American Jewish Leaders Get Gaza Wrong

The former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, urges “progressive Jews” to support Israel’s “get tough” policy (a.k.a. war that is killing civilians) in Gaza:

The government of Israel has launched a military operation in Gaza. It is an operation that is justified, and in fact overdue. American Jews across the political spectrum should be offering their support.

I am worried at this moment about Jews in the progressive camp. This segment of American Jewry has struggled in the past with Gaza, dividing over whether to back Operation Cast Lead in 2008. Reservations about Israel’s use of force in Gaza have continued. 

In 2009, Yoffie called American Jewish critics of Cast Lead “morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve.”

Yoffie’s words supporting what the Israeli military has named Operation Pillar of Cloud horrify me.

The current president of the URJ, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, treated what the New York Times calls a “ferocious assault” with less bellicosity, but still without more than a pro forma empathy for Palestinians (emphasis mine):

We have long made clear our distress at the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza targeting Israelis, and just a few weeks ago called on the international community to pressure Hamas to bring an end to the attacks. Instead, the rocket fire from Gaza has increased, necessitating Israeli military action. We are, as ever, greatly saddened by the loss of innocent lives—Israeli or Palestinian—and hope that the military operation can be completed with speed and in a way that minimizes the loss of life. We in the Reform Movement continue to pray and advocate for the safety of Israelis who have for too long been the targets of violent and unremitting rocket attacks.

Is the Reform Movement not praying and advocating for the safety of Palestinians?

Obviously Hamas’ rocket launches into Israel are unacceptable. But so is the occupation, which Yoffie conveniently fails to mention in his homage to war. What’s more, as Haaretz reports this morning, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin was close to negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas. The Israeli government knew it, but assassinated its leader Ahmed Jabari anyway:

Baskin told Haaretz on Thursday that senior officials in Israel knew about his contacts with Hamas and Egyptian intelligence aimed at formulating the permanent truce, but nevertheless approved the assassination.

“I think that they have made a strategic mistake,” Baskin said, an error “which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides.”

Baskin is clear-eyed about Jabari, noting he was “not an angel and not a righteous man of peace,” but that “his assassination also killed the possibility of achieving a truce.” Dimi Reider notes at +972 that by assassinating Jabari, “Barak and Netanyahu knocked one of the central pillars of the pragmatist camp within Hamas, the camp that sustained the detente with Israel and made efforts to bolster Hamas’ political credentials at the expense of its paramilitary wing.”

Israel has an election coming up, which plays no small role here. Depressingly, Reider adds, “Israel’s opposition has never seemed as haggard as it does tonight.”

Israeli writer Emily Hauser, who has been writing about the region for decades, on Twitter today pointed to an article she co-wrote—in 1994—in which the Israeli president pledged to “tear them [Hamas] apart, to chop them to pieces.” See how that has worked out?

Yoffie, though, seems to revel in Israel’s aggression, writing that “Israel came into being so that Jewish children would never again have to huddle together in fear, terrorized by enemies of the Jewish people.” Do Gaza’s children huddle in fear, in Yoffie’s view? Are they hungry, without jobs, without economic possibilities, without a future, and fearful of Israel’s military might?

Three Israeli civilians were reportedly killed today in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi. A rocket from Gaza has reportedly fallen (inflicting no injuries) near Tel Aviv. I’ll state the obvious: this is unacceptable, and must stop, as the Israeli human rights group and occupation opponent B’Tselem stated today. And so must the Israeli shelling of civilians in Gaza (the death toll there is now at 13). It’s not a war game, or an occasion for the cold, sophomoric tweet of the IDF spokesperson (or the tweet back by the Al Qassam Brigades). 

Yousef Munayyer provides some history of the numbers from Gaza at Open Zion:

For example, in 2011, the projectiles fired by the Israeli military into Gaza have been responsible for the death of 108 Palestinians, of which 15 where women or children, and the injury of 468 Palestinians, of which 143 where women or children. The methods by which these causalities were inflicted by Israeli projectiles breaks down as follows: 57 percent, or 310, were caused by Israeli aircraft missile fire; 28 percent, or 150, where from Israeli live ammunition; 11 percent, or 59, were from Israeli tank shells; while another 3 percent, or 18, were from Israeli mortar fire.

Through September 2012, Israeli weaponry caused 55 Palestinian deaths and 257 injuries. Among these 312 casualties, 61, or roughly 20 percent, were children and 28 were female. 209 of these casualties came as a result of Israeli Air Force missiles, 69 from live ammunition fire, and 18 from tank shells. It is important to note that these figures do not represent a totality of Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza but rather only Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza which cause casualties. The total number of Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza is bound to be significantly larger.

In a post on the recent J Street poll on American Jewish opinion, Peter Beinart notes that while young Jews are still experiencing an “attachment” to Israel, “that connection is going hand in hand with substantial alienation from this Israeli government. And that alienation exists even though Birthright offers young American Jews a Disney-fied Israel experience that evades the harsh realities of Palestinian life in the West Bank.” What does the attachment mean, exactly, even for kids who haven’t gone on Birthright? Are they attached to Israel the idea, or Israel the reality, occupation and all?

The Reform Movement is trying very hard to attract and retain young people in its synagogues, but its teachings on Jewish values don’t mesh with its support for war. Not only do young people notice, but their parents do, too.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email