Israel and Gaza: Speaking About the Unspeakable


Stayed up until the wee hours last night surfing the web reading report after report about Gaza.  Despite my better judgement, I couldn’t take my eyes off the horrific reports that Israel was using white phosphorous in densely populated civilian areas.  After seeing a picture in the NY Times of a 10 year old boy who had lost his eyesight and most of the skin from his face from phosphorous burns, I turned to reports on B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch. I’m ashamed to report I was reading this stuff well past the time it would have made sense to go to bed…

Needless to say as I read, my mind and emotions reacted a mile a minute, ranging back and forth from defensiveness to righteous anger and everything in between. Is it really true?  Perhaps the reports are mistaken?  Burning children alive in the streets?  Couldn’t there possibly be another explanation?

It’s been all the more upsetting since there has been a near total absence of any honest communal discussion about these kinds of reports. On one end of the spectrum, some can discount upsetting news like this by placing exclusive responsibility upon Hamas for cynically using civilians as human shields. On the other end, others will excoriate Israel for the barbaric genocide it is perpetrating against the Palestinian people. The rest, I imagine, simply bury the news deep down and move on.

This morning upon arriving at work, I read one of the weekly e-briefings that I regularly receive from a well-known American Jewish organization. It purported to give an up-to-date status report/analysis on the situation in Gaza, but it was essentially yet another excuse to dispassionately analyze Israel’s successful military “operation” in Gaza:

Israel acted decisively, despite (ongoing) internal divisions, the approaching elections, and the false image of a hedonistic society. A strong, determined, and high-spirited military, both regulars and reserves, showed up ready to do battle to rid the South of the missile threat.

Hamas’s own tactical designs collapsed, as the IDF put into practice the bitter lessons of 2006: Units were thoroughly equipped, well-trained, informed by intelligence, and ready for battle, anticipating the various tactics (such as booby-trapped houses and the rush of suicide bombers in civilian clothing or even IDF uniforms.

You get the idea. And in the meantime there was nary a hint of the untold civilian suffering and loss that this horrid war has wrought. I don’t know what I expected, really. I shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is for a community to find the werewithal to speak about the unspeakable. Is it too much to hope that we find a way to start?

12 thoughts on “Israel and Gaza: Speaking About the Unspeakable

  1. Jordan Friedman

    I think it’s healthy that there exists within the Jewish community a subset that does not subscribe to the unquestioning and chauvinistic patriotism and Israeli nationalism legitimized and indeed made the norm by the Zionist movement. Of course we have a cultural connection to Israel, just as the other two major monotheistic religions do. However, this does not mean that the Israeli government can do no wrong, and I’m immensely relieved to read that at least some Jewish clergy realize that. After all, isn’t white phosphorous one of the chemical weapons the Saddam used against his own people, and one reason Bush decided to remove him from power? While the strike on Gaza is a legitimate and justifiable retaliatory and preemptive move s is certainly not genocide as some Palestinian sympathizers would put it, I strongly believe that there is an element of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims on the part of Israelis and Jews worldwide. The misguided belief that Arabs/Muslims are antisemitic by definition and the resulting dislike for them is frighteningly common in the Jewish community in the Chicago area, especially among the older generation. While this hatred isn’t sufficient to provoke violence, it’s definitely there, and it’s disappointing coming from a group, and indeed a generation within that group who have seen the face of prejudice in the form of antisemitism. This needs to stop, and breaking away from the Israel-can-do-no-wrong mentality is the first step towards that end. At least on this blog I won’t be branded as anti-Israel or a heretic for saying so.

  2. Thomas Bauer

    Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    i wish to express that this conflict preoccupies me too, and exactly for the same reasons which i read in your blog: looking into the responses of the media, there is this black-and-white graphics: half of the posters shouts “Hamas terrorists”, the other half shouts “Israeli war criminals”. The suffering of the people is not perceived.
    I admit, i don’t look at the pictures but i spend a large amount of time reading and being angry – at the end also at myself since i do not know what i can contribute to stop this tragedy.

    Here is a thought: put the population of Gaza and the West-Bank under protection of an International Peace-keeping Force, and establish a police and security body to prevent crime from both sides: punish those who fire rockets on the other side, but also punish those who uproot olive trees. If protected in such a way, the wounds caused by these wars might heal, and the Arab population can perhaps come to the point of developing a functioning society, and both sides might come to the point of developing trust. — This kind of approach seems to have worked in Kosovo, perhaps not to everybody’s expectations, but the bad war 10 years ago his history now, and trust between Serbs and Albanians starts to develop.

    I have much hope that Pres.-elect Obama has a different approach than Bush, and i am extremely curious about his speech and first steps on next Tuesday or Wednesday.

    “I have a dream!” Your action, your blog from you – a Rabbi, is important, it might convince some people to think differently, and might help to transform this dream of peace into reality.

  3. kevin Larmee

    This is a link to a U-Tube video of the UK Jewish MP (and Holocaust survivor) Gerald Kaufmann, delivering a speech regarding Israel & Gaza.

    It is very powerful, and given the source, very courageous, poignant (and credible)…….and should, I think, be seen by any who want to know what is happening in Gaza, and/or are afraid to speak out.

    UK MP Gerald Kaufmann, re: Gaza

  4. Ann

    For those of you who believe that Hamas wants to sit down and talk peace, read:

    Why Israel Can’t Make Peace with Hamas

    NY Times | January 14, 2009

    And read the Hamas Covenant:
    “The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)
    18 August 1988

    Paragraph 2
    Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it” (The Martyr, Imam Hassan al-Banna, of blessed memory)…

    Peaceful Solutions, Initiatives and International Conferences:
    Article Thirteen:
    Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement. Abusing any part of Palestine is abuse directed against part of religion…”

    To read the complete covenant, go to

  5. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


    Here are two other articles: counterpoints to the one you recommended. (These are written by actual Israelis):

    From the latter article, on the issue of the Hamas covenant:

    The State of Israel has conducted negotiations with the PLO long before its Covenant was officially abolished, it did not wait for its abolition before signing an agreement with the PLO and starting implementation on the ground. The very holding of negotiations has rendered the Covenant meaningless. The same is true for the Hamas Covenant: the holding of talks between a Hamas-led government and the State of Israel will constitute mutual recognition – by the Hamas movement of the existence of Israel and by Israel of the Palestinian government also when formed by the Hamas.

    By the way you didn’t even bother to comment on my actual post: the fact that is using white phosphorous bombs in Gaza. Do you have any thoughts about that?

  6. Ann


    I’m sorry, I got side tracked from the subject of your post and was responding to one of your reader’s comments above.

    If this war is currently with Hamas, it’s fruitful to understand their philosophy – which is why I offered up their own words in their covenant written in 1988.

    Jeffrey Goldberg’s article referenced an interview with an “actual terrorist,” Nizar Rayyan – and I thought it was worth reading. It sheds light on the mindset of the Hamas leaders. I didn’t think you had to be an “actual Israeli” to write on the subject. (although Goldberg does say he was at one time in the Israeli army)

    Concerning the two articles you offer up as counterpoints:

    I previously saw the article by Gideon Levy and offer up a response to his article which I saw yesterday:

    An open letter to Gideon Levy
    By A.B. Yehoshua

    I don’t want to take quotes from it. It should be read in its entirety.

    Before giving too much credibility to your second citation, it would be worth looking into the source, the Centre For Research On Globalization. The CRG is very anti-Israel and in the past has presented many conspiracy theories about 9/11.

    Concerning the topic of your post, the use of white phosphorous:

    It was reported in the Christian Science Monitor, “The International Committee of the Red Cross says white phosphorus is being used in Gaza. No question. But they have no evidence that Israel is using it illegally.”

    Haaretz reports that Hamas is now using it, which is worrisome because of the indiscriminate nature of Hamas attacks.

    For the first time, Gaza militants fire phosphorus shell at Israel
    By Yanir Yagna, Haaretz Correspondent, and Haaretz Service.

    “White phosphorus is not considered a chemical weapon. Militaries are permitted under laws of warfare to use it in artillery shells, bombs and rockets to create smoke screens to hide troop movements as well as bright bursts in the air to illuminate battlefields at night.”

    If you decide to post my comments, I thank you. We do have something in common, Rabbi. We stay up at all hours reading as much as we can. We both want peace, but are in disagreement on how to achieve it.

  7. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


    I suppose we could keep using articles back and forth to try and prove our points. My essential point: Israel has to face the fact that as odious as they might be, Hamas is a legitimate representative party of the Palestinian people. In a sense they have already done this through numerous second channel negotiations with them. If there is going to be any real progress in the peace process long term, Israel will simply have to find a way to negotiate with Hamas more directly.

    I notice you dismissed the article I recommended because it is being distributed by the CRG. For the record, it was written by Uri Avinery and Adam Keller, long time Israeli peace activists and the founders of Gush Shalom. Whatever disagreements you might have with them, you cannot reasonably call them “anti-Israel.”

    Their essential point, which I think is well taken:

    The State of Israel has conducted negotiations with the PLO long before its Covenant was officially abolished, not did it wait for its abolition before signing an agreement with the PLO and starting implementation on the ground. The very holding of negotiations has rendered the Covenant meaningless.

    The same is true for the Hamas Covenant: the holding of talks between a Hamas-led government and the State of Israel will constitute mutual recognition – by the Hamas movement of the existence of Israel and by Israel of the Palestinian government also when formed by the Hamas.

    Re Israel’s use of phosphorous bombs: as far as I’m concerned, “There weren’t used illegally” and “Hamas might be using them too” is not a valid justification. They are barbaric, they invariably cause grievous injuries to civilians and Israel has no place using them in Gaza.

    I’m heartened that you feel we both really want the same thing, though we may disagree on how to get there. I agree. Now that it looks like a cease-fire may be imminent, thank God, let’s find what common ground we can and work for a real peace in the coming year.

  8. lostandconfused

    “…as far as I’m concerned, “There weren’t used illegally” and “Hamas might be using them too” is not a valid justification.”

    Fair enough, but one would expect you to not erroneously, and of course I assume unknowingly, define the use as illegal.

  9. Anya

    Over the last year I lost much of my sight to cataracts, and was told that I was high risk for surgery because of having Type I diabetes. Progressively, I lost the ability to see well enough to drive at night, and then during the day, to read, to shop, to navigate through an airport, etc., and I began to contemplate life–blind. Although I knew that I would not be hungry or cold, that I would still have resources and care, I was absolutely, utterly terrified, as I tried to imagine a dependent life; not being able to read, or move about with sureness, not being able to see my daughter’s face, not being able to draw my own insulin and control my own life in myriads of ways.

    I did have successful double cataract surgery. I have some “survivors’ guilt”; I feel tremendous gratitude and also some indescribable feeling knowing how many people in the world do not get this gift I received…not sure I’m worthy of it, whether I honor it fully each day, utilize it appropriately, practice good-enough self-care.

    The thought of children blinded by phosphorous, in the midst of the devastation of war, losing their parents, in rubble and chaos, hungry and terrified, is horrifying. And the thought of bombs and rockets exploding anywhere is abhorrent.

    And I, like Thomas, above, feel upset at myself as I try to futilely imagine what contribution I can possibly make to stopping this tragedy.

    I am grateful for this forum, which seems to me a quite civil discourse, and I’m very grateful to read posts from Jewish voices which feel kindred to me.

    I hope that there is another local meeting, very soon, particularly for those of us who have not had the luxury of hearing each other’s voices much. It seems to me we need comraderie and we need to think and work together. It need not be a program with speakers and presentations, just an ongoing opportunity to come together at this very sad and challenging time, to bolster one another, or whatever it is that we can do in community that we cannot do all alone at our computers.

    Thanks Ann Perkins for the link to the poem on Haaretz, above, which I recommend if anyone reading this didn’t link to read it yet.

    As the poem reminds us, this is a war between siblings. Perhaps many can identify with truly intractable issues in families. I can. There does not have to be agreement, but sides (with conscience) must stop well short of waging violent destruction upon one another. Like doctors taking the oath “First, do no harm”; there are standards to which we must hold ourselves, even if others do not hold themselves to those standards.

    If we, personally, could not toss a burning chemical into the eyes of a child, we must not sanction it, or anything like it.

    Thanks for affording me the opportunity to share my reflections.

  10. JAM

    Brant, I am very troubled by the war is Gaza. However I think we are not asking the right questions as we pull our collective hair and beat our collective chests in anguish.

    I have come to measure this war by the good war/bad war yardstick.

    Both sides are wrong. Hamas is making the clear public opinion gain, and that is what they want, and Israel is sending a clear message that the rules of war have changed.

    In the future Hamas will continue to fire rockets into Israel on a daily basis like they did before the war. When Israel reaches a tipping point they will respond as they just have. Unfortunately nothing has changed.

    We have a vicious circle. So is the war justified? Both sides have made their point. The Gazans have suffered as the pawns they are.

    If the war has proven 1 thing, it is that the pawns pay the price while the leaders play chess.


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