The troubling questions that remain after Gaza

How those uneasy with Israeli actions can continue to support the country.


By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, May 7, 2009
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Palestinian children on the staircase of a house destroyed in Jebaliya, northern Gaza during Israel’s attack on Hamas earlier this year

Palestinian children on the staircase of a house destroyed in Jebaliya, northern Gaza during Israel’s attack on Hamas earlier this year

The war in Gaza leaves many wounds, the grief of the bereaved, the pain of the wounded and the trauma of the displaced on both sides.

Among those wounds may be one of another kind, a profound moral injury, to Israeli society and to Jewish ethics. “Israel has to fight terror because terror declared war on us,” wrote Major General Amos Yadlin in 2004 in a key text updating the Israeli Army’s moral code of “purity of arms” to include the impossible issues faced in trying to combat terror. Hamas, like Hizbollah, is a terrible enemy; its charter calls for Israel’s annihilation. Perhaps the Gaza conflict should be seen as a war of despair: how can Israel defend itself against the threat of rockets everywhere? But that doesn’t answer all the questions about the conduct of the war, or the blockade which preceded it.

At a recent seminar organised by René Cassin, the Jewish human rights organisation, Israeli Physicians For Human Rights presented its published report. Allegations about Israeli’s prosecution of the war included: the use of white phosphorous over densely populated areas; using bombs which spread sharp discs on explosion, causing terrible injuries; employing weapons lacking sufficient precision in civilian areas; frequent shooting at ambulances and the killing of ambulance personnel; the dreadful treatment of resident families by soldiers; attacks on non-combatants.

Hamas is clearly guilty of many of these charges, the indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets on civilians, the use of human shields, the tactics of fighting, and hiding, in a civilian population. It is argued that there was no other way to fight them without costing countless lives of soldiers. In its own report the IDF acknowledges mistakes and expresses regret for civilian deaths. Plenty of armies fail to do that.

But Ehud Barak’s claim that the probe “once again proves that the IDF is one of the most moral armies in the world” hasn’t satisfied many questions within Israel itself. The conduct of IDF soldiers is governed by the ethical code of “purity of arms”. These principles, in line with international humanitarian law, are notoriously difficult to apply when fighting an organisation like Hamas. But the appalling devastation in Gaza has risked making a travesty of them, and evidence suggests that this cannot all be blamed on Hamas. An independent inquiry is urgently needed; there are issues demanding redress.

For someone like me, who loves Israel, the evidence adduced by PHR-Israel is devastating to contemplate. It recalls David Grossman’s recent image of the two sides like foxes tied together by their tails carrying a blazing torch of destruction. A challenging Chasidic interpretation reconfigures the Torah’s injunction to remember Amalek, the epitome of Israel’s worst enemies, to mean “Don’t let anyone make you into Amalek”.

I feel challenged both as a Jew and as a lover of Israel. I find it hard to say, as some do, that such deeds must simply be accepted as the price of being a country like all others. The root and fountain of Jewish ethics lies in the principle that every human being without distinction is created in God’s image. To regard some lives as of lesser value, to reduce them to collateral damage, even under huge provocation, is morally wrong.

Fear, frustration and anger naturally lead one to demonise the other; hence perhaps the shocking T-shirts depicting a pregnant Arab woman with the disgusting slogan that “One shot = two kills”. The Judaism I believe in, that Judaism which has so often itself been the victim of demonisation, tries to humanise the other. Arik Ascherman of Rabbis For Human Rights expressed the courageous wish for Yom Ha’atzamaut that we should learn to see the world through the eyes of a single Palestinian, and so reconnect with our own ethical identity. I’ve spoken several times to Dr Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, three of whose daughters were killed, through an acknowledged mistake by Israel, in Gaza. He said, with a simple wisdom extraordinarily free of anger, “We must remember our shared humanity”. That is the foundation of all religious ethics.

The war in Gaza has strengthened those who hate Israel already. It has re-awoken slumbering antisemitism, in places to terrifying levels.

But it has also aroused powerful feelings in many who love Israel. What do we say and do? I know nowhere else in the world where there is so much altruism and idealism per square mile, so much effort to promote dialogue and understanding. Yet Israel today is also being defined by house demolitions, settler violence, blatant racism and policies of sometimes indiscriminate retribution. It’s not just young people who feel challenged; some who’ve cared about the country for a life-time feel close to despair. Many Jews are afraid of talking about Israel, even to each other, for fear of being branded for their views.

The answer doesn’t lie in joining Israel’s enemies, in ceasing to care, or in turning a blind eye. That, too, may prove a way of assisting in Israel’s destruction. Nor should we stop defending Israel when it is reviled. The issue is how to show commitment to Israel, despite, or sometimes through, challenging some of its actions.

We need to combine faithfulness to our people with loyalty to Jewish values. Countless Israelis struggle courageously for social justice, for equality for all citizens, for excellent universal medical provision, to build educational bridges between Jews and Muslims, to create an infrastructure for the peace which we pray must come. This is where we, individually and communally, should commit our money, presence and effort. Otherwise we let Israel, and Judaism, down.

Jonathan Wittenberg is rabbi of New North London (Masorti) Synagogue

    Last updated: 3:08pm, July 22 2009