By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, New North London Synagogue
Many times I’ve heard recently, ‘This is the hardest time I’ve gone through as a Jew’. This doesn’t of course apply to the generation who survived the Holocaust and fought the Second World War.
Fear for Israel; anguish for relatives in danger, for sons and friends’ sons in the IDF; sorrow for innocent people caught in the misery of Gaza, especially the children; the sense of the complexity of the issues; the frequently vituperative blame for Israel; the backlash of anti-Semitism; the uncertainty of the future: these concerns make this an extraordinarily disturbing time.
At such a juncture we need each other, our allies, and our Jewish values.
No one wants to grant victory to the ideology of Hamas. That it’s not compatible with Israel’s future is obvious. But it’s not in the interest of the Palestinian people either, nor of freedom anywhere.
Whatever they say in public, leaders of democratic governments and those responsible for security surely know it. Part of Israel’s struggle today may be theirs tomorrow. Perhaps it already is.
All groups are complex. But the leadership of Hamas presents a cruel and cynical ideology, feeding on violence. If they kill, they gain; if they goad us into killing, they also seem to gain. Innocence appears to carry no moral weight.
The question of how to overcome such an opponent faces not just Israel but humanity.
That part of the response is military cannot seriously be doubted. Countries have a right and a duty to protect their citizens.
Yet, as David Grossman said recently, ‘There is no military solution that will bring an end to the suffering of the residents of the south, to the terrible fear they live with, and there’s no military solution to the inhuman anguish of the Palestinians in Gaza.’
Far from being the whole solution, the use of force alone is liable to bring other kinds of defeat. Provoked by thousands of rockets into a powerful reaction, in the world’s eyes Israel becomes implicated in the deaths of innocent Palestinians.
There’s a bitter element of truth to this, wherever one locates the terrible responsibility for them being beneath the bombs in the first place.
Each killed, wounded or orphaned Palestinian child cries out to humanity and God. Each is a world of family, friends and dreams, now shattered. How can any human being not care about such matters?
Were it not for the Iron Dome there might be a similar outcry from Israeli civilians maimed and bereaved as well.
Each wounded child is also an eloquent ambassador, without saying a word. Morally, and politically, it is a terrible outcome to be lured into participating in making such children.
There is a sharp Hasidic teaching that what we must remember about the notoriously cruel Amalek is not only what he did to us, but what he may make us become answerable for.
It is therefore of the utmost urgency to re-examine all alternatives to the sole use of force. Every night since the war began the Parents’ Circle Family Forum, a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents bereaved in the conflict, has held a vigil in Tel Aviv.
‘It won’t end until we talk’, runs their slogan, together with the powerful film-clip ‘We don’t want you here’; we don’t want others to suffer the grief we know too well.
I was with them last week when a passer-by called out, ‘But you can’t talk to Hamas’. The group responded thoughtfully; he remained unsatisfied.
However, there are those with whom one can talk. Israel also urgently needs its allies to talk, and prepare the way for talks, on its behalf.
Otherwise, we are bound on a wheel of fire, to constant fighting, in which Israel’s stature, and that of Judaism, is liable to be diminished, fairly or unfairly, piece by little piece.
This is all the more true because the present fighting hasn’t arisen in isolation from the entire conflict, with its many dimensions of injustice.
Whoever one blames for the various wars and the bitter hostility which the extraordinarily courageous and creative country has had to face, Israel today rules over a population which deserves its own sovereignty. Injustice and oppression are bound to result, contaminating everyone. This has sucked at Israel’s moral credibility for years.
We therefore urgently need a political solution, for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians. We need hope, rooted in a vision of justice and the opportunity for life with a bearable present and a viable future for all.
The profound challenge is not just how to silence Hamas’ rockets but how, if possible, to render its appeal redundant, how to disempower its ideology, and similar ideologies wherever they exist in the world.
This requires an engagement which is not just military, but political, economic, diplomatic, and, at heart, moral and human.