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.
Monday, November 13, 2023
In This Moment: Dear John (Oliver) and 30 Church Leaders
Mark your place in history. Send me photos, short essays or anecdotes from the march. Email your fresh impressions to firstname.lastname@example.org,on your way home if possible! They'll appear in this newsletter that same night! (Waiting for the next day is fine too). TEENS' AND COLLEGE STUDENTS' ARTICLES WILL GET PRIORITY PLACEMENT.
(JTA) – The governor of Ohio ordered extra law enforcement patrols around Ohio State University campus last week after a 24-hour period in which two Jewish students were reported assaulted and student activists attempted to steal Israeli flags from the campus Hillel.
We have a lot in common. I'm for Middle East Peace too. And there is much that we can agree upon based on your letter and last night's edition of "Last Week Tonight (click for transcript)," so much more to unite us than to divide. So let me list a few points of agreement.
John, as the Guardian notes, you chose to zero in on one of the biggest misconceptions bandied about over the last month, “the tendency to collapse leaders and citizens when discussing this. To assume that Netanyahu speaks for all Israelis, or that Hamas speaks for all Palestinians, because that is emphatically not the case.”
I count not agree more. I'd guess that most Israelis would agree too, especially now, even though a veneer of wartime unity would require any dissent to be held at bay until the fighting is over. As for Gazans, you noted a poll taken earlier this year indicating that 73 percent would prefer a peaceful settlement with Israel and, as you put it, "The truth is, many Gazans will say that they don’t want Hamas in charge,”
Church leaders - and it should be noted up front that many church groups are being much more supportive than you of Israel right now - in your open letter to President Biden, you, like John Oliver, condemn Hamas's "brutal" actions on October 7 that, as you stated, "caused the loss of life of nearly 1,400 Israelis and citizens of other nations, and we call for the immediate release of all civilians held hostage." Just to correct the record, Israel's estimate of the number murdered on that day is now about 1,200. But the key is your unequivocal condemnation.
I am grateful for no attempt to put Oct. 7 into "context," though I believe you still give the enormity of Hamas's barbarity short shrift in this letter. There is a clear bias dressed up as evenhandedness but, well it's not. Still, at least you put Oct. 7 right up top where it belongs. I can't expect so many years of portraying Israel as the oppressor can be wiped away with just one unprecedented pogrom - it might take a few more - but I do sense that you tried to empathize. So, thanks.
We all agree that the suffering on the ground in Gaza is heartbreaking, though the official estimates of casualties may not be reliable. But as you stated, John, “It should be impossible to see those kids and not feel shattered.” I was especially moved by the representative of Doctors Without Borders who said on your show:
"It is the worst humanitarian catastrophe I have experienced in my lifetime. You know, there’s an acronym in the Gaza Strip right now. You know, I’m a pediatric intensive care doctor, I see a lot of suffering in my career. There is an acronym that is unique to the Gaza Strip, and it’s called WCNSF, Wounded child, no surviving family. Children — and it is used not infrequently in the last three weeks. Wounded child, no surviving family should not exist as an acronym."
This is an unbearable predicament that, in my mind, Hamas has wrought upon its own people. But assigning blame here is secondary to accepting the reality of the suffering. I need to be better at that with regard to innocent Gazans, and you helped me. Of course I'm all for as much humanitarian assistance as possible.
I don't agree that this is collective punishment by Israel. We can argue about intent til the cows come home, but, church leaders, you should be very careful in associating Jews with collective punishment. You might recall that we've been down that path before. But there is no disputing the intent of Hamas on Oct. 7, which was and remains to kill as many innocent Israelis as possible - not just Jews, but especially Jews.
John, I agree when you state that "dehumanizing people leads to violence... violence leads to even more brutality and destruction, and we know that crucially, breaking that cycle is unfortunately going to require leadership significantly different than the ones currently in place.”
Church leaders, I'm pleased that when you try to address "root causes" you, like John, are not tying those to the acts of Oct. 7, for which no history, no context, and no rationalization can apply. You state merely "that the root causes of suffering must be addressed so that, when this current crisis is over, we do not witness a return to an unsustainable status quo. It is not enough to stop the current fighting.
My question for all of you is this: How can this cycle possibly be broken with Hamas still in place as the governing authority of Gaza? How can the suffering be alleviated, even if there is a ceasefire, with Hamas still capable of destruction? One might say that the current Israeli government also needs to exit the scene (and I tend to agree with John's assessment of the damage they've caused), but they are on a whole different level of culpability for what ignited this conflagration on Oct. 7. And Israel is still a democracy.
John - I've felt you've treated Israel unfairly in the past and found this week's telecast a real attempt to reach out and understand the pain Israelis feel right now. But when you address the idea of a ceasefire, you bumble almost as much as Prime Minister Trudeau.
This for me was the key passage:
Joe Biden has said there’s no possibility of a ceasefire. Which is a hell of a thing to hear from perhaps the only world leader whose pressure could actually make one possible. And listen, there are those, like noted mid-east peace expert Harvey Levin (the TMZ guy), who will say, not wrongly, that there are real dangers to a ceasefire — that Hamas might regroup once the bombing stops. Although, that’s arguably going to be a danger whenever it stops. So why not stop right now? Continuing down this path only creates more extremists, which is the last thing that anyone needs. And I don’t want to say anything that denies the pain of those in Israel, who’ve lost loved ones to a truly barbarous act, or who are waiting anxiously for the return of hostages.
You answered your own question. Why no ceasefire right now? Precisely because THAT is the path that will create more extremists and prolong this violence. Hamas WILL regroup, as it has so many times before, and they will live to kill again - and that will lead to more Palestinian deaths, and more extremists. "Hamas's regrouping is going to be a danger whenever it stops" you said. Absolutely true. UNLESS Hamas is no longer able to regroup. Until that happens, there can't be true peace. And it has to happen.
It's a sad world where our future hopes are based on another's destruction, but that right now is the only hope. If Hamas survives to terrorize again, how does this end in a better, more peaceful world? Fool me for a decade and a half, shame on me. Even Bibi, the supplier of those cash-filled briefcases to Hamas, now gets that.
Church leaders, you conclude your letter with this:
Peace with justice is the only lasting solution that will protect the long-term security and sustainability of the State of Israel and the self-determination and independence of Palestinians. The United States must demonstrate its commitment to the protection of all human life, advocating for a just and durable resolution to this crisis in which all Israelis and Palestinians might realize a vision of a just peace, illuminating human dignity, advancing security and self-determination for all.
I agree completely. But unless you give me a way to get from here to there, this is just blather. I give those kinds of sermons all the time. A ceasefire without hostages on the way in and Hamas on the way out is not going to get us to "peace with justice."
And John, (loved you as Zazu, btw) you conclude your argument with this:
We know that violence leads to even more brutality and destruction. And we know that, crucially, breaking that cycle is unfortunately going to require leadership significantly different than the ones currently in place.
One again, I couldn't agree with you more. Except that while violence often does lead to more brutality, there are exceptions. When a just war is fought with (ideally) just means, with the goal of eliminating a group of genocidal terrorists who have forfeited their right to exercise the power of life and death over others, that's the one form of violence that can break this hopeless cycle.
Sorry church leaders. There will be no pipe dream-fulfilling Kumbaya moment here. But we may find out soon, as Hamas loses its grip on its captive population, just how much the Palestinians of Gaza have been wanting to sing songs of freedom, liberated at long last from the Curse of Hamas.
Marc Schulman's Tel Aviv Diary Today there was only one rocket barrage launched at the center of the country. Five rockets were fired; all were intercepted. There were also a few rockets fired at Israeli settlements on the Gaza border area. It's clear that Hamas is having a very difficult time firing the rockets they have left. It was reported that more rockets were fired at Israel from the North than from Gaza....We are probably a few days away from the IDF announcing it has completely captured the city of Gaza. The most interesting development of the last two days is that Hamas terrorists are beginning to surrender, instead of choosing to fight to the death. The fact that almost all the civilians in Gaza have ignored Hamas and headed South, combined with Hamas’s inability to impede the advance of Israeli armored forces in any way, has convinced many in Hamas that the situation for them is hopeless....The IDF took control of Gaza’s Rantasi Hospital and discovered a large quantity of armaments and a Hamas control center. The army worked with hospital administration to evacuate all the patients. The IDF found a Hamas tunnel with an entrance by the hospital; this tunnel is still being explored by robots
Where Are We Now? (Mosaic - Leon Kass, winner of Herzl award, in his acceptance speech - Watch the speech here.) So, where are we? As fellow Jews, in our hearts we are horrified, grieving, enraged, energized, determined. But where are we in our thinking and in our aspirations?...We should recognize an even more fundamental feature of the Jewish way of life, one that stands among the chief reasons why we are hated. We are summoned to bear witness against idolatry—that universal temptation to fill the God-shaped hole in the human heart with things that can never satisfy and that always lead astray. Long ago, idolatry was the worship of the sun, the moon, and the earth—and the golden calf. Always and everywhere, still today, it can be the devotion to wealth, power, fame, and domination. In modern times, it has come in the diabolical form of ideology: National Socialism, Communism, Maoism, and radical Islam, deadly false gods to which millions of innocent lives have been sacrificed. And, dare I say, idolatry also includes the worship of the market, of art and culture, and of human choice and human fiat as the sole source of all value. Against all these false gods, the Jewish people bear witness to the presence of a higher power and source of goodness, the devotion to which enables human beings to live better than we otherwise could and to realize the promise implied in our being the creature made in God’s image.