Current AffairsIsrael

Feeling Schizophrenic

This is a really really hard time to be an Israeli “peacenik.”

Hamas has obviously had some great success in smuggling long-range rockets from Iran into the Gaza Strip. Rockets have been falling all over Israel, including in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, as far south as Mitzpeh Ramon and as far north as near Haifa. Probably 70% of the Israeli population has heard sirens go off and has had to run for cover in the last week. I personally have had to run for cover and have heard the explosions of Iron Dome interceptions of Hamas rockets three times in the last few days. The picture accompanying this post is a picture I took from downtown Jerusalem showing one of those interceptions, right over the Knesset. I was at the very upscale Mamilla Mall, on my way to a wedding, when the sirens went off. I ducked for cover with a crowd that included a few blasé Israelis and some frightened tourists; as soon as I heard the “boom” that signified either a rocket landing or an Iron Dome interception I ran to a spot with a view where I caught the picture of the smoke trails of the rockets. A few minutes later I was drinking a whiskey, which I really needed, and an hour later we were rejoicing with the bride and groom.

So here’s my schizophrenia:

On the one hand, I not only believe, but I know, that the ongoing Israeli Occupation of the West Bank is WRONG. It’s wrong morally, it’s contrary to Jewish values, and it’s bad for Israel. It needs to end. Everyone knows what the “formula” for peace should look like, and no one seems able to put it in place. A Palestinian state with borders roughly based on ’67 with land swaps so that the major settlement blocs stay in Israel, Jerusalem divided (it already is) with the Palestinians able to have their symbolic capital in the eastern part of the city (the “real” capital no doubt would remain in Ramallah), some acknowledgement of Palestinian refugees without any full right of return, etc. The same basic formula that has been floating around since at least 2000. The Palestinians should have a country of their own. When my right of center Israeli friends call for a ground invasion of Gaza to get rid of Hamas “once and for all,” I shake my head, because I know it won’t work and it will just cause an appalling loss of Palestinian lives. And like Hydra, cut off one head and another takes its place. You can’t stop terrorism with a one-time military action. Sure, we could re-occupy Gaza, but Israelis don’t have the stomach for the ongoing loss of Israeli lives that would entail (thank God). The only real solution to the problems here is real peace.

On the other hand, Hamas is evil. Hamas is not interested in peace with Israel. Hamas doesn’t want a “two-state solution.” Hamas wants to destroy Israel. Hamas wants a single “judenfrei” state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Hamas intentionally targets civilian population centers, which is a war crime. Hamas uses human shields, which is a war crime. Israel uses weapons to defend humans, and Hamas uses humans to defend weapons. They are just flat out evil. I feel really sorry for the people of Gaza, but as long as Hamas keeps smuggling in long range rockets to attack Israel, I don’t see how the blockade around Gaza can be lifted.

When my Palestinian or Arab friends post pictures of dead or injured civilians in Gaza and curse “Israeli aggression,” I also shake my head. There is not a single country in the world that would tolerate missiles aimed at its civilians. So yes, Israel needs to end the occupation, but Israel is also justified in taking steps for self-defense. As peace-loving as I am, when my kids are frightened, and I have to run for cover once every few days, I favor military action to stop the rockets. And to stop Hamas, that means there will be some civilian deaths. There are in every war, there is no way around it. And I do believe Israel does what it can to minimize civilian deaths. I don’t know whether it’s because the political echelon has absorbed the Jewish value of not using more force than necessary, or it’s simply because they don’t want to bring down the condemnation of the international community, but we don’t target civilians. If we did, the death toll in Gaza would be orders of magnitude higher.

There is an argument that Israel provoked the fight by the mass arrests of the Hamas leadership in the West Bank in the wake of the kidnapping of three Israeli teens, despite knowing the kids were already dead and that the operation was not authorized by the Hamas leadership. If so, shame on Israel. But Hamas’s response of shooting missiles at Israeli civilian population centers brought about the very predictable Israeli response.

In a way, Hamas reminds me of the Jewish zealots of 2,000 years ago. In the year 70, they attacked the Roman “occupying force,” which had far superior military power. And they were crushed. In the last week well over a hundred Palestinians have died, and so far only two Israelis have died; one was a woman who had a heart attack while running for a bomb shelter, and the other was a soldier in a traffic accident near the border with Gaza that did not directly have anything to do with Hamas. Maybe there’s something in the water in this part of the world that encourages zealots to take on military fights they can’t win.

But we seriously need to stop the fighting and killing. We don’t need any more deaths, not Israeli ones and not Palestinian ones. We simply have to find a way to live together. Contrary to Hamas’s fantasies, Israelis are not going to “go back to where they came from,” and contrary to the fantasies of the Israeli right we can’t keep ruling over a few million Palestinians without giving them citizenship forever.

Hamas needs to lay down its arms and join the Palestinian Authority in using peaceful means, including international pressure, to get Israel to end the occupation. Israel needs to stop building settlements and needs to get serious about reaching an agreement for a just peace with the Palestinians.

It seems so obvious. Let’s stop killing each other! People’s lives, on both sides, will be so much better when we have real peace. Israel and Palestine could have a very symbiotic relationship, benefitting both peoples both economically and personally.

I’m feeling very pessimistic though. We know how this will turn out. Same way it’s turned out before. Hundreds of Palestinians dead, and then peace for a few years. Hamas will continue calling for the destruction of Israel, Israel will keep building settlements, and we’ll be stuck in this horrifying dance until real leadership emerges on both sides that can somehow find a path to peace.

I know we can’t just wait for the Messiah to come and fix things, but at the moment I’m feeling a little lost as to what I could do that would really help bring the peace that I long for. Let me know if you have any ideas…




Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

4 thoughts on “Feeling Schizophrenic

  • I’m with you. I’m an American pacifist Jew who’s struggling with the very same quandary, and I’m engaged in a more-than-spirited debate with my family, all of whom support Israel no matter what. There are a lot of us–though I think we who aren’t in Israel feel that it’s not really our place to criticize too vocally, as rockets aren’t raining down on our towns.

    But I do have ideas. Everything you say is accurate, and there’s no doubt we need new leadership. Israel needs to stop provoking and radicalizing Palestinians to the extent that they elect a terrorist group to lead them, and the Palestinians need to condemn Hamas’ tactics. As the adult in the room, though, it’s Israel’s obligation to take the leadership role–stop new settlements, relocate ones that exist, move the wall to within Israeli territory, ease the blockade in part if not wholly and take the fire away from Hamas by improving conditions in Gaza. As the locus of regional power, it’s also Israel’s moral imperative to minimize civilian casualties. And as a point of strategy, it’s more logical to stop responding to rocket attacks with predictable, polarizing force.

    However, if a response to hostility is required, then make it truly painful to Hamas where it counts: in the PR war. Hamas’ strategy in firing rockets is to get Israel to respond and kill civilians, and Israel is obliging them quite nicely. Israel is doing some good by warning civilians of impending attacks, but it should do more. It should welcome the refugees. Offering haven–food, shelter–to Palestinian refugees is not only a moral obligation, but it presents Hamas with lose/lose quandary. Either they let people leave and lose their bargaining chip (and humans shields), or they try to stop people from leaving. If Hamas were to try the latter, it would reveal its strategy for what it is, both to the world and to the Palestinians themselves. How do you think Palestinian parents would view their democratically elected government if it physically detained their children in a war zone—a war zone that it invited? Some might be willing to become martyrs for jihad, but my presumption is that most would be furious.

    If Israel makes a sustained good faith commitment to improving the lives of Palestinians–and I’m talking about decades of commitment–it will slowly defuse radicalism. But I agree we need new leadership, not someone who’s going to throw a predictable asymmetric hissy fit every time some lunatic launches a rocket.

    I wish you the best–it can’t be easy. Be safe and please, don’t give up your idealism. We need it.

  • you describe my feelings so perfectly. torn, stuck between two thoughts. Well described.

  • Paul Ballard

    Dear Rabbi Leff, Since Israelis and Palestinians have been effectively at war over issues of land ownership rights for over sixty years, it is hardly surprising, surely, that you would feel as you do toward Hamas, one of the leading Palestinian political and military organizations. They, after all, are simply attempting to defend their people’s best interests in much the same way as Israeli government and organizations are doing. That said, in 2006, right after their victory in the legislative elections in Palestine, Hamas offered to negotiate a long-term peace agreement with Israel. This offer has been remade in writing many times since. In a similar situation in Northern Ireland in the 1970s to 1990s, the stand-off between Catholic Nationalists led by the IRA and the Unionist Protestants continued because the more powerful Unionists refused to talk with the IRA. Yet, in a war, both sides can be expected to arm themselves as best they can to defend their own side to the max. Isn’t this what Israel and Palestinian organizations such as Hamas are doing? Instead of brandishing emotive words such as “evil”, which connotes a total unwillingness to negotiate a compromise for peace, why not make the effort to make peace by talking directly with Hamas? This is what ultimately worked in Northern Ireland, which is now at peace. Too often, in the heat of war, folks on one side or the other evoke such terms as “evil” in reference to their opponents. In all but a few cases – Hitler’s Germany being one such! – this is often overblown and simply obstructs finding a peaceful solution. As a man of peace and faith, I would ask you to please carefully ponder this thought! Thanks! Shalom! Paul.

  • Thank you for sharing a very thought-provoking post. As a Gentile and Christian living in Canada, I certainly share your hope for a meaningful, just, and lasting peace. As a follower of Jesus, the only way I can see this conflict being resolved is by breaking the cycle of violence through peaceful means.


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