Understanding the Goals of Hamas and Israel

In a sermon, a rabbi does a deceptively simple thing to help explain the nature of the Middle East conflict.

A couple of weeks ago, Laurie Goodstein, in the Times, wrote of American pulpit rabbis who are sometimes too skittish to express their true feelings about Israel and, in particular, its current government:

Debate among Jews about Israel is nothing new, but some say the friction is now fire. Rabbis said in interviews that it may be too hot to touch, and many are anguishing over what to say about Israel in their sermons during the High Holy Days ...

I expressed the thought on Twitter (a famous vehicle for complicated thoughts) that it is pathetic for rabbis to avoid discussing certain subjects for fear of offending members of their congregations. What's the point of being in the clergy if you can't speak your heart? Many rabbis, particularly in the Conservative and Reform movements, have sometimes found themselves to the left of their congregations—or at least to the left of their most influential congregants—on matters related to Israel, but speaking truth to (synagogue board) power is a risk they are required to take.

Later that day, I also endorsed a seemingly contradictory position, one advanced by Peter Beinart, that pulpit rabbis would serve their congregations better by talking about Judaism, rather than about geopolitics (where, he suggests, they have no huge comparative advantage over such paid scribblers as Beinart and Goldberg). Here's Peter:

The greatest threat to Jewish life in the United States is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s religious illiteracy. The American Jewish community represents an unprecedented experiment in what happens when you combine mass ignorance of Jewish law and tradition with radical acceptance by the gentile world. The result is tragic. It’s not tragic because more than seventy percent of non-Orthodox American Jews now intermarry. People should grab love where they can. It’s tragic because so many of the young American Jews who choose not to raise Jewish families don’t even know what they’re discarding.

That evening, Goldblog Chief Rabbi Gil Steinlauf (who in his spare time also serves as senior rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation, the largest Conservative synagogue in Washington), emailed me with a question, which went, essentially, "What do you want from me?" But nicely, of course.

I acknowledged the seeming contradiction in my tweeting by telling him that I'd rather hear rabbis teach their congregants Judaism, but if you're going to talk about Israel, then you might as well say what you think. He assured me that that was his plan for Rosh Hashanah.

And he executed the plan very well. I've been collecting sermons from around the country on the subject of Israel, in order to understand where mainstream Jewish thought is today. (Hint: It's not where Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson think it is, but nor is it where the left might think it is—many rabbis, like many rank-and-file Jews, were shocked this summer by the ferocious return of anti-Semitism, and by the deep desire on the part of Hamas and its sympathizers to annihilate the Jewish state. So far, the sermons I've read seem less naive about the nature of the conflict than they have in the recent past.) I've read some eloquent writing, but so far I'm partial to Rabbi Steinlauf's, because he managed to be crystal-clear in his condemnation of Hamas and of global anti-Semitism, but also resolutely clear about the responsibility of Jews to keep hate from hardening their hearts.

Through much of the summer, I was trying to explain the actual nature of Hamas, which is a hard thing to do when the prevailing narrative has the group playing the role of the aggrieved resistance. Steinlauf solved this conundrum by doing something deceptively simple. He read from Israel's Declaration of Independence, and then from the Hamas Charter, as a way of illustrating the radical moral difference between two competing understandings of the world:

At a moment like this, we need to go back to basics. We need to remember who we are as Jews, and why we are here, and what the vision and dream of the State of Israel is in the first place. On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion spoke these words.

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Thank God, the modern state of Israel is indeed all of these things. Within these words we hear of Israel’s commitment to be based on prophetic values of justice. In the haftarah of Yom Kippur, we will recite the words of Isaiah who tells us that God wants us to “... unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke ... to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”

Contrast the Israeli Declaration with the foundational “Covenant of Hamas,” where article 7 quotes the Koran and reads, “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: “O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”

He then went on to caution against the temptations of hatred:

Yes, these terrorists are motivated by an anti-Semitism as pure as that of Hitler. But on this New Year, as we face the unshakable truth of anti-Semitism in Gaza and the world, and reel from the deaths of children—we must, above all else, resist the urge to sink to Hamas’ level. Instead, we must stand strong and hold fast to the foundational principles of Israel and Judaism. If we are to play our part in overcoming the darkness of our time, the narrative of Israel must no longer be about Jews vs. Arabs, or Israelis vs. Palestinians. ... It is not about the powerful vs. the powerless. The struggle in the Land of Israel is a struggle between those who yearn for peace and those who do not yearn for peace.

And he continued:

We must ... realize that no one people or ideology owns the claim to the worst victimhood in this world. There is, in truth, only one story of victimhood in the entire human saga, and that is the loss of innocent life at the hands of any and all people who do not value peace and justice and the dignity of life itself. The Mishnah itself, in Sanhedrin (4:5), explains: God created the world from one single person, from Adam, "... for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, 'My parent was greater than your parent.' ...  There is a parallel teaching to this in the Koran itself! The evil that we struggle against is not in Islam. Yes, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has its problematic texts—but as a religion it is not evil. [The evil] is in the twisted, distorted ideas of Hamas and other fanatics.

I remain partial to the view that American Jewry is threatened more by its own ignorance than by anything that may happen in the Middle East. But if rabbis are going to speak about Israel, then they should speak with clarity, as Steinlauf did at Rosh Hashanah.