Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A liberal rabbi responds to criticisms of Israel

Rabbi Bill Berk is a liberal Jew who retired from his large Reform congregation in Phoenix to lead educational cultural tours in Israel. He received a letter recently from a friend who had the following criticisms of Israel: "1. Israel has its boot on the neck of Gaza in too many ways; 2. Nothing will stop Hamas rockets--you can’t kill your way out of the mess in the Middle East; 3. Netanyahu is like George Bush—a thoughtless bully. He is jerking us like “political poodles on a leash.” In other words he is manipulating the Israeli people including thoughtful people like me; 4. Israel is losing all its friends except for right wingers and the “Christian Tea Party.”

Berk's response: "As to the weeks leading up to this mess see Ethan Bronner’s New York Times piece (November 19, 2012) on Israel needing to stop the supply chain from Iran to Gaza. We cannot live with a hostile entity on our border—right on our border—that is receiving and using bigger and deadlier weapons from Iran. The United States couldn’t live with a nuclear armed Cuba 90 miles away from Florida. What a relief it would be if Gaza was 90 miles away! Tel Aviv is 52.9 miles from Gaza. Jerusalem is 51.5 miles from Gaza. A million Israelis are less than 40 miles from Gaza. Regardless of whether Israeli foreign policy is liberal or conservative, creative or stupid, having people on our border, that incredibly close, who are up front about seeking to destroy us and who are shooting bigger and bigger weapons at us—this is not intelligent. The threat of course exists of even deadlier weapons coming into Gaza as it gets easier and easier for Gaza to import weaponry directly from Iran. The United States was willing to risk nuclear war to eliminate the Cuban threat! Israel is willing to risk a little political capital to eliminate the Hamas threat. So it doesn’t matter how intelligent or sensitive Jabari was—he was in charge of this weapons pipe line."

As for your other arguments:


Israel has its boot on Gaza. In a symbolic sense this is correct—the Palestinian people are under occupation and life is not pleasant. Gaza Palestinians, however, are free to do anything except fly out of an airport, travel to Israel, and import weapons by sea. With Egypt now opening up to Gaza they have free access to Egyptian controlled Sinai. When we pulled out of Gaza we hoped they would build a paradise, build up what could be an incredible tourist industry, create farms and factories, and build a new paradigm for Palestinian life. Needless to say this has not happened. Hamas took over in a violent coup. It is one thing to call Hamas a bunch of thugs (as you do in your letter) but it is another thing to draw conclusions from that fact. Israel speaks and acts from the place of Western democratic values. Hamas speaks and acts from the place of a fanatic Islamic ideology which interprets every Israeli kindness as a sign of weakness. In the last few days we have been sending trucks into Gaza full of food and medical supplies and to Hamas this is proof of our softness and vulnerability. Were we to respond to Hamas from the place of thuggery we would have by now killed tens of thousands of Gazans. That is not who we are.


Nothing will stop Hamas rockets—you can’t kill your way out of the mess in the Middle East. It may be true that ultimately political, diplomatic, and perhaps even spiritual activism will be the only thing that can stop the rockets. However, in the meantime, military action can reduce the pain and suffering that comes from Hamas shooting rockets at us. It may be that the call of the hour is for great diplomatic creativity. I, myself, think Israel should offer a 30 year cease-fire that cannot be broken by Hamas. (Some Hamas activists have argued for a short cease fire that can be broken if they offer a verbal warning.) In the absence of such creativity I cannot in good conscience disagree with a policy that seeks to destroy the rockets and those who fire them at us. Furthermore it is not clear that military action won’t do the trick. Military action worked against the Germans and the Japanese. Sometimes military action does work. Our 1962 naval blockade disarmed Cuba.

My biggest criticism of my government here is its abysmal failure to be creative—creative with Hamas, creative with the Palestinians, creative with the settlers. But that does not mean I cannot support what might turn out to be short-term solutions. Since it is obvious, and you admit it, that no creativity will come from Islamic thugs, it must come from us. But that is no guarantee that such creativity will be successful. Prime Minister Barak and Prime Minister Olmert both made incredible, bold, creative diplomatic moves to end the occupation and Arafat and Abu Mazan refused to even take the offers seriously. I wish our current Prime Minister would be as creative but in the meantime we have to defend ourselves, even if that defense is short-termed.


Netanyahu is like George Bush—a thoughtless bully. He is jerking us like “political poodles on a leash.” In other words he is manipulating the Israeli people including thoughtful people like me. This argument is the most cynical and painful, especially as it is personal (directed at me as well as the rest of my fellow stupid Israelis). I did not vote for Netanyahu. I do not like Netanyahu. But to suggest that he is manipulating the 86% of all Israelis who support what we have done in Gaza over the last week is a bit much. It is certainly possible that there is some political calculation in his decision to hit Hamas hard. But you need to know that Israelis are not easily manipulated. They are famously independent minded. Furthermore Netanyahu has not been trigger-happy in the last four years of leading the country. This is his first war and so far it has been waged with great care. So far there are very few civilian casualties. We have not turned off Gaza’s electricity. We have sent food. These are not the actions of a thoughtless bully. Some of his advisors are smart and compassionate people. He has acted modestly. Furthermore one can ask the question if sometimes manipulating a reluctant population into a war isn’t a good thing. Many accuse FDR of manipulating Pearl Harbor in order to drag Americans, kicking and screaming, into a war they didn’t want. Netanyahu didn’t have to drag us at all—we were all tired of hearing our friends and relatives in the south of the country complaining about living in shelters and stairwells.


Israel is losing all its friends except for right wingers and the Christian Tea Party. We may be losing friends. It may be that the American left will go the way of the European left. It may be that Israel goes against the grain of American politics. After all, the results of this November’s presidential election seem to indicate that the power of the Christian right wing (which is very pro- Israel) is beginning to decline. Many look at Israel as a society stuck in primitive tribalism while the rest of the world becomes ever more like a global village. I would suggest another narrative. In a neighborhood that hates the global village, in a neighborhood that abhors pluralism, Israel is a thorn in the side of Arabs who hate this modern idea of tolerance for minorities. Please remember we are the minority in this part of the world. And what a colorful minority we are! Despite the racism that has seeped into our body politic in recent years this society is remarkably into the very values that the left supposedly stands for. We have a former President of our country in jail for sexual harassment. We have Tel Aviv voted the best city in the world for gay life. Following the earthquake in Haiti our army built a field hospital there in three days—it took America a couple of weeks to build another one. The world is a tough place. The good guys are not always rewarded. Look at how America bends its values and keeps its mouth shut in order to keep the Chinese happy. I’d like to be liked by the left. But long ago I learned that they may not always like me. As my mom put it when Black left-wing anti-semitism emerged in the late 60’s—“I have not changed but the country has changed.” What is left is not always so left. In the meantime, let’s do what we can to save life and to make our lives livable.

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