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Gaza War Presents Quandary for Many American Jews

  • Adam Phillips

FILE - Israeli soldiers stand on an armored personnel carrier (APC) outside the central Gaza Strip as they fire mortar shell towards Gaza before a ceasefire was due, early Aug. 1, 2014.

FILE - Israeli soldiers stand on an armored personnel carrier (APC) outside the central Gaza Strip as they fire mortar shell towards Gaza before a ceasefire was due, early Aug. 1, 2014.

The Israeli military incursion into Gaza resulted in the death of an estimated 2,100 Palestinians, many of them non-combatants. This has resulted in confusion for many American Jews, who feel loyal to the Jewish state but think the Israeli government has violated the bedrock Jewish principles of justice and compassion.

“There is a huge contradiction between those principles and what Israel is actually doing to the Palestinian people,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founding editor of Tikkun, a national Jewish magazine dedicated to faith-based social change. Lerner said he shares a broken heart with many American Jews.

“The attack on Gaza that led to the death of 2,100 Gazans, most of whom were civilians, hundreds of whom were children, and the destruction of thousands of homes and the destruction of Gaza’s electrical system and water systems. This has caused a great deal of anguish among many American Jews,” said Lerner.

Terrifying force, by choice

Lerner adds that most American Jews believe Israel had no choice but to respond with terrifying force to Hamas rockets, which were reportedly fired from schools, apartment houses, mosques and other civilian centers, but he counters that Israel could have stopped the cycle of violence anytime.

“The rockets were largely symbolic. There were a total of four people I think that were killed in Israel. The other 50 or 60 Israelis were soldiers inside Gaza who were killed as a result of their incursion into Gaza. Israel has the power. Hamas does not have the power,” said Lerner.

Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, which boasts more than 2,000 members, and thousands more who receive his sermons online, said that is precisely the dilemma.

“If you’re sitting on your balcony and on the other side of the street, there is a person shooting at you from his balcony and he’s holding his baby in his hand, what should your response be?” asked Hirsch.

‘Offense as defense’

The answer, Hirsch believes, should be obvious.

“If someone is shooting rockets at you - which is a war crime - you have to protect and defend yourself. How you do that is a relevant and important issue, and there are rules of war and they should be followed, and where there are excesses, people should be held accountable. But this idea that Israel was reckless or purposely targeted civilians is… a very big lie perpetrated by those who don’t have Israel’s interest at heart,” he said.

Criticism of Israel by some American Jews has been seen as a betrayal by some more conservative American Jews. They accuse those who sympathize with Palestinians over Israelis in the current war of self-hatred or anti-Semitism. Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said people have leveled those charges at her own national organization.

Criticism of Israel does not equal anti-Semitism

“It’s one of the most insidious problems in the American Jewish community that… helps to keep U.S. policy the way it is - unconditionally supporting whatever Israel does. The idea that you can’t criticize Israel without being accused of being anti-Semitic means that Israel as a state has carte blanche to do anything," said Vilkomerson.

Vilkomerson said her group’s Facebook page had 57,000 “likes” when the war started. Now it has about 190,000. The group itself has grown from 40 to 65 chapters since July, and keeps expanding.

“And what we trace that to is that we are the only Jewish organization in America that has taken an unequivocal stance against the war. We’ve really been a haven for Jewish people who have felt lost and confused and angered and saddened and who want to find a way to express as Jews and as Americans that they are against this war within a community they feel comfortable in,” said Vilkomerson.

But Jewish Voices of Peace does not support Hamas per se, added Vilkomerson.

“Hamas is a fundamentalist religious organization. It executes collaborators. It enforces a form of Islamic law. There is nothing about Hamas we are fans of. That being said, the rockets are a pretty understandable response to being under complete occupation and siege. And the fact that Israel has made no accommodation to the needs of the people living in Gaza means that of course people are going to fight back,” said Vilkomerson.

Political negotiations may be the only hope

Rabbi Hirsch flatly rejects any suggestion of moral parity between Hamas and Israel.

“Hamas is as an anti-Semitic, anti-Western, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-Christian terrorist group, and Israel is a liberal democracy, fighting for its life in a very, very bad neighborhood. At the same time, this issue is not going to be resolved except by political negotiations where both sides will have to make significant compromises. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going anywhere. They have nowhere else to go,” said Hirsch.

For now, a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is in effect, although tensions remain high. And while Israel is seen by most as the unquestioned military victor in the conflict, polls indicate that Hamas’ popularity within the Gaza Strip has soared.

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