Rabbis on the Third Rail


Having nothing better to do, I spent a fair amount of time last week trying to spearhead a Rabbinical Statement on Gaza. Sorry to report that after several days of back and forth we had to fold the entire project when it became clear that we wouldn’t find a wording that would satisfy a critical mass of rabbis. (To make matters even worse, an early version of the statement was precipitously posted on the net before we had consensus. I’m fairly sure it’s still floating around out there in cyberland in all its unauthorized glory…)

There were several motivations for the statement. First and foremost, it came from a desire to express a Rabbinical voice of opposition to Israel’s military action in Gaza, which we felt was strategically disastrous and morally outrageous. It was also important to us that Jewish community leaders publicly expressed sorrow not just for the loss of Israeli life but also for the massive devastation experienced by Gazans during the past three weeks:

We condemn the firing of missiles from Gaza that forced so many Israelis to live in fear and we mourn the loss of life that resulted from these attacks. However, we are devastated by Israel’s disproportionate use of force, killing more a myriad of people, including over 450 children. In the wake of such overwhelming civilian bloodshed, we can only ask, in the words of the Talmud, “How do we know that our blood is redder than the blood of our fellow?”

Additionally, since we felt we could not address the tragedy of the war while ignoring the larger political context of the conflict, our statement contained a strong message for the new American administration:

We urge our new President to turn back the policies of previous administrations – policies which have given Israel permission to take numerous measures that we believe are counter to the cause of peace, including the expropriation of Palestinian lands, destruction of Palestinians homes and businesses and the widespread building of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

The most controversial aspect of our statement was our call for the new administration to take an assertive diplomatic approach with Israel, and not to rule out the withholding of military aid “as necessary.” As anyone familiar with American Jewish community politics must surely know, withholding aid  is the “third rail” for organized Jewry –  i.e., the line that can never be crossed.

And it was this was the sentence more than any other that confounded of our core group of signers. We tried various different wordings: “if the administration deems it necessary,”  “withholding of aid as a last resort,”  “withholding aid for noncompliance” – but in the end, no wording seemed to suffice. Some felt that this was going to far and others refused to sign unless a strong statement about withholding aid was included.

I can certainly understand why this issue pushes such profound buttons for American Jews. It plays on our deepest fears and as well as our abiding sense of Jewish vulnerability. For many American Jews, the withdrawal of aid would be tantamount to abandonment by Israel’s most significant ally. But there are other Jews – and I believe their ranks are growing – who simply do not want to be party to Israel’s growing militarism and are not afraid to admit it.

For my part, I was less concerned about this particular issue, and perhaps that just reflects my own naivete. While I understand our community’s fears, I also believe that withholding aid is probably the strongest diplomatic “stick” America can wield with Israel – and in the end it may be the only one that will ever really get Israel’s attention. But whatever we might think about this issue, I just don’t agree that it must be ipso facto off the table for mere discussion in our community – and I deeply resent those in our community who reserve the right to excommunicate others who hold this opinion in good faith.

It’s all moot anyhow. No matter how we worded the statement, we couldn’t retain our core of signers. Some asked to have their names removed for various reasons. Many told me they would have loved to have signed, but couldn’t for organizational or professional reasons. After several days we called it quits.

I know there are some decent lessons in all of this, but mostly I’m just frustrated  and very, very sad. I know for a fact that there are many Jews out there who were waiting for rabbis to make a statement of this kind, regardless of the final wording. I still believe  that whatever the political realities, those of us who care about the shared fate of Israelis and Palestinians will have to find the courage of our convictions.

For me it really comes down to this: two of our most sacred Jewish values are Ahavat Yisrael (“Love of the People Israel”) and Ahavat Habriot (“Love for All People”). Should it really be that hard for us to promote both with equal passion?

7 thoughts on “Rabbis on the Third Rail

  1. myles

    i was eagerly awaiting this, so i’m quite sorry it couldn’t come to fruition. how frustrating! i hope some good comes of that process/exchange/discussion, at the very least… and thank you for spearheading it.

  2. Thomas Bauer

    dear Rabbi,

    What do you mean with “Having nothing better to do,” ? This was, this is important, what could you do better than to work to protect innocent people??

    Israel was – many years ago – a reference for me: a democratic society surrounded by Arab countries who mostly are not democratic (to phrase it politely). But in the course of the past 25 years or so i have seen Israel slipping towards a militaristic country, a country where Jewish lives are higher valued than non-Jewish lives.

    Please, understand me right: the rockets fired on Sderot and other places are pure terrorism, and justify a response. But Palestinian children and Palestinian people are also created by G*D, and are protected by the word in the Decalogue (not to speak of the 4th Geneva Convention).

    Please, Rabbi, I do not think that your efforts, your thoughts about these wasted lives are worthless! Peace can only come to Israel if Jews and Muslims accept that they must live together, that they respect each other, and give each other the chance of living in dignity. Your voice must not be silenced, and i hope that other Rabbis will see that what you are doing is important.

    I hope with all my force that Peace will come, that Arabs and Israelis, that Muslims and Jews will live together and respect each others right to live, even if they don’t *love* each other. This implies the respect of innocent lives – please do all what you can to defend this view of a better world! I know, it requires a lot of courage to do so, and i am sure that many people will support you even when they don’t speak out.


  3. MargeFrank

    Perhaps we need to wait and see what the new administration’s diplomatic approach to Israel will be before inserting the word “assertive” or threatening to withhold aid. After all, they’ve only been in office for one week, and it seems to me that the President’s reaching out to the Arab world, and appointing George Mitchell to the region are first positive steps. Why now, at this new hopeful beginning, should the rabbinical statement be so aggressive?

  4. Jonathan B-K

    Yasher koach, Brant! I would have signed on to your statement had I had the chance. My parents just sent a copy of the pre-maturely released statement that one of my mother’s Smith College classmates now living in Germany sent her, that she had picked up from a link from the Montreal Muslim News. It’s still great to see that you and other rabbis are out there articulating publicly (e.g., your blog, the Brit Tzedek open letter to Obama, not to mention the non-rabbinical editorial writers of Haaretz – Gideon Levy is one of my new heroes ) what many of us committed, conflicted, yes, even Zionist Jews feel. And the “third rail” is an apt metaphor for where you sit when we move the private conversations expressing the moral outrage we feel to a public forum.

  5. Pingback: Far From Zion » Peace Activists

  6. Gil Franco

    We condemn the firing of missiles from Gaza that forced so many Israelis to live in fear and we mourn the loss of life that resullted from these attacks


    Too bad you didn’t get around to condemning the firing of missles in the eight years before Israel finally acted to stop it. Those of us who support a two-state solution from abroad and virtually all Israelis understand that Palestinians will never get a state if they continue to use territory that Israel evacuates for mindless aggression against it. In the likely event that Rabbinical Statements don’t stop Hamas from firing rockets and in light of your desire that Israel not act militarily to stop it, I have to wonder whether you don’t really oppose a two-state solution.

  7. Menacham Mendel

    Rabbi Rosen,
    I am deeply disturbed by this article. I am no fan of the government of the State of Israel, and although on the surface, it may seem to you that you are trying to reach across the ‘great divide,’ I feel that you have aligned yourself with the wrong side.

    Eight years of daily rocket fire against Israeli citizens weren’t enough to merit a strong military response? What other country would tolerate the continued violence for fear of world opinion?

    The bombings against Hamas were not Israel’s first solution, either. Israel called for a stop to the attacks repeatedly, threatened that their would be a response if they continued, and warned Gaza to evacuate civilians before firing a single missile. And Israel, the world knows, does not bluff.

    I mourn for the loss of life on both sides. It is truly tragic. Every life is a precious gidt from the Almighty. But Hamas will not relent. Surely you know that since the cease-fire, Hamas rockets have begun to fire into Israel again? -Already? What should Israel do, wait for a 9/11-scale event?

    You should pray for Israel, pray for the Jewish people, and pray for peace. But don’t expect it to come knocking on your door carried by your enemies.

    May we merit Moshiach and the rebuilding of our Bais Hamikdosh in Yerushalayim, bimhayrah v’omeinu.

    With sincere ahavas Yisrael and ahavas habrios,
    Menacham Mendel


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