November 10, 2023
This week marked the “shloshim,” period, the 30 days since the horrific murders, brutality and abduction of thousands of Israelis by Hamas on October 7 th . The heaviness, grief and dread have been very much a part of our lives over the past month. Over this period, I reached out to my loved ones in Israel and spent a lot of time listening. I want to share with you some sense of what I have learned them about what life is like in Israel, share some of my own thoughts and struggles about the moment we find ourselves in, and finally, offer some words of hope.
This is a truly dangerous and existential moment in the history of Israel. My heart is so heavy with the painful reality Israelis are living with. Almost all Israelis have buried loved ones or attended funerals and shivas for friends and family members. Some mourners have no remains to bury, because some of those murdered cannot be identified after the violence. Many others are in utter pain, worry and dread as they fear for their friends and family members who have been kidnapped.
For those who have survived, they have had to leave their homes in the towns and Kibbutzim along the Gaza border, and some in the North as well. That means there about 200,000 internal refugees in Israel in need of the most basic services. While most Israelis complain bitterly of the government’s lack of responsiveness, civil society has galvanized to take care of these many refugees in an enormously moving and selfless effort. The more than 100,000 Israelis who were protesting in the streets are now organizing volunteers and aid, and 350,000 young Israelis have been called up to go to war. In the midst of this are continuing sirens warning of missiles, the closing of universities as well as some schools that don’t have adequate “safe rooms,” and the trauma unleashed by the unspeakable brutality, the crimes against humanity, that Hamas has committed.
As American Jews, we are thousands of miles away geographically from what Israelis are suffering, but our hearts are very close. I can never really know what it feels like to be in their shoes, and yet I carry their burden deep within, for my heart is with my people. There are no degrees are separation.
And it is because this is my people, and because our shared heritage is the source of my being, that I struggle deeply with what is unfolding in Gaza, which only increases my pain and my fear. It is clear to me that Hamas must be held accountable for crimes against humanity. They must be confronted militarily and cannot be allowed to rule in Gaza. Military force must be a part of the response, and that involves very hard decisions, given that Hamas’ strategy has been to embed themselves with civilians.
And yet, Hamas’ moral nihilism cannot be allowed to penetrate our souls so that we rationalize the imposition of a catastrophic humanitarian disaster on 2 million people. Israel’s survival requires military strength. But Israel’s survival depends on moral strength as well. It depends on allies, and moral leadership in the most impossible of times, and commitment to a shared future with the millions of innocent Palestinians who are their neighbors.
And here is where I’m struggling. I fear that the inflicting of huge and unbearable suffering among civilians in Gaza, and an unconscionable increase in state supported settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank is jeopardizing all three—our alliances, our moral leadership and our future.
I speak with the greatest humility in expressing these struggles. I am aware how much I can never know. Yet as a Rabbi for whom Jewish history, and Jewish and holy texts are primary, I do know that our survival for thousands of years is not disconnected from our prophetic and moral vision. And I know that during times of existential struggle in Jewish history, while there have been maximalist voices of military might, there have also been voices of restraint that have proved in hindsight just as central to our survival, if not more.
My heart is with my people, and my soul and moral compass is with Torah. Torah teaches we are all created in the image of God. If God sheds tears, so to speak, I believe God is shedding tears at this time for all children suffering, those in Israel and those in Gaza.
And those tears are, in a way, where I feel hope. My hope is with the people who shed tears for both, who reach across boundaries and work together for a shared future. My hope is with those interfaith and Jewish-Palestinian alliances who see in each other the image of God, and speak against hatred of the other wherever they see it. My hope is with those whose religious traditions guide them to act according to the deepest teachings of compassion and humanity.
There are many of those people, those leaders, and those groups among Palestinians and Jews. Groups like Omdim B’Yachad, Standing Together, a group in Israel where Jewish and Palestinian Israelis help each other and commit to building a future together. There are so many others. We need to strengthen these efforts and these leaders who believe in a shared future. We need to reject theocratic, messianic and nationalistic frameworks, and have the faith and courage to see strength as encompassing not power alone but, as the prophet Zechariah wrote, spirit.
If this sounds too idealistic, remember that it was Herzl himself who said: “if you will it, it is no dream.” If you believe in the miracle of Israel, believe in the miracle of shared future with equality for all people of the land, where all children will be cared for. This will require transformative leaders and the courage to expand our vision. Terror thrives on provoking the darkest corners of our being—hatred, fury, revenge. Counter-terrorism must include reaching across boundaries. In that way, in this existential moment, each one of us can be an agent of a better future.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman