One Year Later: Hannukah and Operation Cast Lead

Posted 12/18/2009 - 08:53 by Rabbi Brian Walt

Tomorrow is Shabbat Hannukah, the Sabbath that occurs during Hannukah. Exactly one year ago, on Shabbat Hannukah (Saturday December 27, 2008), Israel launched Operation Cast Lead.

On that day, Saturday December 27, 2008, at 11:30 in the morning, a time when schoolchildren were still in school, 88 Israeli aircraft simultaneously attacked 100 preplanned targets in Gaza within a span of 4 minutes. This initial attack was followed by another attack and by the end of that Sabbath day, at least 230 Palestinians were killed and more than 700 injured. Shabbat Hannukah last year, was the day with the highest one day death toll in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A Reuters report from that day reads as follows:

“Black smoke billowed over Gaza City, where the dead and wounded lay on the ground after Israel bombed more than 40 security compounds, including two where Hamas was hosting graduation ceremonies for new recruits.

At the main Gaza City graduation ceremony, uniformed bodies lay in a pile and the wounded writhed in pain.”

Our traditional greeting for Shabbat is Shabbat Shalom/ A Sabbath of Peace. That day was far from a Sabbath of Peace.

Not only did the Israeli military assault start on Hannukah, the name of the campaign, Operation Cast Lead, is from a Hannukah poem by Haim Nachman Bialik about a dreidel made from cast lead that a father bought for his child. The poem became a popular Hannukah children’s song. I learned the song when I was a child and Jewish children in Israel and around the world sing it joyously. From now on the image of the cast lead dreidl will be associated with the lead of armaments and the violence of Operation Cast Lead.

I imagine we all remember those days last year of the military campaign. I remember how shocked I was by the brutality and disproportional nature of the response. Israel with one of the strongest armies in the world bombarded one and a half million people who live in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, in an open air prison, in isolation enforced by the Israeli siege with no way to leave or enter.

Israel claimed it had no choice, any nation-state would do the same thing. Israel has a right and a responsibility to defend itself. The rockets that Palestinian armed groups fired into Israeli civilian areas terrorized the entire population, damaged property and sometimes injured and killed civilians.

Was it true that Israel had no choice? Was this a wise or an ethical way to defend oneself?

My shock about the campaign grew as the reports of the massive deliberate targeting of civilian targets were revealed: the death of 1100-1400 civilians among them hundreds of children, the extensive wanton destruction of property, evidence of people killed even when they were holding white flags of surrender, the use of white phosphorus and other weaponry not used in congested urban areas, the destruction of thousands of homes, of water wells, the vile graffiti scrawled on the homes of Palestinians and the list goes on and on.

As a Jew, as a rabbi, as a human being I was shocked. Israel is a state that acts in the name of the Jewish people. This attack was neither wise, nor ethical. Is this what the ethical tradition of our people had come to? We say that to be Jewish is to be compassionate, “the compassionate who are also the children of the compassionate”? Isn’t the essence of our faith that every human being is created in the image of God?

An Israeli friend told me of her experience at a family Hannukah party. They turned on the television and saw the horrifying images of the bombing of Gaza and the smoke rising from the ground. She was shocked by what she saw. But then without another thought the members of her family turned off the television and resumed their party as if nothing had happened. She was stunned that no one in her family missed a beat. It was not significant enough to interrupt the joy of Hannukah. It was as if the death and misery of Palestinians didn’t concern them.

Now a year later this seems an appropriate image to describe our reaction over the past year, we “turned off the TV”.

Overwhelmingly Israelis, even liberal Israelis, supported the military campaign assault. Some Israelis called for a ceasefire but opposition to the war was minimal. It is so striking that when Israel allowed the Phalangists to enter the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila and they killed 700 Palestinians, over 400,000 Israelis protested in Tel Aviv. Last year Israeli soldiers, not someone else with Israeli permission, killed more than 1300 Palestinians and the largest protest in Israel was of 5-6,000 people many of them Palestinian citizens of Israel.

And there was the same reaction by Jewish organizations and leaders. Everyone supported the military campaign. Israel had no choice. It had to defend itself. If you dared to criticize the campaign you were a traitor to our people.

And we “turned off our TV” by closing our ears to the devastating reports of human rights organizations in Israel and around the world issued before the war, during the war and till today about the unbearable suffering in Gaza. – detailed reports by credible organization such B’tselem, Gisha, Shovrim Shtika, The Association for Civil rights in Israel, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others.

We “turned off our TV” by the vilification of the Judge Goldstone and our concerted effort to squash the report.

Despite the efforts of our leaders to close our ears and hearts to the humanity of men, women and children in Gaza, for many Jews and for many Americans of all faiths, the Gaza assault marked a turning point in our relationship to Israel. Many Americans who were deeply supportive of Israel simply couldn’t justify this action. It raised disturbing questions about Israeli policy, questions that remain unanswered.

It was a turning point for me, too. During the war I was devastated. How could I support this brutal assault? What could I do as a rabbi to stop the carnage, to express my opposition to this devastating military attack. I was much too silent. Like other liberal rabbis I signed statements in favor of a mutual ceasefire but I didn’t raise my voice in moral outrage against the assault.

Why were we so silent?

We were so silent out of fear that if we expressed our opposition to the Israeli military operation we would be targeted as traitors by members of our community. Many rabbis are legitimately afraid of losing our rabbinic positions.

Someone told me that a Passover Seder he raised the question of the Gaza assault. It was hard to do, there were many there who supported the Operation and he was afraid. He thought to himself what will I tell my Palestinian friends? Will I tell them that I was a afraid to raise the question of their suffering because some folk may be upset by me doing so?

In June of this year, 10 rabbis came together to break the silence and created Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza. Within a few weeks Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza garnered the support of 300 people, including rabbis, ministers, imams, cantors and rabbinical students.

Our call is simple:

Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s blood is being spilled (Leviticus 19:16).

“As Jews, people of many faiths and people of conscience, we can no longer stand idly by Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza.

Since Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006, Israel has subjected the Gaza Strip to an increasingly intolerable blockade that restricts Gaza’s ability to import food, fuel and other essential materials, and to export finished products. As a result, the Gazan economy has completely collapsed. Most of Gaza’s industrial plants have been forced to close, further contributing to already high levels of unemployment and poverty and rising levels of childhood malnutrition.

On three things the world stands: on justice, on truth, and on peace (Mishnah Avot 1:18).

From this we learn that justice, truth and peace are interdependent and irrevocably intertwined. Thus we cannot separate our call for justice in Gaza from the painful truth of this conflict and the ongoing tragedy of war in this tortured region. We condemn Hamas’ deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians. Out of the same ethical commitments we also condemn the use of much greater violence by the Israeli government, causing many more deaths of Palestinian civilians. Since the end of Israel’s recent military campaign, the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza has grown all the more dire.”

Our call is three-fold: Break the Silence, Lift the Siege, Pursue Peace

Break the Silence: We must affirm the humanity of the residents of Gaza by breaking our silence about their suffering. They are human beings, just like us, created in the image of God and as deserving of human dignity, compassion and justice.

Lift the Siege: The Israeli siege on Gaza by land, air and sea that is causing untold human suffering is an unconscionable attack on civilians. This siege that is supported by U.S. government and the EU must be lifted.

Pursue the Peace: There is no military solution to the conflict. The only real solution is a negotiated settlement and it is time for Israel to negotiate with all relevant parties including Hamas towards a resolution of the conflict.

There is an ancient Jewish tradition of calling a public fast in times of moral crisis. The situation in Gaza is a moral crisis for Jews, people of all faiths and all people of conscience. We fast once a month dedicating ourselves to do all we can to end the siege on Gaza and to advocate for negotiation and peace. We support the Milk for Pre-Schoolers program of ANERA that provides fortified milk and a biscuit to children in Gaza.

There are now over 900 people across the world who have made a commitment to Jewish Fast for Gaza. If you wish to join this growing community of conscience, you can sign up on our website.

Some Congressional Representatives have initiated efforts to ameliorate the suffering in Gaza. Jewish Voice for Peace is one of several organizations that has promoted these efforts.

In a few weeks some 1400 people from around the world will be participating in the Gaza Freedom March. We are proud that Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and other members of Taanit Tzedek have made this sacred commitment. To support them, visit the Gaza Freedom March website.

Now, a year later, the suffering in Gaza is even greater than a year ago. Gazans have no way to rebuild their homes, to reclaim their agricultural land, to renew their lives as Israel blocks the entry of materials needed for reconstruction. Israel still doesn’t allow sufficient food into Gaza, the water supply is contaminated and there is the danger of a catastrophic health crisis.

Tomorrow for Sahbbat Hannukah we will read a special Haftarah, a prophetic portion assigned by the rabbis for particular days. For Shabbat Hannukah the rabbis made a surprising choice, they assigned the passage from Zachariah that ends:

“Not by Might, nor by Power, but My Spirit “

The rabbis understood the dangers of military power, that human beings tend to believe that conflict can be resolved by military force. For this reason, they were ambivalent about the Maccabees and expressed that ambivalence by assigning Zechariah’s prophetic words to be read on Hannukah.

This year these words are particularly powerful. Operation Cast Lead is based on the belief that overwhelming military force will provide security for the people of Israel. The rockets from Gaza are also a desperate effort to resist by military means. Israel is less secure than before the operation. There is no military solution to this or any other human conflict. The only solution is political a direct negotiated settlement. As the prophet Isaiah said justice is the only way to create peace and security.

For many in Israel the military resistance of the Maccabees is what is celebrated on Hannukah. This story was very important in the history of Zionism and Israel who saw the Maccabean resistance as an inspiring model.

The rabbis offer a different meaning of Hannukah. Hannukah is a rejection of power and military might and an affirmation of the Spirit of God that inheres in every human being. And it is this connection to the Spirit of Life that must be the center of our lives.

The small Hannukah candles are a reminder of the Divine light in each and every human being. This Shabbat Hannukah, one year later, we are called to bring light to Gaza, the light of justice, compassion and peace. Will we close our hearts and “turn off the TV”?