Thursday, January 29, 2009

After Gaza: On Violence and Self Defence

Twenty-one days ago the campaign against Hamas was balanced and right. About a week ago it started slipping and in the last few days it has crossed every line. The IDF may be squeezing Hamas, but it is destroying Israel. Destroying its soul and its image…In a few days the fire will cease and the fog will disperse, revealing the horror. Then we'll discover that we will not be paying the price only in Obama's America…but in the damaged souls of our sons and daughters. (Ari Shavit 16/1)

It happened in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his brothers, and looked at their burdens. He saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, one of his brothers. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he killed the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)

Thus begins the Torah's description of a young Moshe, an archetypal leader. Despite growing up in the luxury of Pharoah's court he identifies with his subjugated people; he protects the weak; he endangers his life to promote justice. Moshe's act of courage is one of the first acts in this revolutionary Biblical drama - of slaves becoming free on their journey to enter the Promised Land.

A story that - throughout the ages - has provided inspiration to the weak and oppressed.

Moshe doesn’t merit entering the Promised Land, dying instead in the Wilderness. But strangely enough, during one of several arguments with God in which he pleads for additional years, the Rabbis creatively bring his earlier heroism back to haunt him.

'You ask me for life?' says God 'but what right do you have? after all you killed that Egyptian'

'You're punishing me killing one Egyptian?' responds Moshe shocked. 'You killed all the innocent Egyptian firstborns – and I should die over killing one?!'

'Are you comparing yourself to me'? God asks incredulously. 'I who give life and take life…You however, what right did you have to take life?'

I think it's fair to say Judaism is ambivalent about violence. On the one hand we have the command to destroy another people – the Amalekites. On the other, we have the Rabbinic downplaying of Biblical strict justice, the fear our Patriarchs felt at potentially spilling innocent blood, the idea that a Court which sentences one person to death in seven years (some say seventy) is a 'bloodthirsty court'.

It's certainly not a pacifistic religion which denies a person the right to defend himself, his family, his people.

But the conversation between God and Moshe seems to suggest something else. That even when violence is right; even when its justified; even when one acts in self-defense. Even then violence and taking life have negative consequences.

Consequences which stopped our greatest monarch from building the Temple.

Consequences which prevented our greatest prophet from entering the Promised Land.

But what about those who have already entered their Promised Land; those who are sometimes forced to fight to defend it...

How will it affect them?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Letter to a School Friend: Engaging with Gaza

Dear Said

Last week I attended a talk by Israeli author A.B Yehoshua about his most recent book 'Friendly Fire.' The story describes the visit of a woman to her brother in law in Tanzania who seeks to disconnect from anything Jewish and Israeli. A former diplomat who lost his son to friendly fire, Yirmiyahu isn’t even prepared to pick his sister in law up from the airport - after all, there may be other Israelis on the plane.

He doesn’t want to know who the Prime Minister is or light Chanukah candles.

He just wants to take a break from the 'whole messy stew'.

In short he wants to disengage – from the burden of his pain, from the weight of history, and from the responsibility that being Jewish and Israeli poses.


Truth is, I identified with Yirmiyahu. Because for the last fortnight, I've also wanted to disengage - from the 'who's right and who's wrong' debate jumping out every time I open Facebook; from the seemingly eternal never ending argument as to who started; from the binary role play of goodies versus baddies.

It's not because I disagreed with the pro – Israel arguments.

I believe that no other country would tolerate thousands of rockets on its population; that Hamas has little care for Palestinians and operates among civilians; that weakening them is good for Israel and Palestinians (and moderate Arab states) too, that other than national suicide, there's not much Israel can offer that would satisfy Hamas in the long run.

I just preferred to leave the field to others, to shut my eyes off the whole 'Hasbara (PR) thing'; to focus instead on how Israel could be 'smart' rather than 'right', to think about setting achievable war aims and exit strategies rather than proving Hamas fires rockets from mosques.


Said – this was my status before reading Sunday's Facebook message from you. You asked my opinion, and despite the fact I wanted to steer clear, despite the fact I fear we disagree, I realized it was important to respond…

Discussing his about-face over the original Gaza withdrawal, Ariel Sharon once said that 'what one sees from here is different to what one sees from there.' I've spent the last few days reading and seeing what people see from there. The pictures are shocking, the analysis uncomfortable. It has led me to deeply question some of my views.

But now I want to try and explain the view from here. Because regardless of whether one agrees, it's important to hear our narrative, our questions, our fears.

And believe me we have many…
Life in the south of Israel has ground to a halt with the area suffering thousands of rockets over the past 8 years. It affects every aspect of a person's life. I don’t want to dwell on the emotional upshots of living with terror – Israel doesn’t have a monopoly on suffering. And it's not to suggest that I'd rather live in Jabalaya than Sderot – I wouldn’t.

But suffice it to say that when a siren sounds people have 15 seconds to take cover…

It's no way to live – and something needs to be done to prevent it.

And however much I'd love Mahmoud Abbas to ride into Gaza on a white horse and maintain order, our current neighbor to the South is not a moderate Palestinian who wants to negotiate a peaceful resolution – but an Islamist group funded by Iran and wedded to our destruction.

So after we completely withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and after Hamas used the truce to re-arm and then unilaterally ended it by raining rockets down on us for a week (without any response), I think the Government (any Government) had the right to respond militarily to protect its citizens – all 750,000 of them who are now in the line of fire.

In a country that has no word for consensus, you know you're onto something when almost everyone across the political spectrum supports a policy.

Discussion over the conduct of the war is harder. Part of me feels that this is what happens in war; that this is the price for living in a tough neighborhood, that pacifism in the Middle East equals national suicide; that weakening Hamas strengthens chances for peace.

That the world is great at telling Israel what we can't to, but less good at telling us what we can.

Another part of me fears that regardless of the ultimate responsibility for the war (which I believe lies with Hamas), we have innocent blood on our hands.

And above all I have questions…

How fighting Hamas apparently strengthens them, but ignoring their rockets without responding doesn’t weaken them.

How any country can successfully fight non state actors who hide among civilians (and fire from mosques and schools) without hitting those civilians.

What a
'proportionate' response is to a group seeking your destruction with 750,000 of your civilians in its sights.


So, similar to Israel in the summer of 2005 and Yirmiyahu in the novel, I wanted to disengage from Gaza, to emotionally turn off, to take a break from the weight and emotional burden of living here with all the complexities it throws up.

And like the rest of this country in 2009, I've realized that we can't completely disengage – neither from the population of Gaza we stopped occupying in 2005 nor from the difficult questions of balancing the maintenance of our safety and security with proper conduct.

So perhaps all we can do is try and work our way through this moral grey area as best we can, explain our narrative to those open minded enough to listen, and pray for the day when our peoples can live in peace.