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.
Thursday, October 12, 2023
In This Moment: Too Soon for Punditry?
In This Moment
What is happening right now is very unsettling for all of us. The world has turned upside down. Time is now measured in measurements of B.S.T (Before Simchat Torah) and after. Invulnerable, confident Israel now turns to diaspora Jewry for economic, spiritual and especially political support. A weak israel is not something we would want to see, but a strong diaspora, able to take a central position in the unfolding drama of Jewish civilization, is something that is healthy for both diaspora and Israeli Jews. Diaspora Jews feel insecurity, but we can't decide from what - from Islamic terrorists? Christian nationalist fascists? Or progressives who refuse to remove the blinders and see Hamas for what it really is, toxic and deadly to Jews and to Palestinians alike.
And we don't have the luxury of picking our poison among all varieties of Jew hatred. Since those groups all hate one another, maybe we could step aside and let them slug it out. Are the Proud Boys really going to heed Hamas's call for a Friday intifada? Doubtful, But we can't let down our guard. Meanwhile, European capitals have expressed support for Israel at unprecedented levels this week, but the dangers there are rising as well. Ha'aretz reports that Germany's Central Council of Jews said it has increased security measures due to calls for violence against Jewish institutions that have been circulating since Wednesday. In Amsterdam, Jewish schools will close on Friday, Jewish children's organization Cheider told Reuters on Thursday. Two Jewish schools in London also announced they will close until Monday for the safety of children.
Since our world is filled with Hamas, right now, we need the moral clarity to fight it and rid the world of this scourge. In the meantime, we can be comforted by the countless stories of courage and kindness that have been circulating this week.
I've had more than enough reason to deliver an email to you each day this week, and I've gotten lots of encouragement from you to keep them coming. I'll continue to send emails regularly as events warrant.
But on the seventh day, we rest. Hopefully, this Shabbat, that will actually happen, and we at TBE be able to celebrate with Gavin Cooper as he becomes Bar Mitzvah. Mazal tov to Gavin and his family!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
PS. I am considering holding some meet-ups next week, as many of you have reached out to me with concerns. Of course you may continue to reach out individually, but it might be beneficial to exhange ideas and share concerns with a group. Let me know if you are interested. It would be either in person or on Zoom. I'd also like to do a Zoom meet-up for college students and 20-somethings, if there is interest. So let me know. And of course, don't hesitate to reach out to me individually at any time. All you need to do is click "reply."
Whether or not it is, the blame game has begun
A week is an eternity for journalists and others whose profession it is to analyze trends and interpret history. We read in this week's portion that the entire universe was created in a week; less, actually. It took the Israeli press less time to jump all over the government for actions and inactions that may have contributed to what happened last Shabbat. That's unusual in wartime. But it hasn't diminished the remarkable spirit of unity that has galvanized a grieving nation. Israel has never been this united. But part of that unity has been a rallying to condemn the leadership.
A poll done by one of Israel's leading statisticians, Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, and discussed in a tweet by noted columnist Ben Caspit, finds that among Israeli Jews, 94% believe the government is responsible for the intelligence failure, while 59% have little faith in the government leading the war and 56% believe Netanyahu should resign immediately after the war is done. Here is a Google (and therefore imperfect) translation of Caspit's tweet, WITH MY NOTES IN CAPS:
Camil Fuchs recently conducted a survey commissioned by a strategic consultant. The sample is larger than usual: 620, only in the Jewish sector.
92% of the public report that they are "Orthodox" following the events of last Shabbat. 1/3 of them are "very anxious." (INTERESTING THAT GOOGLE TRANSLATED THE WORD "HAREDIM" AS "ORTHODOX," WHERE THE CONTEXT HERE IS CLEARLY FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL MEANING OF THE WORD, WHICH IS "FEARFUL" OR LITERALLY, "TREMBLING. THE EXPRESSION DERIVES FROM THE FACT THAT ULTRA ORTHODOX SWAY WHEN THEY PRAY - AND ARE ALSO TREMBLING WITH THE FEAR OF GOD."
84% of the public believe that this is a *failure* of the state leadership.
79% of the voters for the coalition parties in the last elections see the event as a failure of the state's leadership (THOSE ARE BIBI'S SUPPORTERS. IMAGINING A POLL OF REPUBLICANS WHERE NEARLY 8 OUT OF TEN CONDEMN TRUMP'S LEADERSHIP)
67% of the public, including 56% of the voters of the coalition parties, see the "2023 default" as *bigger* than the "Yom Kippur War default" in 1973.4. (MACHDAL IS PROBABLY BETTER DEFINED AS "FAILURE," AND "OVERSIGHT" RATHER THAN "DEFAULT." THE POINT IS THAT THIS WAS A WORSE CLUSTER**** EVEN THAN THE YOM KIPPUR WAR)
94% of the public believes that the government is responsible for the situation that led to the collapse of the entire system of protecting the communities in the south. Following this, 75% of the public believes that the government has a "very big responsibility" "and a big responsibility"
56% of the public believes that Prime Minister Netanyahu should resign from his post once the fighting is over.
28% of coalition voters also believe that Netanyahu should resign at the end of the fighting.
52% of the public believes that Minister of Defense Galant should resign from his post when the fighting ends.
59% of the public do not trust at all and only somewhat trust the government to know how to manage the war. (88% of the voters of the opposition parties do not trust the government)
Trust is the key term here. No one trusts this leadership. That trust has been eroding for a long time, but especially in light of the judicial coup. Bibi's claims in his prime time soeech earlier this week that the reports of his having been warned by the Egyptians three days in advance of the attack are "fake news" rings hollow, given his track record for lying. He made a practice recently of lying in English to the American press, which has not served him well this week. It's turned Bibi into The Boy Who Cried Wolf Blitzer. No one believes him, including his own voters. His legacy is fried. Maybe in 50 years someone will do a movie like "Golda" that will restore his reputation. But I don't think Helen Mirren will agree to play his wife.
So is it too soon to embark on this kind of negativity? It doesn't really matter, because this is not the Israel of Golda's time, but the Israel of now. And people living in this Israel have proven themselves capable of multi tasking - coming together to fight Hamas, while keeping their leaders at arm's length. Having this new "War Cabinet" will help somewhat, along with an IDF and intelligence service that, although now proven fallible, has a good track record.
Meanwhile, the courage and ingenuity of the people cannot be doubted after what we have seen this week. And that is what will see Israel through.
So let the pundits punditze away!
Now, here are some words of wisdom from three noted journalists:
"We just got a text message from Jewish history. Jewish history says hello. Jewish history showed us this is how it looks like, those 12 hours (when the IDF did not show up to defend its citizens), this is how it looks like when Jews don’t have a state. We saw how it looks, it looks like a Kishinev. So here, Jewish history called us up and said, hello, this is a reminder."
A Cocktail of Emotions
We’re not only experiencing shock and grief, we’re also experiencing frustration. Frustration because when we needed the military, it wasn’t there. When we needed the intelligence to tell us it’s going to happen, it didn’t function because the entire military establishment and political establishment from the top, failed us. And we are so frustrated.
But I’m also feeling admiration, it’s another emotion. Because we admire the spirit of our people. The amount of stories of absolute bravery of men and women in Be’eri, in Kfar Azza, in Nir Am who fought to kill terrorists, to save lives, to save their families, to save other people’s families. These stories of Israeli heroism are appearing more and more, and we’re filled with admiration for the spirit of these amazing Israelis.
Another emotion that I’m experiencing, very powerful, is inspiration, inspired by Israeli solidarity. Amanda, do you know that 150% of Israelis showed up to duty? They called reservists and you ask how many reservists are going to show up? 70%? 80%? Mathematically, it’s impossible, I know: 150% of people showed up. People who are now in Thailand, people who are now in India, people who are now in London are doing everything they can to cut you know how Israelis don’t know how to stand in line. Well, we’re not standing in line. We’re doing everything we can to cut lines, to get on a plane, to come back, to fight for this country, for this nation. So we’re filled with inspiration of Israeli unity, of Israeli solidarity. We went to try to donate blood the other day, and they told us to go back home because way too many Israelis showed up to donate their blood. We’ll have to come back in a few more days.
We’re also experiencing rage. Rage like we’ve never experienced before. Rage directed at the monsters of Hamas. This rage is going to speak very, very loudly in the next few weeks and months to come.
Oh, and Amanda, actually, maybe to summarize what I am feeling, what every Israeli is feeling is a cocktail of emotions: Sadness, grief, shock, inspiration, rage, solidarity, admiration. And maybe above anything else in this cocktail of emotions, I feel pride. I’ve never in my life felt more proud to be an Israeli.
So this is me. This is us. We’re a cocktail of emotions. That’s what we are. That’s what we’re carrying with us. This is what we will be carrying with us while we get together to fight back and win....
Israel's Shocking Unity
....Just like we are horrified and surprised by the cruelty of Hamas slaughtering men, women and children in Be’eri, and in Nahal Oz, and in Kfar Azza and in Sderot. Just like we are shocked and surprised by the cruelty of Hamas, we are also shocked, taken by surprise by the solidarity and the unity of the Israeli people. Just a month ago, we were talking about civil war and Israelis not liking each other anymore and hating each other. And I think this is the reason why our enemies in Tehran miscalculated. They thought they could attack us because we’re divided and they miscalculated. They miscalculated because also we are shocked and surprised by the solidarity, by the unity. There’s not one Israeli that’s not waking up in the morning every minute of these days and asking one question: how can I help?
Love and Fear: A Zero Sum game
...We want two things. We want love and we want fear. We want love from the West. We want fear from the Middle East. But here’s the problem, Amanda. There is a zero-sum game between these emotions because here’s how it goes: Everything that we are going to do to restore the fear is going to erode the love. Everything we do that will guarantee that the Middle East is afraid of Israelis, of these crazy, unpredictable Israelis, everything we do in order to build that myth back again is going to make people in the West not like us, not love us.
The other way around, if we try to keep the West loving us and writing songs about us, we will not restore the fear of the Middle East from us. So it’s a zero-sum game. If people are asking questions about what they can do to help us, here’s what you can do: Break the zero-sum game.
Iran's Fateful Miscalculation
But they miscalculated. They miscalculated because I think they were looking at Israel the past eight months, and they saw two things. They saw America distancing itself from Israel, and they saw Israel collapsing from within. They thought: “Hey, if we attack them, they’re not united, and America’s not behind them.”
But as we saw last night —
As we see, President Biden, the Winston Churchill of this generation, made it very loud and clear they’ve miscalculated. America stands with Israel, and Israel is connected and united more than ever. We thought that they were weak. We miscalculated. They thought that we were alone. Now they’re the ones who miscalculated. The price they are going to pay for their miscalculation is a price that is going to be so loud and so clear that no one in the Middle East will ever want to pay that price.
We’ve been driven to near extinction in Europe many times, and the Holocaust was just the latest salvo. Most Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just 350 people because of a population bottleneck that occurred about a thousand years ago, and it wasn’t for happy reasons. And by the way, the reason we were in Christian Europe to begin with—where every country and kingdom would take turns expelling us—is because, in the first and second centuries A.D., the Romans slaughtered us and kicked us out of the place we were originally from, Judea, and then renamed it Palaestina. After the slaughter, the Romans brought 100,000 Jewish slaves from there to ancient Rome, where they were forced to build some of the monuments tourists flock to see today. And still, there was a small but continuous presence in what is now Israel-Palestine from then until now.
I say all this not because I don’t also value Palestinian life—I do—or because I don’t think this place is also Palestinians’ home—I do—but because so many people who are not Jewish do not understand the urgent feeling of scarcity that so many Jews feel about their community. After everything, and especially after the Holocaust killed most European Jews, there is not just a sense of fear that something like this can happen again—after all, it always has—but also that we’re always balancing on the precipice of extinction. So when 1,000 Jews are killed in a single day—the single deadliest day for Jews since the end of the Holocaust—it strikes at something very, very deep in me and, I’m sure, most Jews.
Jews Are Not Colonialists
Two years ago, during the last war between Hamas and Israel, I did a little survey on social media and asked people where Jews came from, originally. Most people said “Europe.” It was deeply telling and explained why, in so many narratives I’ve seen proliferate on social media, Jews are considered the white colonizers of Palestinians and people of color. The Jews, in this narrative, were like the British in Africa, India, and Pakistan: white foreigners who came from far away to subjugate brown people and steal their resources. It’s a nice, easy narrative that fits perfectly into the conversations about the evils of colonialism and systemic racism. And it’s why so many groups on the left have aligned themselves exclusively with the Palestinian cause and see Jews as white aggressors.
There’s one problem: it’s not quite true. It would be if the British were originally from India or Africa and returned, 2,000 years later, to claim it as theirs. In fact, most of these misguided narratives also leave out the role of British colonial rule and especially the U.N. in creating the state of Israel—as well as an Arab Palestinian state next to it. (Which Palestinians rejected, for some understandable reasons, after which neighboring Arab countries attacked the new Jewish state.) Israel, in other words, wasn’t a rogue state, but one created and recognized by the international community. It wouldn’t have existed without it.
These narratives also completely ignore the fact that not all Jews are white and European. In fact, Jews of color make up around half the Jewish population, and they include Black Jews, the Falasha or Ethiopian Jews. The Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews of North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Syria, are not white, and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them were thrown out of their homes and violently dispossessed by these Muslim countries after 1948 in response to the founding of Israel and the dispossession of Palestinians. Do they too have the right of return?
Erasing the Value of Jewish Life
My point here is not to relitigate history or to excuse the actions of the Israeli government, which has pursued an increasingly horrific and dehumanizing policy toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, especially under Bibi Netanyahu. (In fact, Bibi has always played with violence, provoking it and ratcheting it up in the occupied territories so that he can come down hard and show Israelis, See? Only I can protect you.) My point is these incomplete narratives—if I’m to put it diplomatically—erase the Jewish connection to the place. They also erase the value of Jewish life.
We see that kind of erasure, unfortunately, on both sides. Right-wing Israelis claim that Palestinians aren’t a real people and that they don’t have a right to the land. Left-wing Westerners, often with no ties to the region, say that Jews are white colonizers, oppressors who are getting what they deserve. Much of what is being said now on the left in response to this horrific attack is that this is what decolonization looks like, with many reluctant to criticize the Hamas attacks, saying that the blame for it lies solely with Israel, mocking the victims and even reveling in the violence. (To be fair, some, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, decried this as antisemitism.)
I don’t know what will happen or what can happen to solve this. Those who talk about a two-state solution are living in a world that hasn’t existed for a decade. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians seem to want one anymore. They each want a state of their own, a state without the other, and the ethno-nationalism that built Israel—born as it was out of slaughter and oppression—has fueled the ethno-nationalism of the Palestinians, born out of the exact same elements. Both sides have hardened to an exclusionary extreme that precludes compromise or coexistence, and the events of the last week will ensure that even the embers of those hopes are doused cold. Before Saturday, the plan seemed to have been to wait each other out—or, if they were Israelis, ignore the problem and their complicity in it. Now, it is to fight to the death.
At the funeral I attended this morning, the family made a point of noting—more than once—that they had been told that a member of the coalition would be attending. They told the many hundreds of us assembled that they’d told whoever contacted them that under no circumstances would a member of coalition be permitted to attend, and if they did, s/he would be chased out. “They divided this country, they destroyed this country, and now their actions led to these young people’s deaths,” one speaker said.
I’ve been to many, many Israeli funerals over the years. And I’ve never, ever heard politics in eulogies before.
It’s a new era. And that sentiment (pure rage at the government) is the sentiment of more than a few. Prepare for the political earthquake—though what it will look like, no one can possibly know.
Polls Show Majority of Gazans Were Against Breaking Ceasefire; Hamas and Hezbollah Unpopular Among Key Arab Publics - According to the latest Washington Institute polling, conducted in July 2023, Hamas’s decision to break the ceasefire was not a popular move. While the majority of Gazans (65%) did think it likely that there would be “a large military conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza” this year, a similar percentage (62%) supported Hamas maintaining a ceasefire with Israel. Moreover, half (50%) agreed with the following proposal: “Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction, and instead accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.” Moreover, across the region, Hamas has lost popularity over time among many Arab publics. This decline in popularity may have been one of the motivating factors behind the group’s decision to attack.
In a related story:From Ha'aretz: Salah al-Aruri, Deputy Head of Hamas' Political Bureau, stated in an interview with Al-Jazeera that Hamas' surprise attack on Israel was aimed solely at soldiers and military installations. Al-Aruri claimed that "accusations against Israel and the West that we commit crimes are lies,” despite extensive documentation of Hamas’ atrocities, much of which was posted on social media by the terror organization itself.
Really? What's interesting here is that Hamas must be getting heat even from its supporters. Someone is telling them they went too far. It's hard to imagine the Iranians or Russians caring about PR, but Qatar? Or maybe their own people (see the poll story above),
A number of TBE students have adopted the Israel Guide Dog Center as their mitzvah project. Here's some sad news that I just received from them
And let's conclude this ermail and head into Shabbat with a story of pure heroism. Read this:A 25-year-old Israeli woman helped save her entire kibbutz by arming a neighborhood watch group to fight off Hamas militants, her neighbors and dad say- According to local reports, Inbal Liberman, 25, a security coordinator in the southern Israel kibbutz of Nir Am near the Gaza border, quickly sprang into action when she heard sirens go off early Saturday as the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched deadly, surprise attacks on the Jewish state. As the sirens echoed, Liberman also heard strange, unusual noises, prompting her to take the lead on arming a small team of residents with weapons."The electricity cut out because of the bombs [from Gaza], and she was instructed not to restore the power so that no one could open the gates [to the kibbutz]," Liberman's father, Ofer Liberman, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz of his daughter. The father added, "The neighborhood watch group was already assembled and she made the decision to give them weapons and station them." Liberman and 11 other residents of the neighborhood watch group then stood guard and waited before they were wrapped up in an hours-long battle that resulted in the killing of two Hamas fighters and the wounding of another, according to Haaretz. Most residents of the kibbutz overheard the fighting unfolding from their shelters and safe rooms. "It was a long battle," Ofer Liberman said, noting that at one point he made his daughter an omelet sandwich during the ordeal, Haaretz said. The battle subsided when soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces ultimately ambushed the Hamas militants, according to the news outlet.