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.
Sunday, November 5, 2023
In This Moment: The Right Side of History
Let's start with Noa Tishby and Mayim Bialik,
because, hey, they're Noa Tishby and Mayim Bialik!
(click on the tweet to watch the video)
"The Right Side of History"
This evening marks the end of the 30 day mourning period (shloshim) for the victims of October 7. The grieving will last a lifetime, but the passage of these past four weeks has been accompanied by increasing uncertainty as to where this is headed and whether Israel's response will leave it - and us - in a better place.
This full page newspaper ad (above) from an LGBTQ group, which was seen by readers of the New York Times today, links to an online petition that cuts through some of the ambivalence and anger that many of Israel's supporters are feeling, and in my mind, sets the perfect tone:
On October 7, 2023, the terrorist group Hamas launched an attack on the State of Israel and the Jewish people. This attack resulted in the brutal murders of over 1,400 Israelis—including Holocaust survivors and children—the kidnapping and hostage-taking of at least 200 more, and the tragic deaths of countless innocent Palestinians whose evacuation has been prevented by Hamas.
Antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia travel together. As LGBTQ and allied Americans, we know what it is like to have violent extremists attempt to target and kill us for who we are and who we love. Further, we know all too well what it is like to realize that people we had counted on to speak with a voice of moral courage are silent in the face of our destruction. We have searched our own hearts these last weeks when murmurs of, “it’s complicated,” have sounded an all too familiar alarm. Painfully, we have even seen some blame Jews for the violence they’ve suffered.
We will not be silent.
The murder of any innocents is never justifiable. While we recognize that people of good will may disagree with the elected Israeli government, we are not called to solve the issue of sovereignty—although we support it for both Israelis and Palestinians. It is absolutely imperative that as LGBTQ and allied Americans, we unequivocally condemn the brutal attacks of Hamas.
We ask you to join us now in our grief for all the innocent lives lost, and for the hostages still being held. We ask you to join us in our conviction that the State of Israel has a right to exist and reaffirm that the Jewish people deserve a homeland where they can live freely; and that the Palestinian people must no longer be exploited and deserve legitimate self-government in their own nation.
LGBTQ and allied Americans know that any group dedicated to hate is an existential threat to all marginalized people. Stand with us on the right side of history today. Stand with us for justice, fairness, and equality for all people.
The ad states, "Stand on the right side of history." What does that exactly mean? Well, we know that a reverence for life is an essential ingredient, along with a yearning for justice and mutual respect.
Back then I wrote that we Jews invented the right side of history "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 is the side that does not allow discrimination and hatred to rule."
But is Israel on the right side right now? With regard to the war against Hamas, absolutely. That full page ad and petition state with great moral clarity just why this is a just war that Israel must win - especially in that there are still hostages being held captive. As I've mentioned time and again, what happened on Oct. 7 must not be watered down by being conflated with the overall context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But here's the rub. We can try to stand firm on that principle, but those who are determined to muddy the waters are successfully muddying them, and that is eroding support for Israel just when that support is needed the most.
I'm not talking merely aboutthe throngs of anti-Zionistsflooding the streets of major cities today and accusing Israel of genocide, or those whose support was shallow to begin with, but who felt a pang of conscience on October 7. I'm talking about allies, including many American Jews. Just look at this article in today's Jerusalem Post (click on it to see the whole thing), showing a decrease in support for Israel among Reform Jews, from 72 percent to 59 percent in just one month. A slide was predictable, and no doubt the sheer numbers of dead in Gaza are enough to give even Israel's strongest supporters cause for concern. But that's not just a small drop; it's a hemorrhage.
So I believe that we need to adjust our message of moral clarity to adopt a little more nuance, a two-tiered approach, something I am very comfortable with, but I can understand that others may flinch at.
The first tier is the moral, justified war against Hamas, which Israel must win decisively. Along with that, we join in grieving for the loss of all innocent life and recognize the human dimension of the tragedy that is playing out in Gaza right now.
But the second tier is the one skirted by most of Israel's supporters, though increasingly less so by Israelis themselves. The petition at the top of this posting states that we are "not called to solve the issue of sovereignty" and adds that "people of good will may disagree with the elected Israeli government." That's all well and good, but because the overall Palestinian-Israeli conflict is in fact now being played out at the same time as the war against Hamas, despite our determination to separate the two, post-Oct.7, we can't ignore it entirely. As Matthew Yglesias points out on his Substack, Israel is now engaged in not one, but two wars. He writes:
...while Israel is waging a just war in Gaza, they are in parallel waging an unjust war in the West Bank. This second war is much less spectacular, much more of a slow burn, and at the moment, is causing much less death and destruction to innocent civilians. That these two wars — one just but spectacularly deadly, one unjust but lower-key — are playing out in tandem is contributing to a confused and polarized debate over a set of issues that were already quite fraught. It also, in my view, greatly complicates the question of the right policy response for the United States of America.
Evidently, President Biden agrees with this assessment. According to Israeli officials, he was "infuriated" and "distracted" by recent Israeli actions on the West Bank.
We can argue over the justice or injustice of Israel's West Bank policies, but the point is that those policies have become the center of discussion, thereby muddying the moral waters over Oct. 7. And it's not just because of Chinese Tiktok or a Hamas propaganda campaign on college campuses. It's because, to a great extent, these questionable policies are being carried out right now, before the eyes of the world, as if the perpetrators are thinking that, since everyone's focus is exclusively on Gaza, no one is watching them.
Let me put it into context. Today the IDF claimsto have discovered rocket launchers in Gaza placed next to a children's playground and swimming pool. That should be front page news. But the New York Times was covering the point-blank shooting of Bilal Saleh, who was shot in the chest by an Israeli settler as he was harvesting his olive trees in al-Sawiya, on the West Bank. It actually happened several days ago and was covered in the Israeli press.We can't blame Hamas for that coverage, nor can we really blame the Times. We can't blame social media or progressive college students or their professors either. It's hard to claim that Israel is facing an existential threat in Gaza, when her citizens are shooting olive farmers fifty miles away.
When we discuss West Bank policies, as they say, "it's complicated." Any discussion of the future of the West Bank now has to take into account that no Israeli in their right mind will accept adjusted borders that would place potential October 7s within range of all its population centers. But the government is so filled with messianic wackos that today one actually discussed to prospect of nuking Gaza. Bibi made him take a time out (I'm serious), but the damage had already been done. So yes, complicated.
But "complicated" is precisely the terrain we wanted to avoid this go-round. "Complicated" gets us right back where we've been every other time Israel has fended off Hamas. "Complicated" is not moral clarity.
Israelis have been through so much suffering this time. Is it asking too much to hope that after its monumental failure on October 7, the government might pull back the reins on the extremists for a while and focus exclusively on winning this just war against Hamas? By acting aggressively on the West Bank, and by continuing to show breathtaking incompetence at even caring for 200,000 internal refugees displaced from their homes, the government is forcing Israel's defenders to criticize them in the middle of a war and talk openly about, not if the Prime Minister will be replaced, but when.
So who is on the right side of history? Is it the genocidal group that butchers or kidnaps all Jews they encounter - including babies and the elderly - hates women and LGBTQ and has zero desire for coexistence with people of other faiths (or even many of their own)? Or is it the state built on the ideals of the prophets, Jewish values and democracy, forged from ancient ties to a homeland, devoted to bringing home broken refugees from all over the world?
This should not be a hard question to answer. But Israel is making it harder to answer.
We need their help if we are going to be able to give them help.
I wrote in this space a few days ago:
We need to be prepared to make the morally-clear case for removing Hamas from power. They have ceded their right to run a country.
We invented the right side of history. Maybe we'll get there, if we can just steer the car away from that breakdown lane located on the extreme right side of the road.