Friday, July 11, 2014

Let's NOT see this movie again. Ever. - Pinehas 5774

At the beginning of Parashat Pinehas, which we read this morning, there is a curious, unique phenomenon. In the very third verse (Numbers 25:12), we read the following:
לָכֵן אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם
Say, therefore, “I grant [Pinehas] my covenant of peace.”
The curiosity here is that the letter vav in the word “shalom,” as it appears in the Torah scroll (although it does not appear that way in our humash) is broken in half. The context is that the zealot Pinehas has just stabbed to death an Israelite man and his Midianite paramour, a flagrant act of violence that seems to be in line with God’s command. However, the broken vav, and the broken shalom / peace, suggests that peace achieved through violence is flawed. It is not the kind of peace that we desire, or that the world needs.

I think that it is impossible not to read these words divorced from the current situation in Israel, where the citizens of the Jewish state want peace, security, and safety, and Hamas continues to send indiscriminate rockets into Israel, over 500 in the last several days. 

There is a saying in modern Hebrew:
את הסרט הזה כבר ראינו
Et haseret hazeh, kvar ra'inu.
We’ve seen this movie before.

Every time this expression creeps back into the daily lexicon, I am reminded that it is getting harder for me to maintain my youthful idealism. Because not only have we seen this film, but we already know that there will be a sequel.

Amidst the onslaught of information pouring out of Israel this week regarding the current situation, a surprising article caught my eye. It was surprising not because there was information in it that was new to me, but rather because of the forum. It was the New York Times, and my sense of the way that the Times reports on Israel is that they usually lead with the Palestinian body count, and bury the explanation of why Israel was attacking in the first place. The result is that Israel generally appears to be the primary aggressor, although this of course not always the case. (Some of us would surely argue that this is never the case.)

But in this case, the article was about Israel’s approach to bombing terrorist sites in Gaza. Now, as you may know, Hamas has installed its rocket launchers and terrorist infrastructure in the alleys of residential neighborhoods, adjacent to schools and hospitals, in courtyards of mosques, and so forth. As you may also know, the IDF goes out of its way to warn residents before bombing these places: by placing phone calls in Arabic with instructions to vacate, by dropping leaflets, and by “knocking on the roof” - that is, firing a non-explosive missile at the building to scare out those who have not yet evacuated.

If you have been following the news carefully about the last two Gaza incursions since Israel disengaged in 2005, you know about these warnings. The army’s goal, of course, is to destroy the ability to terrorize rather than lives. Of course, nobody wants to lose their home to an Israeli shell, but better the building than the lives of the people therein.

As quoted in an article published by Honest Reporting, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kemp said of Israel’s previous operations in Gaza: “the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

But while this pattern of warning is not only curious and surprisingly considerate (what other army warns its targets in advance to get out of the way?), it has also been largely underreported in the mainstream press, perhaps because it does not fit the Israel-as-aggressor storyline. (BTW, a follow-up analysis in the online magazine Slate revealed the Times’ bias even in an article that was at least superficially friendly to Israel, as did the Honest Reporting article mentioned above.) The Times somehow missed the fact that Hamas is deliberately telling Gazan civilians to ignore the warnings, and instructing them to act as human shields.

Israel is in a very delicate position here. Every couple of years, Gaza erupts into a show of force by Hamas and Islamic Jihad and perhaps other factions. Israel shows restraint (note that the first few hundred rockets of this installment were fired into Israel with no response - over 650 rockets were launched into Israel since the beginning of the year till the start of this operation - and only when the situation is truly unbearable for the Israeli populace, then come the airstrikes and the ground war. Furthermore, we all know that it is only a matter of time until the next round of rockets, which will have an even greater range, and the next Israeli incursion. And while the warnings do in fact reduce civilian casualties, Israel still comes off in the mainstream media looking like the aggressor.

But Israel is far more savvy regarding public opinion than ever before, and hence the warnings. Not that anybody in the international court of public opinion wants to give Israel any credit for doing so.

This week, I not only read just about everything I could about the situation, but I also listened in on three conference calls for rabbis on the current situation in Israel. The first featured Avihai Mandelblit, PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff; the second featured Israel’s consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, and IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner. The third was with Israeli’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. All of them said essentially the same thing: that the goal of the current IDF operation, Protective Edge, was to restore peace and quiet in the areas that are now being targeted by Hamas rockets. Among the additional points of interest were the following:

  • The current escalation by Hamas actually preceded the kidnapping and murder of the three young Israeli men and the aftermath of the incident.
  • Hamas is acting now out of desperation, having lost much of the support of two of its best patrons in terror, Syria and Iran, to their own internal issues..
  • Of the nearly 600 rockets in the barrage of the last few days, only a small subset were actually headed to populated areas, and most of those were successfully shot down by the Iron Dome system (provided by Uncle Sam). The technology, by the way, is good but not foolproof - it has about a 90% success rate.
  • Amb. Ron Dermer pointed out that the Iron Dome system is actually beneficial to the Palestinian cause as well. If there were more missiles falling in populated areas and more death and destruction within Israel, there would be greater calls on the IDF to move faster and retaliate more heavily in Gaza, resulting in more Palestinian deaths.
I must confess that in evaluating all of this, I am still troubled by the primary goal. Yes, it is important to restore peace and security, so that Israelis can go on about their lives and work and recreation as normal.

But the problem is that this is only a short-term goal. Who is thinking long-term here? And, recalling Pinehas and the broken vav, is there not a better way to achieve peace, and decades of quiet and stability rather than years, and the resulting economic benefit for both sides?

Let’s look at this another way: This is the third such major attack on terrorists and their infrastructure in Gaza since 2005  The military refer it to “trimming the grass”. Each time Hamas improves its technology; they are now manufacturing better-quality rockets in Gaza, and soon they will be able to blanket Israel with missiles. Each time, Israel quiets them for a a year or two. Then the barrage will resume. And hence the movie sequel.

In this round, there are now so-called M-302 missiles, which can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel’s two largest population centers. There will be more M-302s, and maybe even the next missile up, with better accuracy. Soon, virtually all of the Israeli population, from Haifa to Eilat, will be subject to bombing.

Nobody wants to negotiate with terrorists. Let’s be clear - that’s what they are. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner pointed out that if Hamas had invested their resources in civilian infrastructure instead of terrorist infrastructure, they would be in a very different place. But that’s not where they are; that is not who they are.

The bad actors in the Arab world, whether it’s Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah, ISIS, or the next wave of Islamists, would rather put their energy into military, rather than economic development. And that yields even more movie sequels, and more fractured peace all over the region.

But what can Israel do? What can we do?

We are certainly not going to simply flatten Gaza, as many armchair military strategists have boldly suggested. We are not barbarians. We are not murderers. We do not kill civilians.

We are not going to invade and take back Gaza. Who wants that?  

(My own chief military advisor, my wife, suggests the following: invade Gaza, root out Hamas, hand it over to Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, and get out. Tell them, “Elect whoever you want, but kindly remember that if you wage war on us we’ll be back.” I don’t think it’s quite so simple, given the complexity of the Palestinian street.)

We can only continue the current situation for so long.

Ladies and gentlemen, all the goals are short-term. We have to think long-term. We have to think past maintaining the temporary safety and security, and find a way to create a healthy, de-militarized Gaza. We don’t negotiate with terrorists, but we have to find a solution.

We’re the most clever people in the world. Even the most ardent Jew-haters will boldly concede that. We can figure this out. It will take international partners and cooperation and eventually we will have to trust them, and they will have to trust us, and trust, as you know, is in dreadfully short supply. But we can do this. We can find a complete peace, a shalom of sheleimut, of wholeness. We can repair that vav.

Meanwhile, what can we here in Great Neck do?

Call your Israeli friends and relatives and tell them that you are thinking of them. Email our elected officials about support of Israel in her time of need. Communicate through social media. Share personal stories. (If you are not on Facebook, you might want to sign up and go to the Temple Israel page to receive updates from our sister kehillah in Ashkelon, which is the largest population center close to Gaza. Our Facebook-master and Vice President Dan Goldberger is posting there regularly.)

Let’s not ever resort to name-calling or gross generalizations about the other side. The real criminal actors here are the terrorists of Hamas and their ilk; ultimately, we will have to find a way to work around them, to engage directly with reasonable Palestinians; and I pray every day that there will be more of them with whom to engage.

In Psalm 29, which we chant every Friday evening during Qabbalat Shabbat, and every Shabbat morning when we carry the Torah around, we say (v. 11):

ה' עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן; ה' יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם
Adonai oz le-amo yiten, Adonai yevarekh et amo vashalom. May God give strength to His people, and may God bless His people with peace.

Let us continue to be strong as we seek not only quiet, but real shalom, real lasting peace, so that we will never see this movie again.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/12/2014.)


  1. Thank you, Rabbi Adelson, for these thoughtful reflections.
    Shabbat Shalom,
    P.S. I also reached out to my friend Naomi at The Good People Fund about how to provide concrete assistance. I encourage others to do the same.

  2. Actually, death is news and always precedes the number of injured, even in a story about a fatal fire or Sandy. So in this turkey shoot, no wonder the Palestinian body count comes first. Now that the Israel death toll will escalate with the ground invasion, maybe you will be happier. This invasion is another disaster.

  3. @Observer Like you, I am very much wrought with anxiety about the ground incursion. More will die, and the pictures on the news will be terrible. But what choice does Israel have? Israel accepted the cease-fire terms proposed by Egypt; Hamas rejected. Hamas' proposal is ludicrous. And the missiles keep falling on Israel. What else can Israel do but try to take out all of the terrorist infrastructure?

    May the end come soon, and may we see as little bloodshed as possible.