The moral challenge of Gaza
By Donniel Hartman
Late last night, on May 14, as the death toll in Gaza neared 60 human beings, my daughter called me with one simple question.
“Abba, what are you writing about Gaza?”
Before her call, I hadn’t intended to write. Gaza paralyzes me into silence.
When I read reports or hear discourse about Israeli Army use of lethal force against demonstrators, I cringe. To call what is happening at the Gaza border a demonstration, is a perversion of reality as I know it.
The inhabitants of Gaza have every right and reason to demonstrate against the tragedy which is their life. Not only do they live under unforgivable and deplorable conditions, no one is taking responsibility either for their predicament or for the path to rectify it.
What is happening on the Gaza border is not a protest against the reality of life in Gaza, but an attack against the sovereignty of Israel and its right to exist.
Palestinians have every right to view and experience the formation of Israel as their Nakba (catastrophe). They have every right to view the Six-Day War and Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem as a deepening of this Nakba.
When tens of thousands of people, civilians interspersed with thousands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists, march on our border with the intent to destroy it, and penetrate into Israel, and allow the terrorists to murder Israelis, it is not only not a peace demonstration, it is not a demonstration at all. It is a battlefield, where anyone who approaches the fence is a combatant.
While Palestinians have every right to their narrative of Nakba, my people have every right to celebrate our independence and our victory in 1967, and to express joy at being home in our country, whose capital is Jerusalem. And we have every right to defend our rights.
The challenge is that when it comes to Gaza, for Israelis, our moral conscience is by and large, silent.
We argue that our unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, including its setting of the precedent of dismantling Jewish settlements, should have inspired Gazans to embrace or at the very least explore, the possibility of peace, instead of the path of war. It should have inspired the trade of goods and the fostering of economic ties, and instead it led to missile fire and the resulting partial blockade.
We hold the Gaza population personally responsible for the choices they have made. We hold the leadership that they have chosen, a leadership that regularly declares its desire for my destruction and acts on it, as responsible both for the tragedy of Gaza and its rectification.
And as a result, most Israelis believe that from this moment henceforth, our moral responsibilities are limited to our efforts at self-defense. The plight of Gazans is taken out of the equation of our moral discourse.
Gaza paralyzes me into silence, for I am like most Israelis. I am not only saddened by the choices they have made and by the paths that they have chosen not to take, I am angry.
I am a devout two-statist, who believes in the right of the Palestinian people to sovereignty in their own state, living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security for both of us.
I am angry, because I believe that the hatred and violence spewing out of Gaza has possibly buried Israelis’ belief in the viability of the two-state solution in our lifetime.
Any discourse about a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) is immediately rejected under the counterargument: “It will just become another Gaza.” And this Gaza will be able to shut down all of Israel with mere mortar fire.
But as my daughter’s phone call reminded me, we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed, and to create a moral black hole in our society.
I do not believe that Israel is principally responsible for the reality which is Gaza, but it does bear some responsibility.
I do not believe that our soldiers on the border of Gaza are firing on demonstrators, but are engaged in a war.
I do not believe that the Hamas-inspired action on the border poses an existential threat to the state of Israel. It does, however, pose a life-and-death danger for many Israelis. At the same time, 60 human beings were killed and thousands were injured in one day.
While 60 human beings lost their lives, and Israeli soldiers were engaged in the horrific challenge of protecting our border, tens of thousands of Israelis converged on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to sing and rejoice with Netta Barzilai on her and our victory in the Eurovision contest.
When the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, our tradition recounts that the angels in heaven began to sing a song of praise to God. God silenced them with the words, “My creation is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing a song of praise?”
The Book of Esther recounts a particularly chilling moment. After Ahashverus and Haman send forth the pronouncement decreeing the murder and destruction of all Jews throughout the kingdom in one day, it states, “And the King and Haman sat down to drink and the city of Shushan was in chaos.”
We do not need to take moral responsibility for the reality which is Gaza, but at the same time we cannot allow our humanity and moral conscience to be so inert as to sit down and drink, not to speak of dancing in our city squares, when we are causing, justifiably or not, death and chaos.
We can believe that the events in Gaza are a war against Israel, support our soldiers, and still desire a public debate over the means necessary to win this war.
I don’t value Monday morning moral philosophers, nor expressions of “concern” for loss of life. I do value serious moral reflection on how to ensure that we live up to our military moral code, which demands that even when force is used in self-defense, we only use the amount of force necessary and in proportion to the danger that we face, and that we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties. I do desire an Israeli society which welcomes and engages in this discourse.
I do not believe that our soldiers are violating international law, yet I am interested in a public discourse about what our soldiers on the front lines in Gaza are experiencing. I am interested in defending our soldiers from being placed in situations where their orders are not clear, and thus placing our soldiers in morally compromised situations.
Gaza paralyzes me, because human beings are dying at my hands, and I do not know how to prevent it. Gaza frightens me, because it is so easy to forget it and sing, regardless of what is happening there. Gaza challenges us, for it is in Gaza that our commitment to the value of human life is and will be tested.
We may not be principally responsible for the reality which is Gaza, but like all moral human beings, we must constantly ask ourselves whether and how we can be part of the solution.
As Jews, we are commanded to walk in the way of God, a God who declares, “My creation is drowning, and what are you doing about it?”
Rabbi Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Israel.
Reprinted with permission from the Hartman Institute and The Times of Israel.