BamidbarCurrent AffairsIsrael

Bamidbar 5778 – The Embassy and Gaza

This week’s Torah portion has a lesson on the benefits of order. The 12 tribes are organized into four camps. Each camp placed around the Tent of Meeting. Every camp in its position, every tribe in its spot in the camp, all personnel accounted for. Everyone with a role. The Torah tells us “The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his standard.”

The situation in Israel this past week has been anything but orderly. While various dignitaries were celebrating the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, protestors were outside, and controversy swirled around a pastor invited to speak, Robert Jeffress. Jeffress has said Jews are going to Hell and Islam and Mormonism are both heresies from the pit of Hell. Just who you want speaking in Jerusalem, aka “the city of peace,” where Jews and Muslims far outnumber a tiny number of Christians.

While those speeches and protests were happening in Jerusalem, a much larger, and deadlier protest was taking place in Gaza, on the border with Israel. The situation in Israel this week has been anything BUT orderly. Many people are confused about what’s going on in Israel and the significance of it all. This morning I’ll share my perspective.

When it was first announced that President Trump was moving the US embassy to Jerusalem my initial reaction was skeptical – I was worried that it was the wrong time, even if it was the right thing to do. I was worried that it would make peace further away, because the Palestinians would no longer see America as an “honest broker” able to mediate between the two sides.

I’ve changed my attitude. Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, a Jew who stayed in Israel after his term as ambassador was finished, had an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that described it well. The title of the op-ed gives you a hint as to what he says: “What everyone’s getting wrong about the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem.”

To give you a little context, all of this feels very personal to me.

To start with, I love Jerusalem. I’ve lived in Jerusalem for ten years. There’s no denying that Jerusalem is at the heart of Judaism. As Psalm 137 proclaims, “How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil? If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” The Talmud says there were ten portions of beauty given to the world, and nine of them are in Jerusalem.

For over 1,000 years, from the days of King David until the crushing of the Jewish revolt by Rome in the year 70, Jerusalem was Israel’s capital. There’s no question that Israel’s capital must be in Jerusalem, and it IS in Jerusalem.

It’s also worth noting that the new embassy is NOT a new building, and it won’t have most of the functions of an embassy. Until this past Monday, it was one of the three US consulates in Jerusalem. In a way, I feel like all of this is much ado about nothing: all that’s happening is the new ambassador, David Friedman, and about half a dozen of his staffers, are going to be working from the consulate building, which now becomes the embassy because it’s where Friedman’s office is. But all the actual functions of the embassy, and all the rest of the embassy staff, remain in Tel Aviv, and they’ll be there for years, as it will take at last five years to build a real new embassy in Jerusalem.

The new embassy is about 150 yards from the last place I lived in Jerusalem. A close friend’s apartment is literally across the street. All the scenes you’ve seen in the newspapers or on TV over the last week are scenes from my old neighborhood.

And I’ve had the opportunity to meet Ambassador Shapiro socially a few times and paid close attention to his work as ambassador. He knows what he’s talking about: his undergrad degree is in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and he has a Master’s in Middle Eastern Politics from Harvard. Serving as ambassador, of course, is like getting a PhD!

Shapiro wrote:

…the sky is not falling. Moving the U.S. Embassy to a location in West Jerusalem is correct and reasonable. West Jerusalem has served as Israel’s capital since the founding of the state, and no plausible two-state map would change that. Our embassy’s presence in the city reinforces the legitimacy of historic Jewish ties to the city, which are too often denied by Palestinians.

Shapiro also said that Trump’s decision may have inadvertently opened a door for a frank discussion about where a Palestinian capital would be. He said,

White House officials reportedly informed Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman last month that Trump’s emerging peace plan would call for Israel to transfer four Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority. That’s a start.

In other words, despite all of Netanyahu’s heated rhetoric about “Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of Israel,” Trump’s peace plan calls for dividing Jerusalem.

Which I don’t think is such a big deal, because Jerusalem is already a divided city. Damascus Gate is a dividing line – to the west you’re in Israel with signs in Hebrew.  To the east you’re in an Arab country with all the signs in Arabic, and a different selection of goods in the stores. Things imported from Turkey instead of from Europe. Your average Israeli never goes to the Arab part of the city; the only reason I go there regularly is for interfaith meetings.

So, bottom line about the embassy move, I’m glad it happened. It’s appropriate that the US Embassy be in Jerusalem. No one thinks West Jerusalem is going to be part of anything other than Israel. I would have been happier if Trump would also have announced, “and I look forward to having an embassy to Palestine in East Jerusalem,” which would have won us a lot of points with the Palestinians, but such an announcement would not have been popular with the supporters of either Trump or Netanyahu, so it’s no surprise we didn’t hear those words. But the sky’s not falling. Moving the embassy doesn’t mean the prospects for peace are any bleaker than they seemed six months ago.

On the other hand, what’s happening in Gaza is heartbreaking.

62 Palestinians were killed. The world is full of condemnation of Israel. The Canadian Prime Minister, among others, has called for a probe of Israel’s use of force in Gaza, and other officials from other countries have said similar things.

We mourn loss of life. Even if it’s our enemies dying, we’re saddened by it. That’s why we don’t say full Hallel during last six days of Passover. There’s a midrash which says the angels wanted to sing a song praising God and God said, “how can you sing when my children are drowning in the sea?”

You read what people have to say and everything is black and white. Either Israel used excessive force, and is to be condemned, or Israel is simply doing its best to defend itself against terrorists.

As is almost always the case when it comes to Israel, reality is more complicated than either/or. If I were to apportion blame for the deaths in Gaza, based on what I know, I’d give 85-90% of the blame to Hamas, and maybe 10-15% to Israel.

What happened in Gaza was no peaceful protest. Many of the people killed were in the act of trying to breach the border fence.

There are international human rights lawyers who claim Israel has no right to shoot people for simply trying to break into the country – that other than in times of war, you can only use lethal force if there’s an immediate threat to life.

That reading of the situation is wrong. Hamas is in a state of perpetual war with Israel. They fire rockets at us at random intervals, they continually try to infiltrate Israel to commit terrorist acts. The people trying to break into Israel aren’t trying to break into Israel so that they can work as illegal immigrants – they’re trying to break into Israel to kill or kidnap Israelis. Israel is 100% justified in using force to stop them. The Talmud tells us if someone is coming to kill you, you should rise up and kill them first.

Even though 62 deaths sounds like a lot, in context it isn’t. There were an estimated 40,000 Palestinians at the demonstration on Monday. Most of them were peaceful – and most of them weren’t shot. Of the 62 killed, Hamas has said 51 were militants from its group, and Islamic Jihad said three were theirs. That leaves 8 “civilians” who were killed; which is sad, but with the number of people there trying to breach the border the fact that it’s not higher than that is a testimony to the efforts Israel is making to prevent unnecessary deaths.

The son of a friend of mine, a young man I know to be of high integrity who grew up in a “peace-loving” home was stationed on the border. He couldn’t believe it, but he saw Palestinians pushing children toward the fence, intentionally putting them in harm’s way. What kind of parent would do that? There was a news report of an 8-month-old baby who died supposedly from exposure to tear gas, but the baby also had a congenital heart defect. Again, what parent would bring an 8-month-old to a demonstration known to be violent and dangerous, where attendees were being encouraged to try and breach the border?

At the same time, I’m not entirely convinced that Israel couldn’t have equally effectively protected the border with less lethal means. That’s a question I honestly don’t know the answer to, but it would seem to me that rubber bullets instead of live ammo, and other crowd control techniques such as Israel’s “skunk” that sprays people with a substance that smells so vile it more or less incapacitates them could have been used more extensively to further reduce the loss of life.

The Talmud teaches us that we are supposed to use the minimum force necessary to stop an intruder, which Israel generally does. Troops were told to fire at the legs of terrorists, and that’s why there were over 1,100 Palestinians injured and only 60 killed. It’s not because the Israelis are bad shots – it’s because they are good shots.

I would also like to point out that the two events – the move of the embassy and the deaths in Gaza – aren’t connected. The protests in Gaza were timed for “Nakba Day,” the day the Palestinians commemorate what they call the “nakba” or catastrophe, what we call the War of Independence, which for them meant the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

I also grieve because we’re in this situation, and I blame both the Palestinian and Israeli leadership. Hamas is responsible for the tragedy that’s Gaza today – if they had put down their arms and focused on building a ‘mini-country’ in the Gaza Strip when Israel evacuated the settlements, Gaza would be a very different place today. The misery of the Palestinians in Gaza is largely, but not entirely, self-inflicted.

The Israeli government is also not doing much of anything to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s government is content with the status quo, which is tragic for both the Palestinians and for us.

May we soon see the day when war and bloodshed cease, when there is a true and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, a day when people who live in Nablus can go to the beach in Haifa, and people who live in Jerusalem can go shopping or eating hummus in Ramallah, and our children learn to love each other, not hate each other.


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.

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