Rabbi Ira Youdovin
Israel's purpose in launching a large-scale assault on Hamas installations in Gaza (code named "Operation Cast Lead") is to free the 250,000 residents of Sederot and other towns in southern Israel from the relentless bombing that has made their lives Hell for the past seven years. More than 10,000 rockets and mortar shells have landed, killing and wounding scores of men, women and children.
But despite a firm conviction that Hamas left Israel no reasonable alternative, there is reason to agonize over the damage done to innocent Palestinians whose fate was sealed by the accident of living in harm's way. Although they represent no more than a small minority of the Palestinian victims, the loss of even one innocent is one too many.
Leaders of your Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara have visited Sederot. We have learned from its residents what it means to hear a "red alert" siren, which sounds at least several times each day, warning that a missile is already airborne, so that you have fifteen seconds to take cover. And we met a teenage girl who escaped death because she was celebrating her birthday with a sleepover at a friend's house when a Qassam rocket smashed through her roof and exploded in her bed. We assured the people we met that they were not alone because world Jewry stood with them, and came away with a strengthened commitment to their well-being.
Now is a time for all who share that commitment to act on their behalf. All it takes is an e-mail, phone call or letter. Pressure is already mounting on Israel to terminate the operation immediately, before it achieves its objective. The White House, Departments of State and Defense, and our representatives in Congress need to hear from us that Israel be allowed to complete its mission, which is a precondition for the eventual success of future, multinational and mostly non-military efforts to build a peaceful and independent Palestinian State in Gaza and the West Bank.
Some may find this difficult. Those horrible images of destruction appearing on our television screens since last Saturday raise questions of proportionality. Is Israel's use of violence in this instance excessive? A look at the record proves that it is not.
Israel made an extraordinary effort to avoid this conflict. Three years ago, a government led by Ariel Sharon totally disengaged from Gaza, leaving behind no Israeli military or settler presence. This was accomplished over the strong objections of territorial maximalists who earlier had heralded Sharon as savior of their country. There were predictions of violence, together with dark rumors of an impending civil war. But Israel's true soul prevailed. Most of the settlers departed before the deadline. Those who remained eschewed violence, spending their final hours in Gaza praying on rooftops until specially-trained soldiers came to help them down.
It was hoped that the Palestinian Authority, which now enjoyed total control, would use its new power to demonstrate that Palestinians were willing and able to build the nucleus of a viable Palestine prepared to live in peaceful coexistence with Israel. Instead, precisely the opposite happened. Rocket fire intensified, and a rising tide of munitions made its way into the district on vehicles carrying food and medical supplies, and from Egypt through clandestine tunnels dug by the terrorists,
An already bad situation grew even worse when Hamas seized control in 2007, and has been further aggravated by the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive for more than 900 days without Red Cross visits or any communication with his family.
Israel has demonstrated remarkable forbearance in not striking back until now, despite understandable cries that the government was failing in its responsibility to protect citizens. Restraint was motivated partly by a reluctance to harm innocent Palestinians placed in jeopardy by Hamas' strategy of locating operations in densely populated civilian areas, and also by an awareness that any Israeli action, even when taken in self-defense, is bound to incite hostility on the Palestinian Street, which plays into the hands of terrorist organizations, like Hamas, that reject the notion of peaceful coexistence.
But forbearance has its limits. On December 21, Hamas announced that it was unilaterally ending a six-month-long unwritten "semi-truce", which journalists call the "Calm Agreement." Rocket attacks, which had diminished but not entirely disappeared, were resumed at a greatly accelerated pace, with the added danger that Hamas now possesses missiles with far greater range and accuracy than the Qassam, which had been the mainstay of its arsenal. These would threaten cities along the Mediterranean coast north of Ashkelon, as well as Beersheva in the northern Negev.
Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials appealed to Hamas and the Palestinian people to restore the semi-truce. But to no avail. Operation Cast Lead comes as a last resort after much provocation, and failed attempts to find an alternative---which is perhaps the only circumstance in which violence can be justified.
Regarding the magnitude of Israel's response, on what basis can we here in Santa Barbara make a reasonable judgment? Judaism holds the sanctity of every human life as its highest value. Our Jewish DNA moves us to abhor violence, especially violence committed by Jews, even when it may be justifiable. As Golda Meir put it, "We can forgive our enemies for killing our children, but can never forgive them for making us kill theirs."
The oft-maligned Jewish sense of guilt is one of our greatest strengths as a people. But in assessing the magnitude of Operation Cast Lead, the source of "evidence" being received must be considered. Michael Oren, an award winning American-born Israeli historian, writes in the December 28, 2008 edition of The New Republic.
"CNN International's coverage of yesterday's fighting in Gaza concluded at midnight with a rush of images: mangled civilians writhing in the rubble, primitive hospitals overflowing with the wounded, fireballs mushrooming between apartment complexes, the funeral of a Palestinian child. Missing from the montage, however, was even a fleeting glimpse of the tens of thousands of Israelis who spent last night and much of last week in bomb shelters; of the house in Netivot, where a man was killed by a Grad missile; or indeed any of the hundreds of rockets, mortar shells, and other projectiles fired by Hamas since the breakdown of the so-called ceasefire. This was CNN at its unprincipled worst, grossly skewing its coverage of a complex event and deceiving its viewers."
It would be wrong to deny that innocent civilians have been killed and wounded in Operation Cast Lead, or to suffocate our capacity for mourning their suffering in a whirlwind of self-serving justification. They, too, are victims. We must never forget that! But how and why they died are too often distorted or missed entirely by the media. For this reason, our voices are especially crucial at this time.
This report was prepared by Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive director emeritus of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and founding executive director of ARZA---Association of Reform Zionists of America. Now retired and living in Santa Barbara, Rabbi Youdovin has become active in the Jewish Community Relations Council of Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara.