I blogged earlier this week about the merits of praying for Israel’s military safety. But this evening, I’ll share my thoughts on the recent actions of both the Israelis and the Gazans.
This week, I welcomed Shabat at the New Shul, an innovative congregation in the Village. In lieu of a sermon this week, Don Sylvan, former professor of political science and current head of JESNA, shared his assessment of the situation. This was prefaced New Shul Senior Rabbi Niles Goldstein’s brief discussion of the Rambam’s thoughts on just war. It is with the thoughts shared by Don and Niles the other night and with the thoughts of fellow bloggers Daniel Sieradski and Jesse Paikin in mind that I’ve figured out just what I think about the situation in Gaza and Israel.
And I’ll say also that I’m not concerning myself with the particulars of the conflict, but with the implications for either side’s supposed moral high ground as well as the implications for either side’s identity.
An archetypal story, to begin: A boy grows up poor and destitute. As an adult, he becomes a very wealthy man by being smart and by studying and working hard. Rather than recall his youth and sympathize with the poor around him, he becomes greedy and never donates to charity.
Or how about this one? A little girl grows up kicked around and abused by her mother. When she grows up and becomes a mother herself, rather than recalling her youth and stopping the cycle of abuse, she becomes an abusive mother herself.
Or how about this: A great nation arises under oppression. They throw off the shackles of their oppresive adversaries and become a mighty and influential nation, millenia later gaining their own state and self-rule in their own homeland. Rather than recalling their own genesis, they find their own relatively new nation to oppress. The cycle begins again.
That people that I’m talking about have a great philosopher named Rambam. One of Rambam’s great achievements, the legal code called the Mishnah Torah, speaks of two types of war. There is a milchemet mitzvah (an obligatory war) and a milchemet reshut (an optional war). A milchemet reshut begins when your adversary attacks first and you act in defense, or when you know your adversary will soon attack, and you pre-empt them.
But when does a milchemet mitzvah become a milchemet reshut? I would argue that when you’ve stopped the attacks on your sovereignty, but continue bludgeoning your opponent needlessly, you’ve exited your milchemet mitzvah and entered the realm of a milchemet reshut.
The Gazans are under attack. Though Israel pulled out of Gaza some time ago, Israel continues a hardline blockade of the tiny district, making life for the Gazans unbearbly hard. Rambam says they’re obligated to fight. They’re being starved to death by a blockade. On the other hand, it’s clear that what they’re doing is not helping their cause. So has their milchemet mitzvah become a milchemet reshut?
The Israelis are under attack. Though Israel pulled out of Gaza some time ago, the Gazans continue to shell southern Israel with smuggled rockets, making life for many southern Israelis unbearable. Rambam says they’re obligated to fight. Their homes and schools and business are being targeted along with their very lives. Rambam says they’re obligated to fight. On the other hand, it’s clear that what they’re doing in Gaza is not going to stop the rockets and that the civilian casualties in Gaza have become excessive. So has their milchemet mitzvah become a milchemet reshut?
We just had Chanukah, the story of our ancient oppression, in the very same land, and of our guerilla war to throw off oppression. And this very week, the Torah tells of Ya’akov’s family going down to Egypt to settle there, where they will become a great nation, under extreme duress.
There is a nation being formed under our noses in Israel today. There was no such thing as the Palestinian people when we got back to Israel, but there sure as hell is one now. We’ve got the opporunity to bring them into the world under better circumstances than we were brought into the world. We came into it in the shadows of pyramids and under the cracks of whips. The Palestinian nation is being born in fetid, decaying cities and under sniper fire.
No one has any moral high ground here. But Jews and Israelis have some moral experience. Why the hell aren’t we using it?
That’s why, if I was going to be in New York City next Sunday, I wouldn’t go to the pro-Israel rally. I wouldn’t go to the pro-Gaza rally. I’d go to the pro-Peace rally.
We may have a law about taking the eye of the man that took yours, but we have many, many more about peace.
Shavua tov. May this week bring us a little more peace than the last one.
[EDIT 1/11] The rally is TODAY, not next week. I’m an idiot. I still can’t go.