Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Tuesday, October 31, 2023
In This Moment: Can there be moral clarity when a refugee camp is struck?
On what planet are all these rocket attacks below directed at civilians a moral choice? Asking for a friend (Maps taken from The Economist).
Please share my Substack essay on moral clarity, above. This an issue that only became more complicated today, with the targeting of Hamas leadership in a crowded refugee camp. So can there be moral clarity when a refugee camp is struck?
Here's how I approach today's tragic events:
It is tragic that innocent lives have been lost
It is infuriating that innocent lives were lost.
I will grieve those losses - as I believe all Jews should grieve the loss of innocent life wherever that occurs. Each life is a universe. Each person was created in the image of God.
I want Israel to take all precautions possible to preserve innocent life. In warning the population of the area repeatedly to leave northern Gaza, Israel has gone part way to doing that. Going further would mean engaging western allies to facilitate this evacuation to a safe zone in southern Gaza. I think Israel should do that and the US and UN should help. That should already be happening, and I think it is. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
The use of innocent civilians - and hostages - as human shields is as despicable a war crime as there is. The world should never accept this, even though it has become standard practice among terror groups. Hamas is responsible for every death that results from this crime.
And that's why when protesters hold up photos of Palestinian children, we should say, "WE AGREE! THIS IS HORRIBLE! IF ONLY THEY WEREN'T BEING LED TO THE SLAUGHTER BY THEIR CAPTORS!"
As for the doctrine of proportionality, I quote from Leslie Wexner's article on the topic: So when asking about the overall proportionality of Israel’s response (as opposed to the proportionality of discrete uses of force such as bombing an apartment building), one should not rely on an apples-to-apples comparison of civilian casualties on each side, but rather whether Israel’s response is using necessary or excessive force to eliminate the danger that Hamas has and continues to present. So the legal question (as opposed to a political or moral one) is whether the amount of force used exceeds the need to eliminate the ongoing threat of Hamas.
As I wrote in my most recent posting:
Moral clarity regarding Oct. 7 does not require blinders on other issues - including a genuine compassion for the plight of innocent Palestinians. A Jew should never wear moral blinders, especially at times of war. The Torah is clear about that. We can defend Israel and stand up against Islamophobia and push for better red flag laws for guns; we can shed tears at Joe Biden’s moral courage and fight campus antisemitism on the left - AND chew gum, all at the same time.
So let me say this clearly, keeping in mind that Israel lost soldiers today.
WE SHOULD ALL BE GRIEVING TONIGHT, FOR THE LOSSES ON BOTH SIDES.
All that said, Israel has a moral obligation to win this war decisively and to exact the highest possible price on Hamas. While many innocents will die in this process, including Israeli soldiers, the blood of those killed on October 7, who were given no warning to leave town, who were tortured and their bodies mutilated, we know that over the long haul, only a decisive defeat of this enemy will save a much larger number of innocent people from dying later on - years from now, decades from now.
But Israel must achieve this decisive victory with a purity of arms, something in which the IDF has long prided itself; but now there has to be even more discipline, a greater focus. If they slip, and we know that will happen, it can't be for lack of trying. And when that happens, there needs to be transparency and accountability, as there has always been in the past. Israel's most unfortunate mistakes always led to serious accountability - Sabra and Shatila in '82 and the '73 Yom Kippur War being the most vivid examples. \
And for all its failings, the IDF must keep trying to do it right.
That approach allows us to maintain moral clarity - and it will allow Israel to stand on the right side of history.
These are dark times, and today's death toll was something we should never accept, never ignore and never rationalize. We must remind ourselves of the sanctity of all life and the holiness of this cause.
We the Jewish people chose to have a Jewish state, knowing that the odds of her survival were not great from the start. We knew it would involve great sacrifice - just as fasting involves sacrifice. But the sacrifice is pointless without a higher, universal goall, which in the case of Israel, was to create a light unto the nations, along with a safe haven for the lost, persecuted and homeless. Israel was born to be on the right side of history.
What is the right side of history? We invented it when we crossed the Red Sea, marched through the Wilderness and parked at a rest stop at Mount Sinai. The right side of history loves the stranger. The right side of history is eight lanes apart from playing the victim and has no exit marked “fear.” It knows that it will have to fight some times and that their hands won't be immaculate, but despite that, it is the side that does not allow discrimination and hatred to rule. I want the Jewish people to be what we’ve always been, the vanguards of justice and compassion
After this war, the right side of history is where we need to be.
Nelson Mandela wrote:
Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death,
Let's keep our eyes on that prize. If we can strengthen Israel as a bastion of democracy and stability in the Middle East, she will be a light unto her neighbors. And if we can help to instill her with the Jewish values of kindness and compassion that have sustained our people for thousands of years, then she will be a light unto the world.
And that can only happen if Israel wins this war decisively. Even after today - especially after today - there is no more moral choice than victory.
...And on Campus
Tweet du Jour
I've been hearing from so many congregants about what has been happening at Cornell, Columbia, GW, and other campuses and schools, even here in Stamford. It is a scary time, very upsetting. One of our college parents wrote to the head of their child's school and offered to share with me the letter, while maintaining the anonymity of the student. It is below. I'd like to thank the person who shared this with me. I'll continue to use this space as a sounding board so we can share ideas and so that we - and our children - will never feel alone. And as I've stated several times, I stand ready to speak with any of our students who may want some advice or solace, whether individually or as part of a group. For those who are dealing with this on campus, also feel free to send my things you've written, describing what's happening and how you and others are dealing with it. Now is not the time to hide our mezuzahs - but we need strategies to overcome the fear, and eliminate the very real dangers.
My name is ____. My son/daughter ___ attends ___. In addition to our heartbreak at the horrific attacks of October 7, we have watched with increasing alarm and fury at the blatant anti-Semitism that has spread across campus and at the inability of the administration of ___ to not only take an unequivocal stand against anti-Semitism but to utterly fail to foster an environment where students feel completely safe. The broader ____ community would not hesitate to condemn racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia (and that’s as it should be). But hate speech and activity directed at Jews? Not so much.
Though the statements coming from the ___ administration did condemn the atrocities, it still reeked of both-sides-ism. Why is it so difficult to simply call out anti-Semitism without a qualifier? To be clear, there is no Jewish equivalent to chants like “intifada” and “from the river to the sea”. Jewish community groups, on campus and beyond, and rabbis are not calling for the removal or expulsion of Palestinians from their lands. And in fact, we as Jews are by and large cognizant of and sympathetic to Palestinian suffering.
Let me be even more clear: slogans like “intifada” and “from the river to the sea” are menacing, are calls to violence, and fall under the umbrella of hate speech. Further, making a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism is a shibboleth…it shows a complete lack of understanding of the Zionist movement, and is essentially a dog whistle that gives cover to individuals who want to voice their anti-Jewish animus. If campus administration cannot grasp any of this, then there indeed is a problem, and more to the point, one cannot be confident that Jewish students can learn in safety and free from threat. I don’t doubt that Islamophobia exists. But to draw an equivalency is deeply disingenuous. And when a group of faculty members can craft a letter that leaves no room to see the full contours of Jewish suffering, and that perversely characterizes October 7 as a “military action” then it is clear that the problem runs deep.
Let me also say this: if you have students who are shouting “from the river to the sea” and “intifada”, and who are posting hateful rhetoric on social media or worse (eg, ripping up posters of kidnapped children), they should not be free from consequences. In my line of work, if anyone was found to be engaging in the kinds of speech and social media posts for which academia these days is all too ready to make excuses, they would be fired on the spot. I am confident of that. And it bears repeating: “from the river to the sea” and “intifada” are indeed calls for violence against Jews. To the extent that someone is engaged in hateful or threatening speech against Arabs and Muslims, I have no doubt that in my line of work, the consequences would be the same.
My son/daughter is resilient, and I’m immensely proud of her/him. He/she has handled herself with more poise and grace than some of the supposed adults in the room. To have worked exceedingly hard so my child could have these wonderful opportunities, only for him/her to be thrust into a maelstrom like this, is devastating. I cannot speak for other kids who are trafficking in hate. They are lost. But they are not to be coddled. For the significant majority of students who are decent and want simply to learn, ____ needs to do right by them.
I hope my message does not fall on deaf ears. More to the point, I welcome a dialogue with the administration. I realize all too well that many people are dug into their views. That’s fine. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. At a minimum, however, I as a parent want my child to feel safe and free from poisonous, hateful speech and activity. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me to discuss further. Again, I welcome a respectful dialogue.