Lest anyone ever wonder, with regard to the war taking place in Gaza, my views can be distilled down to a single sentence: “Give me back the hostages and then we can talk.”
In the four months since Hamas’ inhuman October 7 attacks on Israel, as Israel has fought a war in Gaza, as the situation in the north against Hezbollah heats up, I have developed more, not less, moral clarity. I think of the atrocities committed by Hamas that day; I recall the sights and smells when many of us visited the burnt-out communities in Israel’s south, when we heard the firsthand testimony of the survivors. We are aware of the brazen manner in which the perpetrators filmed their atrocities on their GoPro cameras and then proudly uploaded their acts of terror onto their social media accounts. Hamas officials are on record saying that if given the opportunity, they will repeat such assaults over and over again until Israel is exterminated. Not an hour passes that I don’t think of the hostages – men, women and babies. One hundred twenty-eight days and counting. No contact or communication with the outside world, their condition unknown, their future in the balance, and based on the testimony of the hostages who have been released, subject to unspeakable acts of physical, psychological, and serial sexual violence. Hamas’s cynical tactic of hiding behind the human shields of innocent Palestinians – in hospitals, in schools and elsewhere – has been revealed to the world as have the hundreds of miles of tunnels, testimony to Hamas’s decades-long misuse of international funds intended to aid the Palestinian people. I piece together the attacks from Gaza, the attacks from the north, the attacks from the Houthis in Yemen, and I reject any David/Goliath, oppressed/oppressor, liberator/colonialist narrative. The actions of Iran and its proxies make clear that it is the destruction of Israel, not the liberation of the Palestinians, that is their goal.
And I know what is being said on the front pages of the newspapers, on social media, on college campuses, in the International Court of Justice and on the streets of Manhattan. I see the tide of world opinion shifting against Israel: naming Israel as the aggressor, denying the very fact of the attacks themselves, ignoring the plight of the captives, denouncing Israel’s war on Hamas as unjust, calling for Palestine to be freed and Israel to be destroyed, and threatening Jews around the world behind the flag of Palestinian self-determination.
I see it all, I hear it all, and in the midst of it all, my moral compass is steady, the rightness of my path resolute. I stand by Israel’s right to self-determination and self-defense. I stand by the IDF’s campaign to root out Hamas, free the captives, and secure Israel’s future. It fits the textbook definition of a war of obligation. I mourn the loss of every Israeli civilian and every Israeli soldier. I mourn the loss of every innocent Palestinian; I am heartbroken at the Palestinian lives disrupted, destroyed, and displaced. Every life is created equally and in the infinite dignity of a God of all creation. Any displays of smug celebration in the face of human suffering, as was reported this past week, are obscene and should be shut down without delay. To not be heartbroken is to be inhuman. As a believing Jew, I believe that God is shedding tears for all of God’s children in this dark hour. My belief in, my prayers for, and my pursuit of peace is unwavering.
“Give me back the hostages and then we can talk.” These are my views – clear, unequivocal, and steadfast. These are the views of the synagogue I lead. We hold these truths to be self-evident, and as a community we give expression to them – educationally, philanthropically, and politically – by any and every means available to us.
My leadership challenge is not figuring out what I stand for – on that I am clear. My challenge relates to those who do not share my positions – those people for whom the truths that I hold to be self-evident are not self-evident at all. And I am not talking about the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people; for them and their kind, I have no patience. My question pertains to those individuals within the fold, Jews and often non-Jews, whose views, whose sympathies, whose histories differ from mine. People questioning who is really to blame, past and present, for the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. People wondering at what cost of Palestinian life, or for that matter, Israeli life, shall this war be prosecuted? People asking if calls for a cease fire need necessarily be understood as a betrayal of the cause? Not even a hostile world court could bring itself to call Israel’s actions genocide, but at what point does Israel cross the line from a just to an unjust war? If, prior to October 7, cynicism regarding the Israeli government and criticism of Israeli policy reflected the views of a good portion of American Jewry and half of the Israeli electorate, are all such criticisms to now be rendered treif, even and especially when that self-same government and self-same policies remain in effect?
These questions, among others, are not “my” questions in the sense that I personally stay up at night thinking about them. They are “my” questions in the sense that they are being asked by the children and grandchildren of my congregation – literally and figuratively – by good Jews throughout the community. Not by those who preach from this pulpit, but by those who have been called up to this pulpit over the years. Products of this synagogue and like-minded synagogues – many of whom now staff and will staff, now fund and will fund the next Jewish generation. The proud Hillel board member who is on a hunger strike in solidarity with Palestinian suffering. The twenty-three-year-old programming associate at a JCC who signed a petition calling for a cease fire. The Jewish social justice activist who wants to repair the world yesterday and believes that because they are Jewish, they have not only the right but the obligation to call out perceived wrongs committed in the name of the Jewish state. I know where I stand and where my synagogue stands, but how do we stand with those members of our wider community who stand for something else? It is a leadership question not just for me but for all of us, and I mean all of us, here today.
When preaching to his community, the nineteenth-century rabbi Israel Salanter would begin by stating, “All that I am doing is speaking aloud to myself. If anything you might overhear also applies to you, well and good.” It is in that spirit that I offer a few thoughts, a few rules, on how to respond at that squirm-inducing moment when you encounter a view different from your own.
Rule number one: “Breathe… and breathe again.” You may be breathing the same air as the person in front of you, but you inhabit different worlds. The French essayist Valery once commented that everyone is fated to live in the time into which they are born. You might have come of age under the shadow of the Shoah, the 1967 war or the 1973 war, but the sparring partner in front of you did not. A twenty-five-year-old today knows nothing of the history of Arab rejectionism, they know only a strong post-Oslo, post-Intifada, post-Abraham Accord, Start-Up Nation Israel that is in control of who gets what access and what piece of land. It doesn’t make it right, nor for that matter does it make it true. But it is that person’s truth. And it is not just a matter of a person’s age, the time into which they were born; it is the information itself. In a digital era, and this is a topic for another day, the sources informing that person’s reality are different than yours. Their news is not your news, their social media feed is not yours. So judge that person with a generosity of spirit, knowing that while you may disagree, even vehemently so, their views need not reflect evil, ill-will, or self-hate. They believe what they believe because they believe it to be so. Rule number one: Breathe . . . and breathe again.
So, if that is rule number one, what is rule number two? As the camp song goes, “Next verse, same as the first”: Breathe . . . and breathe again.
In many ways, being a rabbi is like being a parent. Sometimes the hardest and most important thing to do is to sit on your hands and do absolutely nothing. I have four college-age children and some days my life feels like a Passover seder – the calls home from campus reflecting views that run the gamut – sometimes to my right, sometimes to my left, and sometimes, oftentimes of late, reflecting a kid so overwhelmed by it all, they don’t even know what questions to ask. Not everyone in this room is a parent, but everyone in this room has a parent, which means that everyone in this room knows that if you get into the business of thought police, some sort of gotcha game of ripping into anyone who steps out of line, you risk having precisely the opposite effect than you intended. Besides, as I see it, the goal of parenting and community building is not to create uniformity of thought. The goal, as evidenced by the seder itself, is to create independent thinkers who are able to sit together respectfully year in and year out.
This is not about coddling. Not every idea is given an airing. Neither my home nor my synagogue is governed by the First Amendment. But within the guardrails, in the case under discussion, the goal of a secure, democratic, and Jewish state – we all know that there is more than one way to get there. There are questions that can and should be debated: To topple Hamas or secure the release of the hostages? At what price of life should Israel fight this war? Can one support Israel’s right to self-determination and still object to its government? These questions are not betrayals. These questions are being debated by Israelis in real time – Israelis, who, unlike almost all of us, are sending their children into harm’s way not knowing if and when they will return.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, it is especially at a moment like ours that left leaning Jewish organizations, even if their views are neither yours nor mine, play an important role. The conversation has changed these past months, the Overton window, the spectrum of acceptable discourse, has shifted leftward leaving those Jews once sitting on the progressive pale of the Jewish community now branded as sell-outs by the radical left for supporting even the idea of Jewish self-determination. It is those people and organizations with proven credentials in progressive circles who have a fighting chance to find allies for the Jewish people. You don’t need to hug them, but now is positively not the time to scold, chastise, or rebuke them for giving expression to a view different than your own. Breathe . . . and breathe again. We have real enemies to fight. Let’s waste no energy picking someone off from within our own ranks.
Rules one and two were straightforward. I think you are ready for the third and final rule. Ready? “Breathe . . . breathe again, and then ask a good question.” You have encountered an idea different than your own. Mazel tov! It leaves you feeling uncomfortable, bristling and maybe even angry. Rule number one taught us to presume positive intent. Rule number two taught us that we don’t believe in thought police. Now engage. Ask a question or two or three in such a way that it might prompt the other person to interrogate their position. I will give you a few examples:
- “I hear your calls for a cease fire, and I want peace as much as you. But don’t you think that if your demands for cease fire were preceded by a demand for the hostages to be released those demands would be practically and morally stronger?”
- “I understand your outrage over proportionality. It is the right question. But let me ask you, how do you explain the fact that the same people calling Israel to account for war crimes cannot bring themselves to name the atrocities of October 7?”
- “I get it, as a progressive you see the suffering of Palestinians as part of a bigger struggle for liberation. Why can’t women’s advocacy groups, whose first rule is to believe women’s stories, even bring themselves to call out the sexual violence of October 7? Why do all lives matter except when they are Jewish lives?”
- “I hear you chanting for Palestinian liberation, I believe in a two-state solution too. But help me understand, when do those chants champion Palestinian self-determination and when do they call for the destruction of the Jewish state and the death of Jews? It is not clear to me. Is it clear to you? And if it isn’t maybe we can think twice about marching with people behind that slogan.”
- “I know you want peace – who doesn’t? But tell me, how can Israel make peace with a people whose founding charter and recent statements call for Israel’s destruction? How exactly is Israel supposed to make peace with a non-democratic terrorist organization aimed at its destruction? Can you explain it to me?”
I have a million questions I could give you, but as with all things in life, more important than what you say is how you say it. A well-placed question will challenge. A well-placed question will force a person to emerge from their tired and toxic slogans and social media feeds. A well-placed question will help you figure out the intent of the person in front of you, whether they are acting out of ignorance, ill-will, or otherwise. A well-placed question can build dialogue and trust. You may or may not change someone’s mind, you may or may not have your own mind changed. But you will have situated that person’s views in their humanity, and equally if not more important, they will have situated your views in your humanity. The exchange itself may not get you anywhere, but it will exist in their minds before they post their next post, attend their next rally, or engage with their friend whose views make theirs seem positively pleasant. It is not everything, but it is something, and needless to say, it is labor intensive. There are no shortcuts here. Challenging and changing hearts and minds happens one-on-one. This is a retail business, hand-to-hand combat in every sense. But it is a role that we all can and must play – to pick up a post and get engaged – at all times and especially in these times.
Of all the laws of our Torah reading, perhaps the most surprising occur towards the end, when our obligations toward our adversaries are listed. “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back. When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it.” (Exodus 23:4–5) A set of laws, unexpectedly, on how to relate not to those with whom we agree, but with whom we disagree. Onkelos, the Aramaic translator of the Torah, interprets these laws to refer not to physical burdens but psychological ones – not to beasts of burden but to ourselves. In other words, if we are to create community, if we are to move forward, we must learn to let go of the hatred in our hearts.
I know what I believe in. And those who hold views different to my own are not my enemies. In many cases they are mishpacha, my family. And family is family. We breathe, we make room for each other, we engage in each other’s views. We ask good questions, and we listen to each other’s answers. Lifting up hearts and lifting up each other during this challenging time.