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Why I’m Rejecting Rabbi Yoffie’s Call for Progressive Jews to Support Israel’s Bombing of Gaza

Originally published in Tikkun Daily

Rabbi Eric Yoffie has penned a Haaretz opinion piece directed at progressive, U.S. Jews that is so deluded and insidious, it’s as though it was written in the same political and psychological vacuum inhabited by Netanyahu’s government.

Yoffie, former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, argues that progressives should champion Israel’s “get tough” Gaza stance. It’s a call he makes using shockingly misguided and narrow arguments. It’s a call I, and all progressives, should reject.

Here’s why:

First, Yoffie fails to understand the strategic motivations behind Israel’s current “Pillar of Defense” campaign. He thinks it’s all about security – that the targeted assassination of Ahmed Jaabari, a top Hamas commander, as well as the countless bombs killing militants and civilians alike in Gaza are to protect Israeli citizens from a dangerous, militant Hamas.

They are not.

The truth is this: Israel has engaged in its current, escalating military campaign not to protect Israelis from a militant Hamas, but in order to ensure that Hamas in Gaza remains militant. See, while Jaabari was a known terrorist who had his hand in the Gilad Shalit kidnapping, he was also the Hamas leader both willing and capable of enforcing ceasefire agreements. In fact, as Gershon Baskin writes in “Assassinating the Chance for Calm,” Jaabari was considering a ceasefire proposal the moment he was assassinated. And Baskin should know, for he was working closely with Hamas officials on the proposal itself.

So why would Israel assassinate a Hamas official, a move guaranteed to provoke extreme outrage and revenge, at a time when Hamas leaders were working on a ceasefire? The answer is simple and twofold: a) Netanyahu’s government wants a militant Hamas in Gaza; it wants a situation in which Gaza becomes isolated from the West Bank, hoping eventually Greater Israel will be obtained with Gaza becoming a separate entity, and b) with Israeli elections set for January, electoral motivations are undeniably in play with regard to this sudden military barrage.

This has happened before, this tactic to destroy a cease fire and stoke militant extremism. And it’s a tactic I know intimately. See, in 2002, my wife was injured in the bombing of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bombing, carried out by Hamas, was a revenge attack for Israel’s targeted assassination of a top Hamas terrorist, Sheikh Salah Shehada. The rub? This assassination came 90 minutes after Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Authority’s Tanzim had agreed on a long-term ceasefire agreement that included a historic call from all organizations to end all terror attacks on civilians.

In 2002, Ariel Sharon launched an Israeli offensive when Palestinians were on the cusp of an historic ceasefire. Today, Netanyahu has done something similar. Both moments share a singular motivation: ensuring that Hamas remains a militant enemy. It is a desire Hamas has been all too willing to oblige for its own political gain, willing to accept the self-destructive, symbiotic relationship Israel offers repeatedly. Yes, Hamas is equally culpable in accepting Israel’s hand in continuing a cycle of violence. But that culpability does not validate Yoffie’s position. Instead, it weakens it all the more.

The second reason to reject Yoffie’s “progressive” call is due to his stunningly misguided read on the human toll in Gaza. While Yoffie is right to be concerned and devastated about the suffering of Jewish civilians being injured and killed by rocket attacks from Gaza, he is wholly blind to the suffering of those in Gaza. In fact, Yoffie paints a picture of a Hamas that brutalizes Israeli civilians with rocket fire, and an Israel that always responds ethically and “with modest force” such that Palestinian suffering is minimal.

Anyone with even a limited understanding of what life in Gaza is like right now knows that Palestinian suffering is intense and overwhelming. Millions of people are being terrorized by one-ton bombs falling incessantly in residential areas, and scores of civilians – including young children – have been injured and killed so far. And those injured are unable to receive proper medical attention due to medicine and supply shortages caused by Israel’s blockade of Gaza, itself a brutal and ever-present stranglehold.

The third reason to reject Yoffie’s progressive call is because of the psychological place from whence his entire stance actually comes. In the end of his essay, he reveals why he believes everyone should support tough, massive military responses:

Israel came into being so that Jewish children would never again have to huddle together in fear, terrorized by enemies of the Jewish people, while their parents stood by helplessly. Helping those children is a progressive cause. And doing nothing for them undermines the sovereignty of the Jewish state and strikes a fatal blow at the very raison d’etre of Zionism.

The tragic irony, an irony Yoffie even recognizes is his post? It’s this: Jewish families are huddled right now, being terrorized by a barrage of Hamas rockets, precisely because of “tough” Israeli response for which Yoffie advocates. And it’s a position he advocates not out of wisdom, but out of those psychological demons that still haunt us from the Holocaust – demons which magnify Jewish victimhood such that brutalizing another people becomes a justifiable, even necessary position.

It is neither.

As Dahlia Scheindlin writes, there was another way. There always is.


Author’s Note: For those who might reject my last paragraph treating the psychology of perspective, read Daniel Bar-Tal’s “Why Does Fear Override Hope in Societies Engulfed by Intractable Conflict, as It Does in the Israeli Society?

For in it, he shows the correlation between Israeli Jews’ fear of annihilation (as a people) and the unwillingness to empathize or negotiate with the Palestinians — making it a competition for victimhood, a zero-sum game.

Most interestingly, the study also shows that Israeli Jews who fear for their own personal safety are just as willing to compromise and negotiate with Palestinians as those who fear no personal harm. It’s the national fear of destruction that paralyzes everyone.


Sometimes, all I can do is shake my head…

…when I read items such as this, from the Guardian:

Israel is considering plans to build an artificial island off the coast of the Gaza Strip to house a sea and airport, and encourage tourism in the area.

Yisrael Katz, the Israeli minister for transport, said the plan had been under consideration for many months and had been encouraged by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. He said it would also relieve Israel of the obligation to be the transit point for goods into the enclave.

Forget for a moment the absurdity of such an idea, or the the fact that such a project would be an environmental catastrophe, destroying the coasts along Gaza and Israel.

The real head-shaking element is that such a proposal is being offered as a surrogate for the fact that Gaza’s airport has been destroyed and it has no effective port.

This proposed island would be under international control, and would, according to a spokesman for the Israeli transportation ministry:

…improve the quality of life for Palestinians in Gaza while ensuring Israel’s security. “The island would be three square miles and it would be linked to Gaza with a three mile-long bridge which could take vehicles, trains and pipes for oil and gas. The island would have hotels, tourist areas, a marina with yachts and an airport and a seaport.”

Yachts. A marina. A three-mile bridge. In the middle of the ocean. Rather than in Gaza. To improve the Palestinians’ quality of life.

I have no words.

Look, I understand security concerns. I support Israel’s right to secure borders and a secure existence. I desire it. But this idea has so many astonishing contradictions that all I can do is laugh.

And it’s not funny.

The Palestinians Might be Unifying, and Netanyahu Doesn’t Approve

Something is happening in the West Bank and Gaza, something that hasn’t happened since 2007 when Hamas, after a 5-day civil war, forcefully kicked the Palestinian Authority (Fatah) out of the Gaza Strip.

What’s going on, you ask? This: the Palestinians are trying to unify, to bridge the large social and political rifts that were created in 2007. Or, more accurately, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is attempting to reconcile with Hamas, having met with representatives from the organization for the first time in over a year this past weekend.

Netanyahu, in a public admonishment of Abbas, clearly demonstrated that and he does not like the idea of reconciliation one bit. (Netanyahu, directing comments towards Abbas, said, “You can’t have peace with both Israel and Hamas.”)

Why would Netanyahu be testy about what’s happening? Let’s start with the obvious: Hamas is a known terror organization which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. That, in and of itself, is enough of a reason, some would argue, for Netanyahu to refuse dialogue with Abbas if he recognizes Hamas as a legitimate partner.

But something else is at play here, for Netanyahu’s government, despite public stances, has secretly negotiated with Hamas in the past, particularly with regard to Gilad Shalit.

So what is the real issue?

In my view, it’s this: Netanyahu has been counting on Palestinian disunity. He has been counting on it in the face of a pending September United Nations meeting in which Abbas plans to unilaterally declare statehood if nothing significant is resolved with Israel before then.

Netanyahu has known that, without an agreement between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah (the Palestinian Authority), a unilateral declaration of statehood by Abbas will mean nothing to Hamas. Thus, such a declaration would be futile, and perhaps even destructive for Palestinian chances at unity.

However, now that it appears the Palestinians may be trying to reconcile, the September UN date is looming a bit larger.

And Netanyahu appears to be none too pleased.

Could Palestinian unity – if a real reconciliation actually happens – force Netanyahu to get serious about dialogue with the Palestinians, about reaching some type of final status agreement before the world recognizes a unilaterally-declared Palestinian state?

The chances are slim. But in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, slim chances are better than none at all.

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