The Middle East is a part of the world drenched in sadness, pain and violence. Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, once said that in Israel the trauma is layered like an archaeological dig, where each level of destruction is piled one on top of the other, with no space between them.
Since 2000 it has been one long war; a new kind of warfare called “asymmetrical war.” Asymmetrical warfare attempts to erase two basic features of war: the front and the uniform. It has no defined place and is waged by unidentified murderers.
The goal is to create, in the words of the Israeli moral philosopher, Moshe Halbertal, “a war of all, against all, and everywhere.” Everyone is a potential enemy and nowhere is safe. And one of the results of this kind of warfare is more fatalities in Gaza than in Israel.
One of the few things that changed in this round of violence was the thoroughness with which Israel has been pounded for its actions. There’s nothing new about the brunt of criticism being hurled at Israel; what was different this time was the extent of criticism from American liberals — including much of the media, academia, Democratic law makers, including the group of representatives known as the “squad,” which has made false and utterly hateful pronouncements about Israel as an apartheid state.
If you listen carefully to voices from the left, you are left with a sense that nothing Israel does can be helpful. Why? As Halevi recently wrote, to those opposed to Israel, “Israel doesn’t commit crimes: It is a crime. For justice to be done, Israel must die.”
That position on the left is a result of the sympathy the left has for the underdog. It is a cruel irony of history that in this dispute, Jews are viewed as the persecutors. And the left furthers their sympathy for the side they perceive to be the underdog by raising the specter of proportionality. Which is another way of saying that not enough Israelis die to justify the Israeli response to 4,000 missiles fired at them over 11 days.
There was Chris Hayes asking why can’t the American government build an Iron Dome for Gaza, so their children won’t suffer from the rain of death. Or John Oliver reducing the whole conflict to mathematics of casualties: Israel is clearly in the wrong because it is so strong. As Halevi wrote, “If Israelis want Oliver’s sympathy, more of us will have to die.”
Israel’s moral obligations as a state are to all its citizens, as Rabbi Donniel Hartman discussed in an article published recently. Israel must grapple with the moral questions having to do with the Palestinians and their undeniable suffering — and that applies to issues of Israeli citizens who are Arabs, as well as the Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israel, Hartman says, must “offer moral arguments in our own defense, [and], at the same time, [be] willing to acknowledge when we are wrong and implement policies to rectify these wrongs.”
Halevi wrote: “Israel’s dilemma is that it is forced to wage asymmetrical wars against terrorists embedded in a civilian population while, at the same time, it occupies the Palestinians in the West Bank. To be perceived as morally credible in our battle against Hamas, we need to prove ourselves committed to a fair resolution of the Palestinian tragedy.”
With the whole world in an uproar over Israel’s tactics and the occupation of the Palestinian people, I do not hear Israel’s critics answering the basic question the situation foists upon Israel: What in the world is Israel to do?
Israel has a right and a duty to protect itself from people who have sworn to obliterate it and who have backed that oath with a bloody war of terror the likes of which no nation in history has had to endure. The problem is when critics from afar are so selectively outraged and woefully lacking in understanding of the complexity of the issues that Israel faces.
If you think all Israel has to do is relinquish control of the West Bank and lift the blockade of Gaza and all will be well, please let the Israelis know as soon as you can what will happen the day after all that happens, especially since everyone knows that if Israel withdraws from the West Bank, it will not be long until Hamas rules that territory as well as Gaza.
We ought to be very careful and humble about how we judge Israel’s handling of its historically unprecedented challenges.
There is one more challenge, and this is for Israel. It’s the debate over the two-state solution. Hardly anyone doubts that it is the ONLY solution to the problem of two people with claims on the same land. It is painful for either side to compromise their sense of entitlement to the entire land and share it with another people.
It’s not just Israel’s right wing that is skeptical about the two-state solution. There are so many reasons why Israeli moderates and liberals despair over it. David Horowitz, editor of The Times of Israel, said that while many in Israel “regard a two-state solution as essential if we are not to lose either our Jewish majority, or our democracy, or both… Many of us…cannot currently see a safe route to such an accommodation.”
Nonetheless, the challenge for Israel is not to give up. Many of Israel’s new critics in the West are discouraged by actions of the Israeli government that they perceive, not entirely incorrectly, as having erected barriers to an eventual accommodation of a state for the Palestinians. Unfortunately, and in large measure unfairly, Israel has come to be seen as part of the problem, not the solution.
So, while Israel’s critics need to become more understanding of Israel’s situation, in Horowitz’s words, “Israel needs to show itself ready and willing to be central to the effort to find [a solution], and not to be following policies that further reduce the possibility.”
As Halevi explains, “Israel must strive to maintain moral credibility as a reluctant occupier. A renewed Israeli peace initiative is our opportunity to convey our vision for a different Middle East.”
Many years ago, during the First Intifada, I heard Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, explain that his people want the same thing for their children that all people want for their children: to be able to put their children to bed feeling safe. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, children sleeping soundly, knowing their parents are keeping them safe.
Let us hope for that day when everyone can sleep in peace. Let us hope for a time that when Palestinian parents say good night to their children, see you in the morning; a time when Israelis say good night to their children, see you in the morning, and all the children feel safe. Let us pray for every single life, in Gaza and Israel, and that the hope of peace, so longed for by people and so frustrated by failed leadership, may come soon.
Michael Berk is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest Jewish congregation in San Diego and the oldest in Southern California.