convictions. Something they’ve done in the past, but is obviously a steep price. Additionally, they want completely open borders for freedom of movement, in normal times, a fine thing. However, when Hamas abuses open borders to bring in weapons or send out terrorists, not so good. Israel rightfully refuses to such conditions, not out of spite, but out of legitimate security concerns. Of course, food should be able to go in, and medicine, and other humanitarian aid, and Israel has permitted several shipments to enter carrying such aid since this started. But how can Israel agree to completely open borders with Hamas in charge? This could have been over a long time ago if Hamas wanted it. Israel agreed each time to a cease-fire when it was proposed and stopped firing each time it was proposed. In return, Hamas fired more rockets.

There is a moral sickness in the world right now and Jews in general and Israel in particular, are the victims.

I am hardly one to cry anti-Semitism on a regular basis. In fact, I think I can count on three fingers the number of times that I’ve done it in my life. But I’m doing it now.

Hamas started a war, Hamas targets civilians, Hamas uses civilians and buildings like schools and hospitals to shield their weapons. Israelis and innocent Palestinians are killed as a result. And so many people in the world blame Israel and Jews. Take MP David Ward who said that if he was in Gaza, he’d probably fire rockets at Israel too. What is that supposed to mean? He would do what Hamas is doing? Use human shields to fire rockets at civilian targets? Hamas is a cancer and it is spreading in the world. Protests that are supposedly pro-Gaza turn out to be violently anti-Semitic in places like Frankfurt, where a synagogue was attacked, in Paris where a Jewish neighbourhood was trashed and Los Angeles where gun-shots were fired by anti-Israel demonstrators. In Bastille Square, rioters against Israel held signs that said, “Death to the Jews.” They think they’re protesting Israel, but they make the case for Israel better than anyone. France has the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel and the United States, yet more French Jews are moving to Israel than from anywhere else. No wonder.

The United Nations Human Rights Council launched an inquiry against Israel. Against Israel. Not against Hamas. Hamas is not suspected of any human rights abuses by the UN Human Rights Council. For that matter, the UNHRC also seems unconcerned about places like China, which actually has a seat on the UNHRC. It seems like Israel is the only country in the world worthy of attention from that Kangaroo Court. Why a Kangaroo court? Because it’s made up of the governments of countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Ivory Coast, and the United Arab Emirates. Now there are countries on the UNHRC with positive human rights records, like the United States and the United Kingdom. However, so many of the governments that make it up would do far more good by promoting human rights in their own countries rather than looking elsewhere. It’d be one thing if it was a body with moral authority, but it’s not. The trouble is, it goes under the United Nations banner, and therefore seems to have a semblance of legitimacy, and now they are extending that legitimacy to Hamas. I agree with what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “The UNHRC is sending a message to Hamas and terror organizations everywhere that using civilians as human shields is an effective strategy.” There has been only one other special session of the UNHRC in the last two years, and it was to provide technical support to the Central African Republic. Otherwise, no special sessions in two years. So it’s not that there is a double standard. There’s only one standard. Oppose only Israel. Oppose only the Jewish state. It’s anti-Semitic.

As a rabbinic student in Israel, I took Middle Eastern Studies with Professor Paul Liptz. He said that he was competent to teach history, but that he couldn’t predict the future. He said that if he’s learned anything, it’s that nobody knows what’s going to happen. All predictions are based on what we know of the past and the present, but the only thing that the past really tells us is that things change very quickly and unpredictably. Given how bad things are now, let that be our solace. Let that be our hope.

Let me finish with words of prayer written by Rabbi Karyn Kedar:

Holy One of blessing,
we pray for the soldiers
who are called to defend all God’s children.
Keep them safe. When they are weary
give them strength.
When they are scared give them courage.
May they find strength and faith in the days ahead.

Holy One of blessing,
we pray for the people of Israel and all peoples
who long to live under your canopy of peace.
Keep them safe. When they are threatened
protect them from harm.
When they are wounded and bereaved
grant them healing and comfort.
May they find strength and courage in the days ahead.

May our voices carry prayers of hope
that the people of Israel
know that they are not alone.

Dear God,
give us strength
and know that there is nothing more sacred than peace.
Grant us dear God,
Faith. Courage. Wisdom.