Alexandra Lazar, a recent university graduate, contributed this comment on my earlier blog entry, “Pulling the Wolf’s Tail.” I found it a particularly wise and moving expression of the doubts raised by many about Israel’s action in Gaza, and I have tried to answer it below.
“First, Mel, thank you for your beautifully written piece, and for opening a forum for the thoughtful and lively discussion that has followed. I’ve struggled quite a bit over the past few days with how to think about the events in Gaza, trying to reconcile a sense of human rights granted to me almost exclusively by my Jewish faith with what looks, at times, like unjustifiable brutality in the name of protecting Israel. While you are absolutely right, Israel is not at fault for the deaths of the five Balousha daughters, the pointing of fingers, though perhaps unavoidable, doesn’t at all address the fact that they are gone, that their parents are mourning and that their siblings, those who are left, will live the remainder of their lives missing half a family. No, Israel is not to blame, but someone has to speak for these five girls. If not find one, then the world must at least look for an answer for their deaths, and for the thousands of other innocents on both sides of the Gaza fence who have lost their safety or their lives.
“It is here that I feel particularly paralyzed, particularly without solutions, and particularly unsatisfied by the placing of blame on one party or another. My Jewish heritage taught me that we are our brother’s keepers, that each of us has a responsibility to be a bearer of light in whatever small way we can. While I know Israel can’t lie down and ignore attack, I find it difficult to reconcile this most important part of my Judaism with the five coffins, girls younger than me, that the Balousha family will now be putting in the ground. That Hamas picked a fight with the big-kid on the school yard, that they pulled the tail of a wolf they couldn’t kill, is no doubt true, but it should not satisfy us, as Jews or as human beings, as an answer to the deaths of five innocent people in a cycle of brutality where blame is so much easier found than hope.
“Again, I have the deepest respect, Mel, for what you wrote in your blog-post, and for the many responses that mourned the loss of the Balousha family while still encouraging Israel to move forward in its offensive. You may very well be right, but the question that troubles me more than blame is what can be done now, what actions must I take as a young person and as a Jew to prevent the ending of lives and the filling of coffins in the months and years ahead.”
Posted Saturday, January 10, 2009, 11:11 AM
Of the many comments expressing grief or outrage over the civilian losses in Gaza, yours has haunted me most. Aside from its being very well written and free of anger, you appeal to Jewish tradition and you focus on the future.
As you say, someone must speak for the five Balousha girls, “the world must at least look for an answer for their deaths, and for the thousands of other innocents on both sides of the Gaza fence who have lost their safety or their lives.” As others accuse, you wisely write, “the question that troubles me more than blame is what can be done now, what actions I must take as a young person and as a Jew to prevent the ending of lives and the filling of coffins in the months and years ahead.”
Although I am not young, I feel that obligation too, along with one to you and others in your generation who care about Jewish tradition and destiny, but also care deeply about others. Although some might object that you and I wrote on Saturdays, I find it fitting to have this important colloquy on the day set aside for reflection as well as rest.
I will try to answer within the Jewish tradition that you, as a daughter of Israel, appeal to. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to the slain daughters of the Balousha family, the Abu al-Aish family, and many others than for us to try and light the way forward.
When you say your Jewish heritage taught you “that we are our brother’s keepers,” that each should be “a bearer of light,” you are profoundly right. We are taught tikkun olam—repairing, perfecting, completing the world. God, in this tradition, deliberately left the world unfinished so we could contribute to creation.
Your idea that we are our brothers’ keepers harks back to the denial of it by the man who committed the first murder. His question reveals his emptiness; to extend your metaphor, he is a black hole sucking light out of the world.
During the war I had the privilege of talking for an hour with the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. He had recently addressed the European Parliament, where he drew on the same story:
“Literally,” Rabbi Sacks pointed out, “the Hebrew says as follows: 'And Cain said to Abel, and it came to pass when they were out in the field that Cain rose up against Abel and killed him.'” He explained, “It cannot be translated because it says ‘and Cain said’, but it does not say what he said…The syntax is fractured.” Why? Because the conversation broke down. And Cain said to Abel…nothing! And then he killed him.
Rabbi Sacks was asked to speak to the assembled nations of Europe because he has spent his life advocating “the dignity of difference”—the need for all of us to recognize and respect each other’s paths to meaning and to God. This has been the bright light that he has brought to the world.
You ask with an open heart what actions you must take to prevent the filling of coffins in the months and years ahead. I believe the answer is, resume the dialog. I don’t mean just a dialog among important people with high official positions, although that will be a good thing. I mean dialog at all levels between every kind of Palestinian and every kind of Israeli, every Muslim and every Jew.
And I don’t mean just words. Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, has a plan to revitalize the economy of the West Bank in cooperation with Jordan and the Palestinians, using scores of millions of dollars contributed by Germany, Japan, and other nations. This is the dialog of livelihood and sustenance that lead to a better life, and it must be pursued with all possible speed.
As for Gaza, humanitarian aid must pour in to heal the pain and give people reason to believe in a future free of terror and reprisals for terror. This is the dialog of hope and dreams, and it must replace the mirroring soliloquys of despair that descend into the nightmare of unending reciprocal violence.
I have often said that Israel must be bold in war, but also bold in peace. I have to tell you that our tradition includes both. Psalm 83 cries out, “O God, be not still. See how your enemies are astir…With cunning they conspire against your people…’Come,’ they say, ‘let us destroy them as a nation, that the name of Israel be remembered no more.’" The psalm begs God to “pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm…may they perish in disgrace.” With songs like this, ancient Israel went to war.
But Isaiah later tells us, "If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
As I write, at dusk, the light is going out of the world, but only for a while. Some “simpler” peoples believe they must take action to bring back the light of day or spring. I believe we do have to act to bring it back after the darkness of war.
I don’t know you well, Alexandra, but I know you will be “a bearer of light” long after I am gone. For the sake of those Palestinian girls who did not live to be your age, and also, for the Israeli girls who have lived in fear of rockets for years, I beg you not to lose hope, and to keep your light burning.
This is indeed my first time commenting on your blog, but I have found it insightful and thoughtfully written in the past. As a current junior and history major at Emory, I am enrolled in a plethora of classes with a focus on Judaism. Unfortunately, I find myself in a bit of a quandary concerning how I am to act within these classes when I find myself confronted by a slew of Jewish students, who I would normally assume to be my closest allies, calling for further violence and unilateral action against the embattled Palestinians in Gaza. Indeed, it would appear that for many of these students, further bloodshed is the optimal answer for the occasional bottle rocket being launched out of Gaza. While I fully respect Israel’s right to defend itself, and furthermore can vouch that my family has given more to the state than most others, I firmly believe that we, as American Jews, are immensely out of touch with the situation in the Middle East. It is my sad duty to now question: "have we, as American Jews, become the militants and the terrorists in this bloody and utterly wasteful conflict?"
What a beautiful and inspiring exchange! Thanks so much for sharing
This isn’t directly related to the post, but I have to ask if you’ve seen Jimmy Carter’s new book. I just can’t bring myself to read it, as openminded as I think I am.
Dear Friends –
I, too, am moved by your thoughtful exchange. It is one of the least reactive considerations I have seen.
When I spoke about the situation in Gaza at my shul, I tried to create an analogy on a personal level, rather than on a geo-political one. My analogy was to a person whose home is invaded by a burglar at night. It was my claim, as it is the claim of Jewish law and tradition, that such a person has a right, indeed an obligation to defend their life. Even if this means the taking of the invader’s life. Is the blood of the burglar more red than his or her own?
This right/obligation does not, of course, erase the fact that the one who pulls the trigger must bear the "mark of Cain". But we must ask if such actions can be avoided at all.
For me the question is not one of blame, but one of responsability. This is not simply a question of semantics. Blame comes after the fact, responsibility must be excercised before the fact. From my perspective it is clear that Israel will carry the implications of the horrible and cruel violence we have affected. However, I believe that Israel can not legitimately bare the blame, and that Hamas bears the responsiblity.
I asked at the end of my remarks if anyone thought that it would be the same if the positions were switched. Much has been made of the "disproportionate" response of the Israelis against the Palestinians. I find this to be among the most disturbing and unethical considerations. If Hamas had jet fighters, and Israel had only rockets and mortars . . . . The results are unthinkable for the Israelis.
To bring it back to the personal level, after the break in, and the deadly confrontation, the burglar lies dead, and the homeowner and his family are "disproportionately" secure. It is the burglar who must bear the responsibility. The homeowner, now burdened forever by the "mark of cain", might never sleep well again.
Dear Rabbi Norry,
I am honored that you have taken the time to comment so thoughtfully on my exchange with Alexandra. Your analogy to a burglarized home is new to me and, I think, compelling.
Burglars often have ways of justifying what they do, and these can be convincing. Society is unfair, and it is difficult to be poor and see so much wealth that is not shared. Nevertheless no culture, except briefly during revolutions, has ever countenanced the poor trespassing onto the property of those better off and taking what they have.
Indeed, it is widely recognized that an intruder is an immediate threat and that a homeowner is justified in taking any action, up to and including killing, to defend his family and his property. If my family were threatened, no response would seem disproportionate to me, and no court would punish me for answering that threat with all the means at my disposal.
Israel did pursue the intruders into their own lairs, but daily barrages of rockets are a particular kind of intrusion, and the actions taken to stop it could not be confined to Israel itself. The proven positioning of rocket launchers on school grounds, the routine storing of large weapons caches in mosques, the craven habit of military units hiding in crowded homes and buildings—all this made it inevitable that many, many innocent people would be killed. Their blood is on the hands of Hamas.
Yet, as you eloquently say, the mark of Cain will still stain Israel and the Jewish people. Thus we must do all in our power to make such actions less likely in the future. Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and even Menachem Begin showed that Israel can be as bold in peace as it is in war. Perhaps now is the time for such boldness.
I have perused Carter’s new book but am not inclined to read it. I and others much more distinguished (Alan Dershowitz, Deborah Lipstadt, Tom Teepen, etc.) , wrote extensively in 2006-2008 to combat Carter’s distortions, lies, errors, and slanders. I think we were effective, and I don’t see him making nearly as much of an impact with this book. I would like to see it drop like a stone with hardly a ripple left behind, and I think this can happen because people are tired of his nonsense, and even his own party increasingly considers him an embarrassment and a liability. Carter is increasingly desperate for attention at this point in his life, and nothing hurts him more than the lack of it. I will rise to fight him again if necessary, but at the moment I am inclined to leave it alone. My published writings on Carter are freely available here: http://www.jewsandothers.com/Jews_and_Others/Editorials/Editorials.html