Uncharacteristically, I addressed the Gaza flotilla in a sermon last Shabbat. I share it with you in case you didn't make it to shul. Please remember NOT to respond to this email address. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am hoping that the discussion we just concluded of what could rightly be expected of the scouts who were sent into the land will help to inform us as we consider the events of earlier this week involving the Gaza Flotilla. For your information, the second wave of ships is probably nearing the blockade as we speak.
I want to remind you of the instructions that Moses gave to the twelve scouts. Commentators and readers alike may embellish on these instructions, but this is all the Torah says they were told:
"Go up there into the Negev and on up into the hills. See what kind of country it is. Are the people living there strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they live good or bad? Are the towns they live in like encampments or surrounded by walls? Is the land itself fertile or arid? Are there trees or not? And bring me back some fruit."
And the scouts came back with honest reports. They were impressed with the land, but terrified by the people who lived there. Only Joshua and Caleb presented a positive picture. In the moment, what looked obvious to the majority of observers was not what was in the interests of God, Moses or the Israelites. Only two of the scouts were able to take the long view and understand that the facts – and they were facts – might have seemed daunting, and that the struggle – and there was to be a struggle – would not be easy but that success – and there was no other option – would only come by meeting the sometimes unpleasant challenges at hand.
So if I were to send you out to scout this situation, if you were a reporter, or a human rights activist, or an advocate for Israel, or a United Nations observer, with simple instructions, we would face the same situation. Go out and tell me what you see.
If the first place you looked was the port of embarkation from which these ships began their quest to run the blockade, you would have seen what was loaded onto the ships. There were food supplies, construction supplies, and we don't know exactly what else. You would have to ask what the role of the Turkish government was in all of this preparation. Turkey has relations with Israel and was in conversation with Israel about how these supplies might be peacefully delivered. Apparently, those discussions did not end satisfactorily.
If the first place you looked was the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship, you would see something else. There were people of many nationalities, some no doubt with nothing but compassion in their hearts and some, equally no doubt, with nothing but malice in their hearts. You tell me whether it was compassion or malice to board a toddler and an 80-year-old. The videos and press releases from the IHH, the Turkish organization behind the flotilla, make it clear that they were out to provoke a response from Israel. Some of the people on the ship were individuals with a history of anti-semitism – not just anti-Zionism. One was an Israeli Arab legislator. Some were peace activists.
If the first place you looked was the Israeli blockade, you would have seen a well-documented attempt by the Israelis to offer an alternative to running the blockade. Safe harbor and supervised off-loading in Ashdod were offered to the ships. They refused. The Israelis seemed to board the ships with a minimum of weaponry, but it is important to remember that the firepower of the Israeli Navy was immediately behind.
If you were a scout sent to view this situation from any one of those three vantage points, you might rightly come to a conclusion about the encounter that eventually occurred between the ship that embarked from Turkey with passengers and crews from many nations that was stopped by the Israel Defense Forces. And that's what we are hearing from people who are looking only at the incident.
I want to take a giant step backward. I don't want to argue the intentions of the activists, the legality of the blockade, the adequacy of the tactics, the honesty of the actors involved. Those are all distractions. And I don't want to argue whether the people in Gaza are suffering. They are suffering. Not a one of you would want to live in Gaza, even if you were Palestinians. It is an awful place to live. Some of the suffering is because of the Israelis, some of it is because of Hamas, and some of it is because it is Gaza, which has always been a miserable place to live.
But if you think things are bad in Gaza for Palestinians, then you should consider what we advocate when we call for crippling sanctions on Iran. Many millions more people will be subject to deprivations, shortages and loss of essential needs. The impact on the civilian population -- especially on those who are not in the favor of the government -- will be huge. World outcry, especially from Muslim states, will be deafening, and the rhetoric from the regime will be ramped up to unimagined levels.
I don't care.
It isn't that I wish suffering on anyone. You all know that I am a knee-jerk, socialist, pinko, B. Hussein Obama-loving bleeding heart liberal. I give money to homeless people on the street because I KNOW they will spend it on drugs and alcohol.
But short of wholesale slaughter, this kind of suffering is the only way to protect genuinely innocent human beings -- Jews especially, for whom I have another acknowledged bias -- from the murderous intentions of some very bad people. The loss of comfort is sad, of dignity is tragic, of life is reprehensible. I would be very worried if (like our enemies) I did not feel the dissonance of causing those circumstances. And I am certainly willing, more than many, to absorb some unhappy circumstances in exchange for a secure peace.
But until Israel has neighbors willing to affirm the same protections for its children as they are demanding for the Palestinians' children, when it comes to suffering in Gaza or eventually in Iran, I will let my heart break and keep my mouth shut, as I did during the US embargo on Iraq (for much inferior reasons).
I am tremendously moved by Amos Oz and his call to reconsider how we view the use of force. In a front-page column in Wednesday "Ha'aretz," he observes that the proper use of force is to prevent – to prevent conquest, destruction and injury. The improper use of force is to impose, to suppress and to resolve. There is often a thin line between them, and we must stand with Israel as it negotiates that line in the same way that we stand with family members who are in the throes of dilemmas.
We should not be like the two Lerners who are insulting the dilemma we all face. Michael Lerner has called for kaddish for the dead members of the flotilla ship, and offers not a word for the injured soldiers. Pesach Lerner, no relation, has called for a misheberakh for the injured soldiers and not a word for the dead. I reject entirely both suggestions. These circumstances are sad – yet another front on the assault on Israel and on the ability of Palestinians and Israelis to solve their own problems. Asking us to choose between compassion and compassion in the moment is as short-sighted as the scouts.
Please, please keep the larger picture in mind. And hard as you may find it, do not let your choice of vantage point of this incident close your mind to the greater concern. Be like Joshua and Caleb, Caleb who did not deny the obstacles to overcome, but encouraged the people to meet the challenges. That's what this teaching suggests. That's what Israel needs. That's what justice demands.