News / USA

Gaza War Presents Quandary for Many American Jews

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.
Adam Phillips

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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by: Gk from: LA
September 06, 2014 6:46 AM
Awesome article.. We need more of these ppl & conversations!

by: Stu from: Brooklyn
September 05, 2014 9:44 AM
The Palestinian casualties skyrocketed after Hamas revealed their tunnels into Israel, and the IDF were tasked with destroying them. Had this only been about Gaza's "symbolic" rockets, the war would have ended sooner.

The problem I have is so much of the criticism of the IDF seems contrived. For instance, what was everyone's reaction when it was revealed that the IDF called and text-messaged their intended targets, then dropped the 'knock on roof' just in case their target didn't believe them. Amnesty International condemed the IDF. I mean, seriously!?! If the IDF wanted to completely raze Gaza, is there any doubt they have the capability? If the IDF wanted to kill as many people as they could, what is the realistic number of casualties after 5000 airstrikes?

And UNRWA announces three times that rockets were stored in their abandoned schools. Gaza, we are repeatedly told, is one of the most densely populated and poorest places on Earth. Why does UNRWA even have ONE 'abandoned' school, let alone three?

The problem is too many like Lerner et al in actuality despise the Arabs and do not hold them to the same standards as they would anyone else

by: Mark from: Virginia
September 04, 2014 1:47 PM
Millions of viewers across the United States were entranced and supportive of the 'Shock and Awe' campaign we used in Iraq, sure we were targeting buildings of military/government importance, but how many civilians were killed or injured from the residual damage done? We approved of that, yet stringently disapprove of another country's doing it, seeing as 'barbaric' and 'heavy handed' and 'excessive'.

Gaza is more heavily populated than Baghdad, Hamas used civilian buildings to hide weapons and fighters in. Of course, the amount of civilian casualties will be great, especially when Hamas was using those same civilians and shields to hide behind.

Symbolic or not, if someone shoots at me, I would do whatever I had to do, with whatever I had at my disposal to protect myself and my family. That is the natural response to any threat. Even if it meant shooting back. Not everyone is purely pacifist, and willing to stand and take it. While it may be Christ's teaching to turn the other cheek, sadly, we are not as perfect as Christ. And where Hamas is concerned, turning that other cheek will get your head blown off.

by: b from: nyc
September 04, 2014 12:09 PM
Why should Israel stay in pre-1967 borders? They won it fair and square in a war they did not start. They have offered most of the land back (who does such a thing?) Egypt and Jordon agreed, but not the Palestinians.

in 2000 Arafat walked away from a deal that would have given him 90% of what he wanted. Seems like they want to remain refugees. As for the commenter who says Israel is "vile". Anyone remember Haiti? Philippines? Israel giving high top medical treatment to injured Syrians and Gazan's?- for FREE. Seems like Israel is there for every other country but no one stands up for them when they are forced to act to defend their people. The reason for the Gaza blockade is HAMAS. Before Hamas came to power the the Israelis and Gazans got along, there was no need for the blockade.
In Response

by: b from: nyc
September 05, 2014 9:43 AM
The Six-Day War was fought between June 5th and June 10th. The Israelis defended the war as a preventative military effort to counter what the Israelis saw as an impending attack by Arab nations that surrounded Israel. So yeah Israel "struck" first. Rather then wait to be attacked they attacked. Jordan was warned not to enter the war, they did, and lost the west bank. Practically every country has land that they fought for (some wars that they started themselves!) If you ask Israel what rights they have to the West bank they will cite and back up their legal rights to the West bank, contradicting other claims. So its not black and white.

I've heard and read Israelis being interviewed and saying some Gazans went to their own weddings, working, sitting and dining together- pre-Hamas takeover. Israel can;'t be blamed for everything. there is no question the Gazans are suffering but its not their neighbor next door who should get the blame. Its the Gazans fault fully for electing a terrorist government with clear intentions of what they want to do to Israel. By the way "Israeli settlers" who live next to Gaza are actually citizens of Israel. The Kibbutz and towns there are fully under Israel pre 1967, its not correct to say settlers.
In Response

by: John-Otto Liljenstolpe from: Seattle
September 05, 2014 2:45 AM
b from nyc, I think you'd better check your facts about who started the 67 war (next time you're in a book store or the library, you might check the relevant chapters in the book, "The General's Son" by the Israeli Miko Peled. In any case, colonizing the West Bank following their victory is a clear violation of international law.

As for the Israeli settlers getting along with the Palestinians in Gaza, please cite what history book you have in mind here. Finally one of the more stupid moves made by the Israelis was fostering the development of Hamas as a way of weakening Fatah (using perhaps as a model the US governments fostering of Saddam Hussein in order to hold in check the Shias of Iraq).

by: ArtC from: Sydney Australia
September 04, 2014 7:46 AM
Viewing the recent conflict in Gaza one can only conclude that the Israel Defense Force used its very excessive power to the maximum. US military representatives have been reported as shocked at the intensity and unusual ferocity of the attack. The civilian casualties are testament to the over the top reaction. World sympathy for Israel evaporates when the country acts as it has.

It is heartening that some members of the American Jewish community are having second thoughts on unconditional support for the present regime.
Hopefully US politicians will take note. I was astonished to recently find that donations to the IDF from US citizens are tax deductible (google it). How can the world look upon the US as a fair broker when support is so one sided. The dreadful slaughter of the innocents is unforgivable. The so called professional IDF should be condemned for the unforgivable killing of civilians in Gaza.
In Response

by: Andy Mills
September 06, 2014 10:35 AM
bg from: nyc
“Excessive force”?

Absolutely, massively disproportionate force was used by the IDF. During the war in Gaza i read an interview in I believe the Times, where a senior US military strategist gave the opinion that there was only two explanation for the massive civilians casualties that the IDF were infliction on Palestine.
1) The Israeli army is very badly trained in the use of heavy artillery.
2) They don’t really care about the number of civilians killed.
I would prefer to think its reason number 1, however, I think we all know it’s the latter reason.
In Response

by: bg from: nyc
September 04, 2014 1:51 PM
Excessive force? Maybe Israel should have indiscriminately fired rockets into gaza. Would that make it even? Instead they used their technology and their soldiers to fire at rocket launcher sights and the terrorists launching them. They could have just bombed the whole place with their sophisticated bombs. But they didn't. There are testimonies of soldiers who abhorted missions even after a targeting area was warned to leave, because the ppl chose to stay as human shields. Unfortunately, these stories rarely get reported.

by: Anonymous
September 04, 2014 6:34 AM
Political negotiation with significant compromises with a group such as Hamas will only bring to Israel waiting for Hamas to be prepared more and stronger. Surely, Israel sould not have made a core mistake of ceasfire with Hamas without a total securirity is achieved.
In Response

by: b from: nyc
September 04, 2014 1:22 PM
john- Why do we have to boycott israel for pressure to weaken Hamas? Thats ridiculous. The world should come out strong to condemn Hamas- a terror organization, instead of blaming Israel for the plight of the Gazan's. Israel already did their part in 2005 when they gave Gaza away. They left it with greenhouses and a thriving economy. What was their response?

They destroyed it, elected a terrorist org, whose main goal is to destroy Israel. Then kidnapped Gilad Shalit, and did other acts of terror, prompting Israel to enforce a blockade, like any normal country would do. But somehow its Israel's fault and it always will be no matter what they do. Hamas is gloating now- how they managed to turn world opinion against Israel by exploiting their own people. And how they got away with it.
In Response

by: John-Otto Liljenstolpe from: Seattle
September 04, 2014 12:41 PM
"Total security?" Yes, anonymous is right. Untill everyone is secure in Israel/Palestine, no one will be secure. Those of us who seek the security of Israelis and the lessening of Hamas's power would do well to join the BDS campaign to increase the pressure upon Israel to begin hosting the economies and normalization of life in the West Bank and in Gaza. Ending the thrift of Palestinian property and the siege of Gaza are the first necessary steps.

by: RES
September 04, 2014 1:40 AM
The picture above may be a good visual, but it's not really relevant to the story. The man above is a member of the Neturei Karta, an extremist Hasidic group who are anti-Zionists, not in relation to anything having to do with Gaza or the Palestinian people, but because they believe Zionism impacts the coming of the messiah (although oddly, they are centred in Jerusalem). They believe the Holocaust was punishment for Jewish secularism, and do not believe women should be seen in public. In essence, they are the Westboro Baptist Church of Judaism. If you want to highlight Jewish groups working towards peace between Israel and Palestine, go right ahead, but please don't tokenize the Neturei Karta.

by: Jon from: Albany
September 04, 2014 1:14 AM
The notion that the rockets fired at Israel were symbolic and that Israeli soldiers who died during the ground fighting in Gaza died unnecessarily ignores the reality that Hamas had over 30 offensive tunnels into Israeli territory and they still have an estimated 3000 rockets in hiding. The Hamas Charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the slaying of all Jews. American "liberals" somehow treat Hamas as if it were a group of civil rights workers trying to register voters in the 1960's instead of a well-organized terrorist organization with a clear goal of destruction and the support of Iran and Hexbollah.

by: Anonymous
September 04, 2014 12:44 AM
This filthy zionist lie of self defense is odorous in the extreme... tell the truth just once..Israel is a brutal regime, disgusting on every level...genocidal...evil... pure evil tou continue to sreal their lands, deny the Palestinians any hope..you bomb them, humiliate them, steal, beat, murder their children and PLAY VICTIM!!!!! The barbarism and injustice won't last, the whole world is repulsed.. israel is VILE
In Response

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
September 05, 2014 10:52 AM
Anonymous, for people like you all the sane people in the world begin to mourn Israel's dismal failure in taking Gaza back once and for all. Having to wait for another publicity stunt, when Hamas will ignite another war after it has planned how to use civilian deaths to win sympathy from gullible people as well as from moronic ones who are unable to know their left from their right, is a bad miscalculation.

If the war will ever have to start again, Israel should make sure it cleans out Gaza taking it by storm to make sure the Hamas menace is removed for ever. Then Hamas and supporters won't have anything to boast about when the war ends.
In Response

by: Adam Phillips from: New York
September 04, 2014 8:52 PM
Note from the reporter: Please do not allow yourself to be anonymous. Own your words by stating who you are.

by: Alexander The Great from: USA
September 03, 2014 11:59 PM
The Israel is unfortunately heading for its own destruction by itself. It needs to stay within the international recognized boundary of pre-1967 border. Any illegal expansion effort beyond that border is causing instability and nonstop killing and destruction of not only in the Middle East but also in the whole world resulting suffering of both Americans and people of the world.

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