Open the Gates: A Rabbinical Response to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla Tragedy

For a full, updated list of rabbinical signators to this letter, visit the Ta’anit Tzedek Blog.

Dear Friends,

In the wake of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla tragedy, we once again feel the need to raise our voices as rabbis in the Jewish community.

According to press reports, we now know that at least 9 people have been killed and many more have been injured when Israeli Navy Seals boarded a boat that held 600 people in the middle of the night – conducting a military operation against civilian activists in the midst of international waters.

We also know that the essential aim of the Freedom Flotilla was to carry humanitarian aid to those who have been severely suffering under the effects of Israel’s crushing blockade of Gaza. We call upon our community not to turn away in denial or blame those of good will and good purpose who risked their lives to relieve the beleaguered people of the Gaza strip.

We lift up our voices and call upon Israel to conduct an independent, transparent, and credible investigation of this incident. We also call upon the government of Israel to open the gates of compassion and allow these ships to dock so that they may deliver humanitarian aid to the 1.5 million citizens of Gaza. In so doing, we note the overall context of oppression in which this incident has occurred and call upon the government of Israel to turn away from the policies of occupation, siege and indifference to international law.

Our silence now is an act of betrayal to the values we purport to live by and to the words of the prophet we read every Yom Kippur:

Is this the fast I desire? A day for people to starve
their bodies? Or bow their heads like a bulrush
or wear sackcloth and smear oneself with ashes…
No! This is the fast the Lord desires:
Unlock the fetters of oppression
Untie the cords of the yoke
Let the exploited go free, break off every chain.
share your bread with the hungry,
Shelter the poor in your own house
clothe the naked and do not ignore your own kin.

As rabbis, we believe all human beings are our kin. We cannot abide the suffering inflicted upon the people of Gaza.

We lift up our voices and say: Unlock the fetters of oppression. Untie the cords of the yoke. Open the gates.

12 thoughts on “Open the Gates: A Rabbinical Response to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla Tragedy

  1. Raviv

    As someone who would generally agree with statements emanating from this forum, I feel I must speak out in response to this one relating to the recent flotilla incident. Indeed, this particular statement contains a number of inaccurate and dubious claims that warrant comment.

    It is claimed that Israel conducted a military operation against “civilian activists” and that the latter’s “essential aim…was to carry humanitarian aid”. In the accounts and filmed footage that have emerged during the subsequent days, these claims ring hollow at best. I too have major reservations about not only the decisions made by Israel’s (military and political) leaders but with the very decision-making process as well. Nevertheless, what is today indisputable is that these activists were neither “non-violent” nor motivated primarily to provide humanitarian aid.

    Statements like yours therefore obscure the complex circumstances under which this incident took place and, in so doing, contribute little to the attempts of (genuine) peace-loving people to transform the troubling reality here in the Middle East.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      Our statement does not claim that the activists were “non-violent.” Were there some odious types aboard the flotilla? Absolutely. Were they prepared to fight back if they were attacked? Clearly. But I think its simplistic and unfair to say that it is “indisputable” that they were not motivated by humanitarian aims.

      The Freedom Flotilla represents an act of civil disobedience motivated by an unjust blockade of goods and services to Gaza. Yes, historically, acts of civil disobedience are experienced as acts of provocation by the objects of this disobedience – but this does not mitigate the essential justice of their cause.

      Whatever else you might think about the organizers of the flotilla, they are attempting to bring desperately needed supplies to a beleaguered population who are suffering as a direct result of Israel’s policies. I believe those who support these goals (like me) are quite “genuine” in their desire for peace and justice in the Middle East.

      1. Shirin

        Were there some odious types aboard the flotilla? Absolutely.

        Rabbi, with great respect I ask you on what basis you state absolutely that there were some “odious types” aboard the flotilla. It may be that you know something I do not know, and if so please share this information. Otherwise I must seriously question why you would make such a strong negative characterization of a group of people who appear to have been defending their lives against a deadly attack.

        Based on the eyewitness accounts so far from people who were on board the Marmara (including several journalists, who are trained to be very observant), and others who witnessed the events from nearby boats, the Israeli commandos began firing at the people on board the Marmara from the air and from the sea before they boarded the ship. So far every eyewitness has reported seeing and/or hearing stun grenades and gunshots before the Israelis boarded the ship. One person who witnessed the attack from a nearby boat reported that she is not sure whether the Israelis were shooting so-called “rubber bullets” (which we know are really metal pellets with a coating of rubber, and are potentially quite deadly) or live ammunition. Witnesses who were on the Marmara reported live ammunition from the air and sea before the Israelis came on board.

        At least two people were killed from the air before the Israelis came on board, one by a gun shot to the top of his head. A journalist has reported seeing them both fall. The Israelis wounded three others in those early moments, and then denied them any attention until they died of their wounds. One eyewitness reported watching people bleed to death after pleas to the Israelis to evacuate them were denied.

        Activists on other vessels report very brutal and contemptuous treatment from the Israelis despite the fact that they did not resist, or resisted without the use of violence. Any and all recording and communication equipment was confiscated by the Israelis and has not, and probably will not ever be returned. Journalists recording devices, recordings, and notes were also confiscated, of course. Are the Israelis afraid of what those recordings will reveal?

        Based on the information I have so far what there were on board that ship were not “odious types”, but human beings who found themselves under a terrifying brutal and deadly attack, and who followed the imperative for self preservation that is present in all living beings. In my world it is not odious to use whatever means I can to defend myself against heavily armed thugs who have invaded my space and are shooting at me and my comrades.

        Based on the information I have so far the only odious thing was the actions of the Israelis. Do you have information that will help me to change that view?

    1. Shirin

      No one is asking Israel to help the people of Gaza, we are asking Israel to stop violating their human rights, stop manipulating their politics and destroying their economy, and leave them free to choose their own fate for good or for ill. That is all. Same for the people of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In other words, all we are asking Israel to do is for once comply with international law.

      Or to put it another way, let my people go.

      1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


        I used the word “odious” because I saw the Al Jazeera video of some flotilla participants chanting radical Islamic anti-Jewish slogans as they waited to board the ships. I realize they did not represent all of the activists, but I also take these news accounts very seriously.

        To be fair, the folks aboard the flotilla are a mixed multitude. It is co-sponsored by different organizations with different agendas and approaches. For instance, the International Solidarity Movement (an organization for which I personally have high regard) is strictly non-violent in its approach. The Turkish Islamic charity IHH is not.

        I think it would be wrong to describe all the flotilla participants as Jew-hating “Islamists” but I would also say it is highly naive to claim that they are all uniformly pure of motive. At the end of the day, this is the bottom line as I see it: regardless of what we might think about individual participants, the Freedom Flotilla is an honorable act of civil disobedience against the unjust and illegal blockade of Gaza by Israel.

        What are the sources you cite for your claims, Shirin?

  2. Dunia


    Thanks for the letter.


    Yhanks for writing with intelligence and without vile and offence statements about other human beings.

    I wish we could find a way to alleviate the suffering in the region, both physical and emotional, and put the politics aside.

    Best regards,

  3. Shirin

    Thank you for your response Rabbi. Where did you see this video? Of you can provide a link to this source I would be interested in seeing it. Was it from Al Jazeera English, or Arabic? Assuming the people were not chanting in English, who provided the translation of what they were saying? If they were chanting in Arabic, I would like very much to look at that video myself to see if I can make out what they were saying. If they were indeed chanting “radical Islamic anti-Jewish” garbage, that is very disappointing indeed, and the term odious is appropriate, both from an Islamic point of view, and from a human point of view.

    There is nothing in Islam, and nothing in the Qur’an to justify hatred of Jews – quite the contrary in fact – and it is extremely distressing that there are people who can turn any religion into a vehicle for hatred.

    As for my sources, they are video, audio, and print interviews with a variety of eyewitnesses. Huwaida Arraf, whom I am sure you are acquainted with, is one of them. She witnessed what happened on the Marmara from the deck of her boat. Several people who were on the Marmara have been interviewed as well as Huwaida, Edward Peck, Ann Wright, and a number of less well-known people who were on other vessels. As more and more people who were on the Marmara are interviewed we should be able to piece together a reasonably accurate picture of what happened. For now, though, it seems absurd to suggest that the violence was instigated not by the party that attacked and forcibly boarded the ship, but by the people who were subjected to the attack.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      Here is the YouTube clip of which I spoke. I realize the Al-Jazeera piece was posted by the extremely partisan Palestinian Media Watch – and that they composed the subtitles. I was nonetheless disturbed by the content and I’d love to know what you make of it. I would love even more to be proven wrong:

      1. Shirin

        I wish I could prove you wrong, Rabbi, but I cannot. Assuming the people chanting in the video were in fact participants in the flotilla (which seems probable, but not absolutely certain), the translation was accurate. I have heard this chant before, and do not like it at all, though I do not interpret it in quite the same way most Jews are liable to.

        It is a historical reference to the military defeat of some Jews who worked against the Muslims (some Jews were considered friends and allies, some were neutral, and were pretty much left alone, some were against the Muslims and were enemies). I understand it in that historical context with respect to Israel, and not in the context of hating or killing Jews in general. I am not trying to mitigate anything, just to give some context. However, I also consider its use and the thinking and attitude behind it to be, if not odious, an extremely bad choice. It should always be clear in our minds and in our words and deeds that our argument is not with Jews or Judaism, but with Israel and Zionism. Moreover, the dispute is not and never has been a religious one, despite the efforts of some on both sides to transform it into one.

        Having said that, and not at all by way of excusing what we hear in that video, this problem exists very much on both sides. Last week I attended a demonstration in front of the local Israeli consulate, and some of the signs and speech from the (surprisingly small number of) counter-demonstrators were quite horrible. For example, very large signs saying things like “Until Gaza is completely destroyed the job will not be finished”, and “God is great, it’s Islam that sucks”.

        I can say with confidence that anyone on our side who brought something similar would be asked to take it down, or leave. Maybe it is because we have so many Jews with us in this area that we have this level of consciousness – I don’t know. We have a few American anti-Semites who have been kicked out of so many demonstrations by now that they rarely bother to show up anymore. One of them used to come to all the Arab social events he could find out about. I suppose he expected to be welcomed as a “fellow Jew hater”, but he was completely isolated and no one would talk to him, so he stopped showing up.

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