In the year 2000, it was easy to travel to Gaza. Four massive Israeli military incursions and now this current, devastating war had not yet pounded it to rubble, had not yet destroyed its fragile economy, water supply and electrical grid. I joined a sight-seeing tour with a couple of friends.
Gaza was crowded and cramped. The sea was gorgeous. The poverty was relentless. We went to an amusement park, the beach, a beekeeping warehouse, ancient ruins, a café and a purse shop.
Then, a refugee camp. We wound our way through claustrophobic alleys that snaked from despair to bitterness and back again to despair. We finally arrived at the home of a Palestinian family. A man welcomed us into the family’s one room, which sheltered nine people. A young woman slipped me a scrap of paper with her phone number on it. “Get me out of here,” she whispered.
Gaza overwhelmed me. I try to imagine what despair and desperation look like now after Israel imposed its cruel blockade over two million Palestinians, turning Gaza into an open-air prison. I cannot.
And that’s the problem. I spent only nine hours in Gaza. I do not know the society. I would not know what to order at a restaurant. I cannot read or speak Arabic. I have no friends or family who live there.
I have only limited memories of Gaza, but I know Israel. After Hamas launched its heinous attacks which killed over 1300 people, photographs of dead Israelis flooded my social media. These people looked like me. They dressed like me. I once lived on a kibbutz. I might have partied at a desert rave in my younger years. I felt a palpable sense of familiarity.
Numerous friends shared stories of loved ones who were brutally killed or taken hostage in Hamas’ bloody rampage. A massacre of 260 Jews at a music festival. A child abducted. An elderly woman shot dead. My anguish runs deep.
The only stories I know of dead Gazans are the ones I have read about. I try to feel the desperation of the young woman I met in the refugee camp 23 years ago. I wonder if she is alive, and if she is, what her life must be like now. I try to imagine living without electricity. Or essential medicines. Or finding clean water when 97 percent of the wells are contaminated. I try to comprehend how she copes with the trauma of living through incessant bombing with no way out.
I used to believe that Israel was a unique experiment that would create a just society. It would mean liberation for the Jewish people. It had its flaws and weaknesses, but I supported Israel as a Jewish state.
My dream of Israel died in that refugee camp.
Now I hear bloodthirsty calls for revenge. Flatten Gaza. Eradicate Gaza. As Israel’s Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, said calmly and unequivocally about Israel’s siege of Gaza, “No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting against human animals.”
The world will not forget when Jews, themselves persecuted throughout history, unleashed unspeakable terror on another people.
Am I heartbroken? Yes. Scared? Yes. Do I agree with the rhetoric coming from some parts of the left that cheers on Hamas? Certainly not.
But I do not believe in revenge.
This is the time to turn towards international law, established after World War II, to prevent calamitous wars from erupting again. While imperfect in practice, these principles must guide us at this time.
No one may kill civilians, no matter the reason for war. International law is unequivocal. Civilians must not be targeted under any circumstance. No one may cause disproportionate harm. The brutality of one side does not justify the brutality of the other.
Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians constitute a war crime, both its indiscriminate firing of thousands of missiles into Israel and its killing and taking civilians hostage.
Yet we must not be silent in the face of Israel’s own war crimes: laying siege to Gaza by closing the borders and depriving civilians of electricity, food, water and fuel. The Hamas rampage does not give Israel permission to mercilessly bomb civilians, sometimes killing entire families.
My core values are democracy, equality, human rights and civil rights. It’s important to articulate them over and over again. I don’t want to practice a version of Judaism, or be part of a Jewish community, that sidelines or stifles them.
This is not the time to root for your team. This is the time to stand on the side of humanity. To protect civilians. To imagine a future when Israelis and Palestinians both live in safety and with dignity.
This past Yom Kippur, when the recent attack by Hamas was unimagined, I gave a sermon about Israel and said the following:
On Yom Kippur we take time to consider our ideals, and visions, and the narratives that shaped us. We take stock of who we are, and of what we believe. We ask ourselves whether the stories of our past still speak to the actual world we live in. We ask ourselves whether our political beliefs are aligned with our values. We ask ourselves, in what way will we engage and speak out?
I believe that Israel is the most important moral issue of the Jewish people in this era. What happens in the next ten or twenty years will profoundly affect the future of Jews, Judaism and Jewish life.
My core values are democracy, equality, human rights and civil rights. I think it’s important to articulate them over and over again. I don’t want to practice a version of Judaism, or be part of a Jewish community, that sidelines or stifles them.
At this time of war, I stand by these words. Now is the time to embrace our deepest values and protest this bloodshed.
Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman is the rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin.