Talking about Gaza, Held by the Balls and Throat

Writing before the outbreak of the current war with Hamas in Gaza, Israeli author Ari Shavit had the following to say:

I am haunted by the notion that we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us. And every few years the conflict takes on a new form, ever more gruesome. Every few years, the mode of violence changes The tragedy ends one chapter and begins another, but the tragedy never ends.

My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit (pg. 236)

It seems to me that much of the writing and commentary about the current war between Hamas and Israel seems to follow this pattern as well. One group of people make their statements, while the others respond with an oppositional view. We yell back and forth, squeezing each other in a cycle of fruitless argumentation that is only aggravated by the proliferation of the “Share on Facebook” button. I myself, stand guilty as charged.

As such, it is not my goal at this point to add any new political, military, or ethical commentary on the fighting. After nearly a month of physical violence, I have accumulated so much commentary in my head that I fear we will soon reach a critical mass and most will simply choose to tune out the background noise of the rocket fire, the drone strikes, and the exploding booby-trapped schools.

Rather, I wish to note the emerging pattern of commentary that can be found online, in print, and on television new. It seems to me that those who wade into discussions/commentary/yelling about the war largely (almost exclusively) tend to base their arguments on one of five general paradigms. I outline them below, noting the key features, providing examples, and noting how they risk contributing to the downfall of meaningful engagement and understanding. At close, I’ll offer a suggestion of how we might further advance our conversations.


1. The “My-Side vs. Your-Side” perspective

Unsurprisingly, this tends to be the most common approach to talking about Gaza/Israel. See all the media coming out of the IDF’s social media outlets, and all those who gratuitously repost everything on Facebook. Ditto for those lambasting Israel at every opportunity on op-ed pages around the world. Ditto for those lumping all Palestinians in with Hamas. We’ve reached the age where 140 characters isn’t enough, you can now follow a war on Instagram.

Those who write from this paradigm are essentially cheerleaders trying to drown out the noise from the opposing team. Unwilling to hear or understand the viewpoint of others, these people troll through the comment sections of website, spewing out tired talking-points and ad-hominem attacks. They thrive in the echo-chambers of Facebook walls, and contribute no real substance to the conversation.


2. The “Must be understood in context of the larger Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” perspective.

See David Grossman’s An Israel Without Illusions and Roger Cohen’s Zionism and its Discontents for two excellent examples of how it is impossible to divorce this current conflict from the wider state of affairs between Israelis and Palestinians.

Those who write from this paradigm attempt to explain the circumstances of this war in Gaza in light of those operations in 2009 and 2012, how the unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine fuels the current state of affairs, what Israel’s role is in this context, and how in truth these are not separate stories, but one large story.

It seems to me that while those who write from this paradigm are correct to search for a larger unifying narrative, this approach often minimizes the degree of Hamas’s culpability at the expense of crafting a neater, tidier story-arc. This approach tends to place most focus on the longer story of Israel and the Palestinians, with less focus on the more recent arrival of Hamas on the scene.


3. The “Must be understood in context of a more regional geo-political perspective” perspective

See David Brooks’ excellent piece, No War is an Island for an example of this concept. Those who write from this paradigm are not merely content with a localized, Israeli-Palestinian context for explaining this war. Instead, they turn to the wider Middle East, with particular attention paid to divisions within the Sunni-Islam world. Comments are frequently made on the states of relationship between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel.

This approach is crucial, as it explores over a century of history which plays a vital role in understanding the various nodes of conflict that have emerged. Yet as with the previous paradigm, it seems to me this perspective risks shifting its focus so wide, that it almost completely misses out on the human cost when it comes to civilian deaths in Gaza and impact on civilian life in Israel. When speaking of international Sunni relationships, it is far too easy to lose sight of the individual lives which are touched and lost in this war.


4. The “Moral Equivalency” perspective (which itself has two sub-paradigms):

a. The “All death is immoral, and all parties are equally culpable” perspective:

For those with this viewpoint, the only measure of morality (or immorality, as it were) in war is the rising death toll. Death = bad. From this vantage point, no nuance or context is possible, as the value of human life is reduced to a mathematical equation. The war is simplistically reduced to infographics (I’m looking at you, New York Times), and it becomes conviniently “easy” to make arguments without any wider context. “Israel and Hamas are both causing death, ergo Israel & Hamas are equally bad,” goes this argument, and it is easy to feel as though one has made a morally sound comment on the war. However, this perspective ignores its partner…

b. The “There is no moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel” perspective:

This is also known as the The “Hamas’ intentions are immoral in that they intentionally target civilians, while Israel’s intentions are moral in that they don’t” perspective. Those speaking in this light are right to make a moral distinction between Israel’s and Hamas’s modus operandi, however I find that this viewpoint often becomes a barrier to further conversation. For these interlocutors, it is as if the fact that Hamas is a murderous terrorist organization while Israel is (for now) a (reasonably) liberal democracy exempts Israel from any culpability whatsoever for its actions in war.

This perspective takes a step in the right direction by making a nuanced moral distinction, yet misses the mark by not extending that distinction to the continued actions of Israel and Hamas.

Some of those speaking from this viewpoint also make the poignant argument that many criticizing Israel have been conspicuously morally silent when it comes to other wars in the middle east (cough, cough… Syria). See Chloe Valdary’s punchy piece in Tablet, To the Students for Justice in Palestine, a Letter from an Angry Black Woman, which calls out the smug sententiousness of many who have waded into this conflict.


5. The “We must dialogue with each other AND try to ask questions to better understand what is going on” perspective

This includes internal conversations amongst Israelis, Zionists, and/or Jews (these are not all the same!), and Palestinians and Arabs (also not the same!); as well as conversations across religious/ethnic/ideological boundaries. Makom is leading the way on the Israel-centric side of this paradigm, with their question-based curriculum exploring ideas of peoplehood, power, and responsibility.

From an educational perspective, this approach is certainly the most worthy, as it encourages critical thinking and nuance in an attempt to engage people in a deeper and less superficial way. That said, as it is a value-based approach, it risks missing out on the historical context and real-world implications of daily life in Gaza and Israel. In truth, it is often more focused on the opinions and egos of the observers, rather than on the realities of the war itself.


There is quasi-sixth perspective –  the one which states: “I am sick and tired of the fighting. Why can’t they just get along with each other?” This is also known as the “crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy” perspective. Sometimes those with more hawkish viewpoints will pejoratively call this perspective “naive.” In any event, those holding this viewpoint are largely apathetic to the realities of the war in Gaza and Israel and don’t really have any meaningful engagement in the conversation. They can and should be invited in, however they aren’t contributing to the “noise” out there, and as such there is not much else to say about them here.



A solution?

I would argue that any writing or conversation about this war which does not begin with an understanding that the stated objectives of Hamas and Israel are on entirely different moral grounds leaves little room for continued conversation. Any conscionable person must acknowledge that Hamas aims first and foremost to murder innocent Jews and Israelis.

That said, the conversation must not stop there. It is not enough to say that Hamas are terrorists and Israel is a democracy. This may be true, but it does not make a cogent argument. We must continue the conversation.

Without an understanding of how this war does not exist in a historical vacuum and must be understood both in light of the two previous Gaza wars/operations, as well as in light of wider regional conflicts, it is challenging to say anything of critical value. We must not ignore larger narratives that continue to play a very real role in unfolding events.

But we must not extend our perspective so far as to lose sight of the very real human element. The conversation must not be limited to a cold geopolitical analysis.

Humans must not be reduced to numbers and infographics. Conversations should include a deeper understanding of the very-real human tolls both in Gaza and in Israel; tolls which manifest themselves in very different ways.

With a balanced understanding of history and humanity, we can honestly begin to consider moral implications. Any argument absent of the previous components heavily risks coming off as moralizing from a standpoint of unfounded superiority. And while it is easy to argue that Hamas and Israel stand on entirely different moral grounds, any commentary which ignores questions of the moral implications of Israel’s actions is also missing a significant component of the story. In our commentaries and conversations, no party should be permitted to act with impunity.

It is woeful and egregious that very little commentary – certainly of the kind that pervades Facebook and Twitter as of late – honours the complexity of this situation. The current state of conversation serves mostly to push most people away from having any meaningful understanding of the events.

Whether by reducing humans to numbers and statistics, or by reducing questions of morality to terrorism vs. democracy, we are not allowing room for real critical knowledge. We are lying by omission.

Anyone who makes the choice to wade into this situation – either from the pulpit of the New York Times; from the echo chambers of Facebook; or from WordPress, that bastion of democratic writing  – bears responsibility for the outcome of their words.

We must choose our words carefully, allowing room for emotion, but not in the absence of context and history. And we must be careful not to choose one history over another. Too often, we are missing an understanding that the topic of our conversations is that of very real human lives.

Absent a more just and honest framework, all we continue to do is grasp each other by the balls and throat, squeezing back and forth in an endless cycle. In our own way, we are contributing to this never-ending tragedy.

Parashat Vayishlach: Searching for the Vanished Jacob

This is the sermon that I delivered this Shabbat at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. It was my first of the year, and my first official d’var torah at Rabbinical School.

“Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽”

Thirteen years ago, late in the afternoon of a cool autumn day, I was waiting at a bus stop with a friend. A large group of teenagers approached us, asking if they could borrow some money. All that was in my pocket was an empty wallet and bus tickets. I said I didn’t have any cash. “Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽” Within seconds, my friend was on the ground, being kicked and beaten, and I was running for help from nearby strangers.

In the aftermath, there were some who thought it unbelievable that I ran, instead of staying to defend my friend. At times, I had my own guilt about the situation. But I was reassured that my reaction was the normal, human response to the situation, and very well could have saved us from more harm.

In 1932, Walter Bradford Cannon, an American Physiologist, coined the term “fight or flight response,” to describe the physiological reaction that occurs in response to perceived harmful events or threats to survival. This is our body’s way of protecting us when it senses danger. We give ourselves over to something more powerful than our consciousness to hopefully emerge safely.

This Shabbat, we read: “לו וַיֵּצֶר ,מְאֹד יַעֲקֹב וַיִּירָא – Jacob was greatly frightened and anxious”[1] and “לְבַדּו יַעֲקֹב וַיִּוָּתֵר – And Jacob was alone.”[2]

Confronted with an approaching force of 400 men sent by Esau who had vowed to kill him,[3] what does Jacob do? He splits his camp in two to protect his family,[4] sends envoys to Esau,[5] and prays to God for protection.[6] He doesn’t flee, nor does he prepare to fight. Perhaps, Jacob isn’t the wisest person.

We can forgive Jacob for not being familiar with the body’s Autonomic Nervous System, but how are we to understand his reaction to his fear and loneliness? This isn’t just a frightening situation that confronts Jacob; it is a dilemma of existential proportions. And there is a significant difference between fear and existential dread. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches:

A [moral] dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. [But] these questions have answers. There is a right course of action and a wrong one… A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer… A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the moral life… Judaism recognises the existence of dilemmas… we may be faced with situations in which there is an ineliminable cause for distress.[7]

Certainly, there are moral complexities confronting Jacob. He is faced with a potentially violent standoff against Esau, yet he wants to reconcile and make peace with his brother. Rashi teaches that the Torah says Jacob was both frightened and anxious to evoke the dread that Jacob must be feeling: frightened that he might be killed, and anxious that he might have to kill others.[8] Rabbi Jacob bar Idi, an Amoraic sage, elucidates this dilemma, noting that in his stunning vision of the ladder, Jacob was promised by God that his offspring would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and the sand in the sea,[9] but now he faces potential death and the destruction of that promise.[10]

How does Jacob reconcile this existential dilemma?

We read that as part of Jacob’s peace overtures, he sends messengers to Esau with messages of reconciliation. But the Torah’s word for messengers – מלאכים – may also be read as “angels”. The Rambam suggests that as angels are non-corporeal beings, they can be understood more broadly to refer to other non-corporeal phenomena, such as human intelligence and intellect.[11] The very name of this parasha, וישלח (and he dispatched / and he sent out), conveys the idea that when assessing and dealing with a potentially life-altering challenge, we must dispatch our own “non-corporeal” beings – such as intelligence and intellect.

Defying an instinctual fight or flight reaction, Jacob hatches an ingenious plan. Hopeful that peace will be reached, he is also pragmatic and protects his family – and through them, the realization of God’s promise. Jacob’s actions are a model of how to avoid reactionary extremism, and use our intellect to overcome existential dilemmas.

We know that Jacob’s life is one of great struggle. Many look up to him as a leader and father, but he is a complex man who spends much of his life searching for things seemingly out of his grasp. To be sure, struggle is something that is baked into Jacob’s essence from his time in Rebecca’s womb. He physically struggles with his brother even before they are born. He struggles for a birthright. For his father’s love. For a wife. With an angel of God. He struggles for his distant son. Jacob is not a comfortable man.

Rabbi Levi Lauer, Director of the Israeli human rights organization, Atzum, teaches us that in fact, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.”[12] While too much fear, struggle, and discomfort may be debilitating, these can also be forces of good when they keep us safe, when they expand our horizons, and when they open the doors to new journeys, as in Jacob’s story.

Jacob’s story is not the first in the Tanakh of a volatile, discomforting conflict between brothers. Nor is it the last. But his is one which offers a compelling vision of how to reconcile an existential dilemma of two competing truths. When the lines between good and evil are not black and white, Jacob forges a pragmatic, centrist path that avoids both idealistic naiveté as well as a hard-line, extremist reaction. His is a solution that results in life renewed.

We should know that this centrist approach has deep roots in Jewish spirituality. The kabbalistic teaching of tikkun olam is not merely a social-justice, “feel good” philosophy. It is an expansive cosmology, which teaches that at the beginning of creation, the world was in a spiritual state of chaos, called Tohu. This state of existence was full of Divine light and energy, but lacked balance and order, and ultimately collapsed in on itself in a cosmic shattering. But this collapse was part of a Divine order so that our universe could be rebuilt through humanity’s fixing of this shattering – through tikkun.

Rabbi Yanki Tauber teaches that “the Kabbalists see Jacob and Esau as the embodiment of this cosmic twinship.[13] Esau is the chaotic energy of Tohu, while Jacob represents the opportunity for tikkun. The challenge is to bring together these twins and the forces they represent. As Rabbi Tauber argues:

The struggle to achieve this synergy is the life-history of the biblical twins, and the essence of human history as a whole. Esau and Jacob emerge from the same womb (where they were already fighting), and the rest of their lives is defined by the effort to bring them back together.

The quest to unite Esau’s Tohu and Jacob’s tikkun continues today. On a daily basis, we are confronted with realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, this is a struggle based on an almost familial relationship. Israel – like Jacob – is faced with two competing truths. One the one hand, we long to heed the Psalmist’s call: “ורדפהו שלום בּקש” – seek peace and pursue it,[14] yet at the same time, Israel cannot be naïve about the threatening realities of life in this neighbourhood.

Can we turn to Jacob, the primordial political centrist, for some wisdom? Yossi Klein Halevi makes the case for such a paradigm. In a recent article, he writes:

I am looking for the vanished Israel. To be an Israeli is not like being a centrist in any other political context. There is nothing wishy-washy about being an Israeli centrist. An Israeli centrist embraces two strong, diametrically opposed conclusions about the Palestinian problem. One is that a Palestinian state is an existential need for Israel, and the other is that a Palestinian state is an existential threat for Israel. That’s what it means to be an Israeli centrist… I see the emergence of a political center as an expression of Israeli maturity.”[15]

Klein Halevi’s moral charge is made all the more powerful when we read it keeping in mind Jacob’s other name. Klein Halevi isn’t just looking for the vanished Israel; he’s looking for the vanished Jacob, searching for a solution to a moral dilemma that stretches back thousands of years into the womb of our history as two peoples. Just as Jacob matured through his pragmatic, centrist approach to reconciling with Esau, Israel must mature through a similar paradigm.

There is a Chassidic teaching that Jacob’s name change to Israel marked this point of maturation from a childhood of struggle and strife to a more harmonious realization of his relationship with God. But this is also a mystery: even after he is named Israel, Jacob continues to be Jacob. The Torah continues to use his old name throughout the rest of his life.[16]

Leonard Fine, the preeminent MIT, Harvard and Brandeis professor, and profound Reform thinker, questions this peculiarity in the text: “How is it that Jacob, who is twice told that his name has been changed to ‘Israel,’ continues to be remembered in our liturgy by his former name?[17]

It is a simple truth, yet often forgotten: when we pray the Amidah, we refer to “Elohei Ya’akov,” not “Elohei Yisrael.” I believe this seeming inconsistency recognizes the profound truth that Jacob continues to struggle and wrestle, even after he is transformed into Israel.

This remains true for us in our day, as well. As residents of Jerusalem, we don’t have to search far for cases where it appears that Israel has forgotten itself and is acting like the old Jacob. But can we look inward as well, and see the same struggle in ourselves? Certainly, Jacob did. HUC Professor Norman Cohen suggests that Jacob “was conscious of all the different forces in his life with which he struggled: God, Esau, the side of himself that haunted him like a shadow,” and that these forces manifest together as the being with whom he wrestled.[18]

So let us learn from Jacob – from Israel – someone with whom we can identify. Someone whom, as Rabbi Sacks notes: “…we understand. We can feel his fear, understand his pain…[19]

We are all Jacob, struggling to find the holy space between the chaos of Tohu and the reconciliation of tikkun. When Jacob himself first finds that place, the Torah says “the sun shone on him.”[20] Rashi teaches poetically that this refers to the process of healing that was beginning to take place. So may we continue to search for the vanished Jacob, for his healing, and for the holy space between Tohu and tikkun.

[1] Gen. 32:8
[2] Gen. 32:25
[3] Gen. 32:7
[4] Gen. 32:8-9
[5] Gen. 32:14-22
[6] Gen. 32-12
[8] Based on Gen. R. 76:2
[9] Gen. 28: 14-15, 32:13
[10] BT Berakhot: 41
[11] Maimonides, Moses: Guide to the Perplexed (2:10)
[12] As quoted by Rabbi Avi Orlow:
[14] Ps. 34:15
[18] Cohen, Norman J.: Voices from Genesis. Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1998. Pp 125.
[20] Gen. 32:32