Zionist Rabbi for Ceasefire

The years I lived in Jerusalem were full of prayer and study and the sacred practices of my people — lots of holy moments, spiritual fulfillment and a feeling of Home that nearly led me to move there for good.

It wasn’t some kind of naïve love. Those years also included intense, open-eyed struggle against the abuses and injustices my people were inflicting with our newfound power. I loved the place, but I loved it in a way that made me want to use my life to make it better. To help it fulfill its prophetic possibility.

For many months, I documented the suffering of Palestinians whose homes had been demolished. Not terrorists. Not the families of terrorists. Just regular people living on land and in houses they owned, where the Israeli government did not want them to build. I worked on a peace education project training educators and students from Israeli and Palestinian schools, and I saw how the Israeli government would thwart our efforts by restricting the free movement of participants. I witnessed a wrongful lethal shooting in a Palestinian village that was acknowledged by the Israeli authorities without any consequence or accountability.

I was also there during wartime. Watched friends displaced from the north come to live in shelters with their young children. Comforted colleagues unable to sleep with their teens on the front line, out of communication for days. Friends of friends were lost in terrorist attacks.

Even then, I imagined myself part of a story of redemption.

Now, as I sit to write, with more than 100 hostages held for more than 100 days, tens of thousands of civilians dead, no real plan for an end to the bloodshed and no faith in the people in charge, I no longer have the faith I once had. I wonder if this place that I have loved so much is failing. I fear that I may have had the blessing and the curse to live through a time that will be remembered as a miracle wasted, a historic opportunity squandered.

I love Israel, but not more than Judaism itself. Not more than humanity.

War is never good. It should always be a last resort. But if there was ever a just cause for going to war, Oct. 7 was it. Some would like to argue about the degree to which the Israeli policies and behaviors of the past may or may not have led to the attacks on Oct. 7. Certainly, Israel bears substantial responsibility for the extent of the misery of Gaza’s last decade. But no amount of suffering justifies murder, rape, kidnapping and infanticide. I find it sickening to blame victims for their own suffering. I was horrified as parts of the world, including my own allies on the political left, jumped within days to blame Israel for the massacre while my people were still burying the dead and discovering the violated bodies of our sisters and mothers and daughters.

There is no excuse for Oct. 7, and it is a lie to call it some kind of legitimate resistance. Celebrating Oct. 7 is an act of hate. I have been shocked to see this moment ignored and even celebrated in the United States. The extent of antisemitism surfacing in academic and civic arenas has been terrifying and real.

But just as the suffering in Gaza could never justify the atrocities of Oct. 7, the atrocities of Oct. 7 do not give license for Israel to destroy the homes of millions of people and kill tens of thousands of civilians, even if Hamas has intertwined its operations with schools and hospitals and civilian infrastructure.

Just as the suffering in Gaza could never justify the atrocities of Oct. 7, the atrocities of Oct. 7 do not give license for Israel to destroy the homes of millions of people and kill tens of thousands of civilians.

In order for a war to remain just, it must also be fought justly. All is not fair in war. There are rules — international standards, Jewish standards, ethical standards — rules that obligate soldiers and generals and decision makers to care for the humanity and dignity of their enemies even as they try to defeat them. Israel has not been following those rules. Not even close.

And for what? The actions of Israel in these past months have made its future far less secure. Israel has alienated allies and gone from a position of moral high ground and international sympathy to a position of isolation and condemnation. And what seeds are being sown? The survivors of the Gaza devastation will never blame Hamas for their misery. This war is traumatizing generations who will one day seek revenge. That does not make Israel safer.

There are those who believe that the best way to create security for Israelis would be to scare Palestinians into hostile submission, to terrify them so much that they never ever do this again … “This is a tough neighborhood,” they argue. “All of the surrounding dictatorships control their rebellions this way … .”

But here is the heart of the matter. I am not ready to become monstrous to defend my people from monsters.

The Jewish state is not meant to be merely an ethno-nationalist military state protecting a particular group by using the same horrible methods of other despicable ethno-nationalist military states. The State of Israel cannot be just about Jewish survival at all costs. There comes a point where Jewish survival is not just about the survival of Jewish blood and bodies, but about Jewish ideas and values.

If the State of Israel is to mean anything, it should at least aspire to embody the most basic of Jewish values. The great Rabbi Hillel taught the core of those:

“What is hateful to you, do not do it to others. That is the whole of Torah, the rest is commentary … .” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a)

As I write those words, words I have taught, words I believe, words I love, my heart cries out. Oh Lord, we have failed! We have failed! With each dying child we desecrate Your Name!

There comes a point where Jewish survival is not just about the survival of Jewish blood and bodies, but about Jewish ideas and values.

How can it be that we wield our power with no more compassion than any other brutes of history? We, of all people, who have been chased from one end of the earth to the other, who have suffered oppression for centuries — we find ourselves no better than any other band of men with vengeance in their hearts and weapons in their hands.

And yes, we can be proud of so much Israel has accomplished. We can lift up examples of democracy and pluralism in Israeli society, and the Israel Defense Forces’ code of conduct and the Israeli declaration of independence. Israel may well be doing better on human rights than some of its totalitarian neighbors. But that is a low bar for comparison, and one that does not justify our own bad behavior.

I love Israel. And I love Jews. I love Judaism. I have given my whole life to these loves. And right now, I have reached the point that I can no longer wait in silence for my traumatized brothers and sisters to do the right thing.

It is time to stop this war. For the sake of the Palestinians. For the sake of the Jews. For the sake of the future.

I do not accuse Israel of committing genocide or being colonialists. I do not question the right of the State of Israel to defend itself. But what is happening now is not self-defense, it is self-destruction. It makes neither the Jews of Israel nor the Jews of the diaspora safer.

The time has come to stop shedding blood and to begin the long path of refuah/healing and teshuvah/repentance. I pray that one day we can find our way to heal our wounds, live up to our hopes, acknowledge our mistakes, make meaningful repair and be forgiven.

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