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Gaza flotilla 6/4/2010 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe  


Gaza flotilla 6/4/2010 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe

I know that most people here today know me well enough to know that I am not an alarmist or much of a dramatist. I tend to take measured responses to events and occurrences which inspire a more animated response from many others.

I am also, when it comes to Israel and the challenges it has in making peace with its neighbors, a centrist. I have not been completely comfortable with the approach of either The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, on the right, or the more recently established JStreet on the left. I find that AIPAC is not sufficiently critical of Israel, and that JStreet is too critical of Israel, and offers insufficient insight or positive vision.

I am also completely at home in America. As much as I love Israel, and never have the opportunity to spend enough time there, I long ago decided that America is my home, and most likely always will be. Growing up in New York, I rarely experienced anti-Semitism, and even a five-year stint in Minnesota did not leave me looking for anti-Semites around every corner, though I did find that far fewer people there knew much about Jews or Judaism. I experienced a number of interactions that evidenced insensitivity and thoughtlessness, but even in the heart of the Midwest, in the city that was, in the 1950s, dubbed the capital of America anti-Semitism, I lived proudly and openly as a Jew without any fear or discomfort. I know that if you speak with Rabbi Brown, who grew up in Minneapolis, and whose parents still live there, she would say the same thing. I suspect that Cantor Doob would likely say the same thing of her native Winnipeg.

I share all of this as context for what I am about to share, and what I am surprised and saddened to find myself saying is not only the theme of this sermon, but a statement about my sense of the world in which we find ourselves living. That context is especially important as I share a bit of news from earlier today that I do not want to be taken as more meaningful than it is, but fear for it to be taken as any less meaningful than it is.

Perhaps you heard about the website of Temple Israel of Natick being hacked earlier today by a group which replaced its homepage with a picture of a Palestinian flag, some language about supporting Palestine, and most disturbing of all, a repeating pattern of about 40 burning Israeli flags.

The good news is that the disruption lasted a short time. A handful of Temple Israel members saw the incredible image on the homepage of their Temple website, called the synagogue, it was quickly fixed. In fact, it is entirely possible that as of this moment, more members of Temple Isaiah know that this happened than do members of the Temple that was directly affected. My colleague, Rabbi Dan Liben, told me, and I quote, "most people here are not even aware of what occurred."

If only that was the whole story.

This is not the first time that a website was hacked for political reasons. It is not the first time that a pro-Palestinian organization has hacked a website. It is probably not the first time that a synagogue website has been hacked. And whether or not it is the first time that a synagogue website has been hacked by a pro-Palestinian group, the fact that this was done at all, and especially done this week, is a sign of a much deeper concern that all of us should share.

It would have been upsetting, but a different matter if the website that had been hacked was that of AIPAC or the American Zionist Foundation or the World Zionist Organization or any of the dozens of pro-Israel organizations that exist in America. Perhaps those organizations have better firewalls. Whatever the reason, it was not any of them whose website was hacked. It was a synagogue. I would love to be able to say, I would love to be able to believe, that this was a random instance of someone who does not know better, someone who automatically and without sufficient understanding equates Jews and Judaism with Israel and its present government. Perhaps it is. But it is too easy to imagine so many of those who have been so quick to condemn Israel's actions this week shaking their heads and saying something along the lines of: "What do you expect?"

That seems to be the understood, but unasked question of the day: What do you expect? You can find it between the lines of many of the statements and op-eds and blogs about Israel's response to the flotilla that have proliferated in the past few days: What do you expect? I heard it inferred in the response by some of our congregants to my e-mail to the congregation: What do you expect? There are more than a half million living in Gaza in horrific conditions. What do you expect? People are starving in Gaza. What do you expect? Israel is refusing to allow basic human necessities into Gaza. What do you expect? Jews always support Israel, no matter what. What do you expect?

I expect the world to regain its sanity. And I expect intelligent people, who are usually quite able to parse out far more complex issues to apply their faculties more intelligently, and with greater awareness of what I can no longer deny is an absurd standard that is applied only to Israel, and in turn, only to Jews.

Let us set the record straight on a few matters.

Gaza is a terrible place to live. Maybe one of the worst on the planet. It is horrifically overcrowded, and basic human necessities are sometimes in short supply.

But they are not absent.

There is no question that if one defines a humanitarian crisis as a situation in which the population under discussion does not have enough food or basic human necessities, there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.  The population in Gaza does not have enough food or basic human necessities, not because of insufficiency.

Over the last 18 months, Israel has delivered more than 1,000,000 tons of humanitarian aid directly into Gaza, nearly one time of aid per individual. Whether or not that any of that aid actually made its way to the individuals who needed it is questionable, as it Hamas, which has control of the Gaza Strip, maintains that control in part by how it doles out resources. It is true that there are certain goods that Israel is not allowing into Gaza which defy logic, and I can only understand as punitive. These include Sesame seeds, which are a staple in any Middle Eastern diet, and chocolate. If the fuss was being made about these things, I could support criticism of Israel. It is not. Israel has been criticized for not allowing humanitarian aid to flow, even though trucks deliver tens of thousands of pounds of aid into Gaza six days a week, and have been for years.

One item which Israel has appropriately embargoed is concrete. Supporters of Hamas insists that this is cruel, as it does not allow for the necessary rebuilding of homes. Fair enough. It also does not allow for the building of bunkers, a reasonable concern of the Israeli government. Israel has, as you may have already become aware, separated out from the Gaza flotilla, concrete and a few other items, including knives and other implements of destruction, and prepared the rest for delivery. So far, the Hamas government has refused to allow any of it  in, as the point they are making is not humanitarian, but political, and so are succeeding in bringing even more attention to their stunt by refusing to receive the materials that were a prop to begin with.

I do not want to argue what tactics Israel should have employed to stop the blockade. I am not an expert in such matters, and have nothing to contribute to the conversation. Nor do I want to hear one more voice tell me how Israel created this mess in the first place. It is a complex situation, to be sure, and Israel has played a part. But I am curious: Why is it that when the United States blockaded Germany and Japan during World War II that was perfectly appropriate, but this is not? Why is it that when the United States blockaded Cuba in the 1962 missile crisis, that was appropriate, but this blockade is not? In Israel's case, it is doing, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, exactly as President Kennedy did: impose a naval blockade to prevent a hostile state from acquiring lethal weaponry.

Why did Israel need to establish a blockade in the first place? Perhaps because for several years, thousands of rockets and shells were fired into southern Israel from Gaza into Israel, ending only when Israel finally took military action. More on that in a moment. Bear in mind that Israel has already intercepted two ships filled with weapons from Iran intended for Hezbollah and for Gaza. How can Israel allow any vessels to simply dock in Gaza and unload whatever cargo they might be carrying?

As for those who insist that in the case of this week's flotilla, Turkey had already inspected the contents, I share two thoughts: 1) I already mentioned the concrete which Israel would not have allowed in; and 2) on what basis can Israel possibly trust Turkey or any other country to do the inspection for them? What government in its right mind, as it were, would allow that? Did you happen to notice the news out of Turkey today, that the Turkish Prime Minister announced that Hamas is not a terrorist organization, but a resistance movement. This is who Israel is supposed to trust to be concerned with its security needs?

It is clear that the Israeli public is responding to this whole debacle by questioning what took place. But what they are questioning is not the morality or propriety of the Israeli Navy's action, but it is tactics. The army and the government have been skewered in the press all week long for failures of intelligence and operations. I am going to refrain from commenting on any of that. I am not an Israeli citizen. I love Israel, I care about Israel, and I believe that my own fate and that of my children and future descendents is inextricably linked with that of Israel, but none of that gives me authority to comment more than as a concerned bystander.

Except about what it means for me as a Jew.

And I am seeing, perhaps for the first time in my life, perhaps for the first time that I am prepared to acknowledge it, evidence that the world really does regard us differently.

Many insisted that this was so following the Goldstone report, which berated Israel for its efforts in Gaza, with no mention of what led to operation Cast Lead in the first place: a daily barrage, over a period of years, of rockets and shells into southern Israel from Gaza, fired from civilian areas, often right by schools and other places where many children were gathered. Regarding that operation, Colonel Richard Kemp, the former British commander in Afghanistan, said "I do not think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the Israel Defense Forces is doing today in Gaza." Nonetheless, Israel is vilified and excoriated around the world for its actions, with hardly a mention of what led to the operation in the first place, let alone any meaningful conversation about the need for a government to protect its citizens from a hostile neighbor, committed to its destruction.

I am not certain that we are held to a different standard because as those who call ourselves the chosen people more is expected of us, or because for most of the world's population, we are, ultimately, outsiders, even infidels who refuse to accept the truth of one religious tradition or another. I am not certain that it matters. Allow me to quote Krauthammer once again: "The whole point of this relentless international campaign is to deprive Israel of any legitimate form of self-defense.      The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, six million — that number again — hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide. For which they are relentlessly demonized, ghettoized and constrained from defending themselves, even as the more committed anti-Zionists — Iranian in particular — openly prepare a more final solution."

If I had read that piece anytime prior to this week I would have dismissed it as a gross and even dangerous overstatement. I cannot any longer.

On the plus side, I was pleased to note that President Obama was more evenhanded than I feared he might have been, and that Vice President Biden’s statement was appropriately supportive of Israel. And I want to let everyone in on a little backstage information: I have not prepared in advance these next few words that I am going to share. I typically do not look at my Temple e-mail from Friday afternoon until at least Saturday night, but there was something I needed for this sermon that I had to copy out of an e-mail that was in my box. When I went to retrieve it, just before services, I noticed another e-mail that I decided to open, because it came from an e-mail address that I recognized. Apparently, the White House maintains a list of rabbis or Jewish leaders or some other list that includes my e-mail address. I want to read that e-mail to you, from National Security Council Spokesman Mike Hammer about the ship the Rachel Corrie, which is on its way from Ireland. That ship, too, is claiming to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza. Is named after the young American woman who lost her life in what was clearly a tragic accident, but has been presented as murder on the part of the state of Israel. Perhaps you know the story: she was part of the group of protesters who offered themselves as human shields to prevent the demolition of homes in Gaza. It is important to note that Israel demolished those homes that intelligence indicated part entrances to the system of tunnels that Hamas had built, also using the concrete that Israel eventually embargoed, to smuggle in ammunition and armaments. Israel was not interested in demolishing homes, and did not want to be in Gaza altogether. It is also important to note that many others had started as "human shields" in an effort to halt, release lowdown, Israeli demolition of these houses, always without incident. A full investigation followed the incident, and cleared the driver of any intentional harm. Still, Rachel Corrie became an icon for the "Free Gaza" movement. Have you seen other pictures of her, however, standing in those tunnels? Or the ones of her burning an American flag at an anti-Israel demonstration Gaza in Gaza? No matter. The ship has been named for her, and it is on its way.

Here is the e-mail from the White House:

“The Government of Israel has stated its desire to avoid a confrontation and a repeat of Monday's tragic events on the Mavi Marmara.  It remains a U.S. priority to provide assistance to the people of Gaza.  In the interest of the safety of all involved, and the safe transmission of assistance to the people of Gaza, we strongly encourage those on board the Rachel Corrie and other vessels to sail to Ashdod to deliver their materials to Gaza.

We are working urgently with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other international partners to develop new procedures for delivering more goods and assistance to Gaza, while also increasing opportunity for the people of Gaza and preventing the importation of weapons.  The current arrangements are unsustainable and must be changed.  For now, we call on all parties to join us in encouraging responsible decisions by all sides to avoid any unnecessary confrontations and to ensure the safety of all involved.”

That statement gives me hope. If I am reading it correctly, and I have no idea if I am, it ought to mean more support for Israel. I cannot know, however, in the words of one Israeli pundit, "if the light we are seeing is that of an oncoming train."

But I refuse to give in to despair. And you must refuse, too. Despair leads nowhere, except down into the depths from which it is increasingly difficult to rise. This week's Torah portion includes the story of the 12 scouts who went in to the land of Israel so that they could bring back report to Moses and the people of whether or not they could settle in the land. You know the story: 10 of them came back and said that it would be too hard or impossible, and only two said that it would be difficult but possible. The language they used was telling: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we must have looked to them."  We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves!  Last night, several of us heard Rabbi Irwin Kula of the Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) suggest that we should read this Torah portion every week, and remind ourselves that we are not as small as we think we are, and that there is a lot we can do. Well, there is a lot that we can do right now. For starters, all of us can keep up-to-date on what is going on and be fully literate and conversant about Israel. In our time, it is a sacred obligation. Letters  to newspapers, letters and e-mails to legislators and even comments on Internet websites/blog impact public opinion. We can all visit Israel,  which is more important now than ever. We can engage our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and anyone who is willing in meaningful conversation. Individuals are multipliers.

And perhaps most of all, we can follow the maxim of Oscar Wilde: living well is the best revenge. Live more fully and openly as a Jew. Turn down invitations that conflict with Shabbat, and have a Shabbat dinner at home or come to Temple instead. Study. Learn, involve yourself.

Otherwise, the only question you will ever be able to ask yourself is: what did you expect?